I don’t know why it took me until now to see the obvious symbolism of a team named the Bulls, but in assessing last night’s rip-snorting 6-1 win over Charlotte, I suddenly got it. The Bulls have now won 10 of their last 12 after losing 12 of 14: they are a team that is nearly always charging ahead or in full retreat. And in taking four of five games from the Knights in the annual intrastate, Fourth-of-July-weekend, home-and-home series, they dropped their North Carolina rivals deeper into last place in the International League South division, 10 1/2 games behind the front-running Bulls—who trail Scranton/Wilkes-Barre by percentage points for the best record in the entire league.
The Bulls have now belted 28 homers in their last 13 games, a pace that would surely set a record if they kept it up for an entire season. Overall, the hitting has carried the team lately; the Bulls have allowed 62 runs in those 13 games, or about 4.75 per game, which is neither great nor terrible. (Twenty-two of those came in just two games, it should be said.) Still, neither-great-nor-terrible is good enough by plenty when your team leads the league in homers and doubles, and is second in walks and slugging percentage.
Last night, the pitchers put the clamps on Charlotte for the whole game, buying the unusually quiet hitters time to remember what uniforms they were wearing. Durham starter Carlos Hernandez, like Wade Davis the night before, lasted only five innings, running up his pitch count quickly. Looking at the box score, I’m not sure how he managed to do this: he allowed a reasonably conservative seven baserunners (only one walk) and recorded just two strikeouts, which tend to burn pitches; the Knights must have either worked into a lot of deep counts or fouled off lots of pitches. Hernandez allowed only one run, though, stranding six runners on base. The bullpen followed with four more scoreless innings, just as they did in relief of Davis the previous night.
Relief work will always be a mixed bag. The Bulls got two superb showings in a row from the bullpen corps on Sunday and Monday; chances of a downturn are excellent tonight or tomorrow. The best way to minimize the effects is with a longer outing by the starter, and Andy Sonnanstine is a good bet to give one tonight against third-place Gwinnett, whom they could sink down near Charlotte in the depths of the standings with a three-game sweep.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In reward for their fine effort last night, the pitchers (specifically Julio DePaula) got the win they deserved when the Bulls exploded in the top of the ninth off of reliever John Link, who was indeed missing. With the score tied 1-1, Jon Weber greeted Link with a single—yet another rally-fueling hit by the Bulls’ most reliable gamer—and went to third on Link’s wild pickoff attempt. Matt Joyce walked and, during Justin Ruggiano’s at-bat, went to second on defensive indifference. (You don’t get credit for a stolen base if the other team doesn’t even try to throw you out; but best of all is that there is a play in baseball whose official description contains the word “indifference.”) Ruggiano struck out, probably to make sure of maintaining his slim lead in the stiff competition for second-most in the league. Chris Richard was intentionally walked to load the bases. John Jaso, who has been swinging a warmer bat lately, took umbrage and singled in Weber with the go-ahead run. That brought up Elliot Johnson (pictured, top).
I was of two minds about Johnson’s return to the Bulls after he missed two months with a broken thumb. On the one thumb hand, I was glad he was healthy again and ready to face Triple-A competition. On the other, he struck me as a downgrade from Henry Mateo and Reid Brignac, from whom he seemed likely to steal the most playing time. I would have been happier if Johnson took more innings away from light-hitting, twitchy-fielding Ray Olmedo. On Sunday, that’s what happened: Olmedo sat and Mateo played third base for the first time all year; Johnson made a run-saving play at second base and went 1-4. After that performance, I thought I owed it to him to give him a chance.
So, Johnson worked the count full off of Link and then hit a grand slam.
Ray Olmedo, who gave Reid Brignac a day off at shortstop, had homered earlier, in the third inning.
Johnson and Olmedo batted eighth and ninth in the order.
Did I mention that the Bulls lead the league in homers?
Did I mention that Tampa-tested Andy Sonnanstine pitches for the Bulls on Tuesday night at the DBAP? Did I mention that the Bulls have the second-best home record in the league? And, for that matter, the second-best road record? And the second-best record, by mere percentage points, overall?
Did I mention that the opponent on Tuesday is third-place Gwinnett, which stands 4 1/2 games back, and that the red-hot Bulls could bury them down near Charlotte with a three-game sweep?
I can’t even remember the last time a Bull committed an S.B.G.
Maybe you should just go to the game.