DBAP/ DURHAM—In the top of the seventh inning last night, strong winds suddenly began to gust across the DBAP from beyond the left-field wall. Papers and dust blew around. Heat lightning flashed in the distance. The Bulls were leading the Syracuse Chiefs, 3-0, but starter Richard De Los Santos, who had shut out the Chiefs to that point (extending his personal streak to 12 scoreless innings), had been lifted after reaching his newly-imposed six-inning limit, and Darin Downs was on in relief. Downs has had a rough go of it since his callup from Montgomery about a month ago, having posted an 8.49 ERA and a WHIP so high (2.31) that it’s almost a parody of the stat. Given that the Bulls had put a man on third with less than two outs in the two previous innings but failed to score (“I was hoping that wouldn’t come back haunt us,” Charlie Montoyo said after the game); and given that Downs quickly fell behind leadoff hitter Seth Bynum 2-0—given, too, that those ominous winds were blowing—some anxiety about the game began to creep into the ballpark.
Downs evened the count at 2-2 and then got Bynum to ground out to third. But then he fell behind Leonard Davis, 2-0 again, and this time paid for it in karma (or luck): Davis hit a chopper past the mound, but it bounced so slowly that the charging Omar Luna’s throw was too late to first base and Davis had an infield hit.
Luis Ordaz flied to right field on a 2-2 pitch, so Downs was one out away from finishing off the inning. But Pete Orr came to the plate looking for a fastball, and he lined the first pitch he saw from Downs into left for a single. That brought the tying run to the plate.
Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo was taking no chances. Joe Bateman had started warming up in the bullpen as soon as the inning began, a sign that Downs was on a short leash, and Montoyo used it: He cut Downs’s inning short and sent in Bateman, who struck out the Chiefs’ ninth-place hitter, Carlos Maldonado. End of inning.
End of game, too, for a couple of reasons: 1) Although the Bulls failed to score yet another runner from third with less than two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, they broke through for two runs in the eighth on Dioner Navarro’s rope of a double, making it 5-0 and essentially icing the game. 2) Two batters later, the storm heralded by the winds erupted—and how—resulting in the eventual cutting short of the ballgame. The storm was brief but intensely powerful (watching the grounds crew trying to get the billowing tarp down was probably the highlight of the evening); even though the tempest came and went in a matter of perhaps 20 minutes, the field was drenched and water had pooled in many different places (the bullpens were uninhabitable). It would probably have taken 45 minutes or more to restore the field to playable condition. At about 10:15, the chief of the umpiring crew, Damien Beal, called it off. The 5-0 score became final.
It was just as well. The game was in hand. Why bother waiting until after 11:00 to notch four more outs, for the viewing pleasure of perhaps 100 remaining fans? And for that matter, one couldn’t help thinking, why should the Bulls bother playing out the rest of the regular season? Yes, of course that’s a ludicrous suggestion—there are players to develop here—but the team seems to have recovered from its post-All-Star-break mini-slump, and with help from the once-surging Charlotte Knights, who fell into their own trough after taking three of four from Durham last weekend, the Bulls have pushed their South Division lead back up to 10 games with 41 to play. Granted that it ain’t over till its over, but the Knights would probably have to go 31-10 at worst to catch up. The only real suspense, at this point, revolves around which players will get called up or traded, and whether the Bulls can repeat as International League champions.
Some details of the Bulls’ league-leading 11th shutout of the season after the jump.
The secret of Richard De Los Santos’s success is pretty simple: Throw that two-seam fastball. When he has good command of it, it dives down and away from lefties, in on righties. (Charlie Montoyo noted after the game that its diving action makes it look faster than the 90-91 mph that it usually registers.) De Los Santos told me after his last start that he has tinkered a little in the past with his arm slot on that pitch; he now throws it at what he calls a three-quarter arm slot but looks to me almost seven-eighths—it’s certainly not straight over the top, but more like 11:00 than 10:00 (which is the place on the clock face where three-quarters really is). He also throws a four-seamer, which rides rather than sinks, but he seldom uses it: He threw it only once last night, he told me, and it sailed high. His changeup wasn’t as crisp as it was in his last start—it floated too often, rather than faded—so the two-seamer needed to be effective, and it was. De Los Santos started almost every at-bat with it, and he finished a lot of at-bats with it, too. He came into the game with a modest 63 strikeouts in 101 1/3 innings, but struck out seven batters in his six innings and walked just one.
De Los Santos wasn’t perfect by any means; he had men in scoring position in three straight innings. But he got a timely double-play ball to kill a threat in the second, and in the third he flashed his excellent pickoff move to zap Boomer Whiting (the speedy guy who stole home against Jeremy Hellickson the night before). De Los Santos has picked off three runners in his last two starts. Last night he recorded eight ground-ball outs (if you count the double play as two) and just two in the air. He lowered his ERA to 3.86; that figure translates to three runs per seven innings pitched. You’ll take that from most starters, especially those who weren’t even expected to be on your staff at the beginning of the season. Last night’s outing was De Los Santos’s fifth good one in his last six appearances. And the soft-spoken Dominican seems like a nice guy, too.
Montoyo told us after the game that De Los Santos will be restricted to a maximum of six innings per start for the rest of the year. He has logged 107 1/3 innings this season, a third again as many as he has ever previously thrown in a season. De Los Santos missed more than a year in 2008-09 recovering from a shoulder injury (and missed all of 2002 as well), so the Rays are obviously protecting De Los Santos’s arm by reducing his workload from here on out.
Joe Bateman, who got his first save of the season (the Bulls led only 3-0 when he came on in the seventh), pitched around a bunt single in the eighth, striking out three batters in a 1 1/3-inning stint. Despite his poor work on Wednesday, when he set the table for Dale Thayer’s blown save, Bateman has generally been excellent this year. (“He’s been a horse,” Montoyo said of Bateman.) He leads the Durham bullpen in appearances (36) and innings pitched (51 2/3). His strikeouts are down (from 9.2 per nine innings pitched to 6.8), but his walks are way down as well, and he has also hit far fewer batters this season. The result is a significantly lower ERA, 2.26 compared to last year’s 3.02. It seems to me that the sidearming Bateman has much better command of his fastball this season; yesterday, he got excellent tailing action on it against left-handed hitters. Effective as the fastball has been, he’s had to rely less on his swerving slider, a pitch that is good for fooling hitters but is often not thrown over the plate. Perhaps the slider’s reduced role is why the walks are down. That’s only speculation, though.
A few notes:
* The Bulls hit three triples last night, which seems like it ought to be close to a team record but probably isn’t. Two of those triples shouldn’t have been: They were gifted by the Syracuse outfielders, who dove for (and missed) sinking fly balls they would have been wiser to play more safely; had they done so, they both would have probably been singles. Instead they rolled all the way to the wall and resulted in three-baggers for J. J. Furmaniak and Omar Luna, who probably has no business even being on the team but who, improbably, often seems to do good things anyway. He’s batting .318, has struck out only five times in 45 plate appearances (he’s also only drawn one walk, but shh), and has played well at shortstop, committing only two errors. He even pitched a scoreless two-thirds of an inning in a blowout loss at Indianapolis a month ago.
* J. J. Furmaniak is batting .436 (17-39) when he leads off an inning. In the rest of his at-bats, his average is .227. With runners in scoring position, he’s 4-36 (.111); with RISP and two outs, 1-18 (.056). What gives?
* Elliot Johnson hit his seventh home run of the year last night, a solo shot in the first inning to put the Bulls ahead. Six of his seven homers this year have been hit left-handed. Oddly, his numbers as a right-handed hitter are better in almost every other major category: batting average (.350 vs. .288), on-base percentage (.418 vs. .344), slugging percentage (.517 vs. .414), and walk rate (10% vs. 7%). What gives?
* Last night, “Wool E. Bull” celebrated his “birthday.” That meant a Chinese Fire Drill of foreign mascots pouring out of the visitors’ dugout in the first inning (Ramses, the Blue Devil, Rufus the Bobcat, the Elon Eagle, etc.), and Wool E. getting his once-per-year victory in the base race versus a relay team of creatures, one of which appeared to be a rotting squash. (I was even told what it actually was and cannot remember; my brain can only see a squished squash.) I don’t know whether July 25 is the actual birthday of the tireless fellow who wears Wool E.’s costume every night (sorry, kids); if it isn’t, though, shouldn’t Wool E. be, um, a Taurus? (Or am I being too literal?) I also noted that, birthday or no birthday, Wool E. was out there helping to get the tarp down in the pouring rain during the eighth inning. He was also forced by some players in the dugout to do a slip-side on said tarp after the rain had collected on it.
* Tonight’s starter for Durham is Virgil Vasquez, coming off of his second straight poor outing after two straight good ones—the problem has mainly been walks (six in 10 2/3 innings) for this usually precise right-hander. This is the last game of the eight-game homestand; with a win the Bulls, who have the best home record in the International League (36-18), can sweep Syracuse and go 6-2. Vasquez’s opponent will be the Chiefs’ Jason Jones. The Bulls haven’t faced Jones this year; the tall right-hander (6-foot-5, 225 pounds, Scorpio) was still in Double-A Harrisburg when Durham visited Syracuse in early June. Since his callup, Jones has allowed eight home runs in just 29 innings pitched. Dan Johnson can probably be forgiven if he’s drooling in his sleep right now.
* If you have a favorite Bull or two, make sure you get out to the ballpark to see him (or them) tonight. The pre-waiver trading deadline in the major leagues is on Saturday, and the Bulls won’t return from their upcoming road trip until four days after that: You may be seeing some of these players in a DBAP home uniform for the last time on Monday. Their Bulls career could get cut short.