DBAP/ DURHAM—I missed more than two innings of last night’s 5-2 Bulls win over Charlotte. I spent half an inning in the visitor’s clubhouse as part of the crowded media contingent interviewing the Knights’ Jake Peavy (pictured) following his four-inning, 67-pitch outing against the Bulls, his second rehab start for the Chicago White Sox, and another two innings waiting for that interview. It was much like the game that rehabbing Tampa lefty Scott Kazmir started for the Bulls a couple of months ago, when we were whisked down into the bowels of the DBAP for a mid-game interview with a pitcher.
Both times, I was happy to do this—it’s not every day that you get to talk to one of the dozen or so best active pitchers on planet Earth—but I have to say that I got very antsy in the administrative lobby while watching the ballgame on a television feed as Peavy threw a supplementary bullpen session. All that did was make me wish I was seeing the action firsthand rather than on a screen. I suppose that my reaction means that, for better or worse, I’ve become more interested in the fortunes of the Durham Bulls than I am about pretty much any other baseball being played.
Not only were my priorities elsewhere, so were Peavy’s, i.e. winning last night’s game was of no concern to him. The injury-prone right-hander hasn’t pitched in the majors since late May after straining an ankle tendon running the bases. While he was on the disabled list, he became the subject of sizzling trade rumors, and just before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline he finally agreed to a deal that sent him from San Diego to the Chicago White Sox, who are challenging for the division lead in the AL Central and hoping that Peavy will be able to put them over the hump when he returns. So Peavy is trying not only to find his A-game again and to rebuild his strength and stamina, but to do it under exigent pressure from a major-league club that badly needs his help.
But to rush himself could be disastrous; and as Peavy acknowledged, quite candidly and at the risk of sounding self-centered, “The best thing for me to do is the best thing for the organization.” And the best thing for Peavy was to treat last night’s start as part of a sort of second spring training. Actually, it was even earlier than that, according to Peavy: “I’m at about the middle part of January…. I’m a long way from being where I’m used to being and where I know I can be…. Everything’s not where I want it to be.”
Even when he was asked “what was working for you tonight?” Peavy quickly riposted with a list of the things that weren’t. “Just didn’t have command of my breaking ball, couldn’t throw it for strikes…. My fastball command wasn’t that good…” Narrating a long fourth inning at-bat by Jon Weber, who had doubled off of Peavy on the first pitch of the second inning, Peavy noted how hard it was for him to finish Weber off after he’d gotten ahead 0-2. “I knew what I needed to do to execute to get him out, but it just took four or five pitches for me to make that pitch. When you’re right, you make that pitch, you go onto the next guy. It’s certainly frustrating to know that I can’t do what I’m used to doing.” (Weber finally went down swinging on the seventh pitch of the at-bat after fouling off four in a row.)
And Peavy wasn’t even trying to do what he’s used to doing. He talked about how different this outing was from a typical big-league start. In the majors, a pitcher works from a combination of two things: knowing what pitches each hitter is vulnerable to, and knowing what pitches he himself has good command of that particular day. But last night, Peavy knew little about the Durham lineup—he had no scouting report, and wouldn’t have wanted one anyway. He needed to work on all of his pitches regardless of who was batting or whether he felt strong with his repertoire (which he didn’t). In the third inning, Peavy threw five or six straight breaking balls to Justin Ruggiano, who in the first inning had doubled off of him, like Weber had done. But Peavy was feeding Ruggiano all those breaking balls not because he had any special reason to think that those were the best pitches with which to retire the Bulls’ left fielder, but because he needed to work on his breaking pitches and Ruggiano happened to be the guy at the plate. “I didn’t care what happened, how it happened. I throw a bad breaking ball, I’m gonna throw another one, until it’s good.” He struck Ruggiano out, too. Peavy made his adjustments. He pitched like a professional, with great mound presence (he talked to himself a lot up there) and high intensity and purposefulness.
But that doesn’t mean he’s ready for the big leagues again. When Peavy was asked whether he thought he’d be ready for the White Sox’ August 28 game at Yankee stadium, you could see his eyes do at least three things: register excitement; perform a quick calculation of how many days that is from now; and betray a touch of advance regret. Although he gave a game and hopeful answer, it was pretty clear that he doesn’t expect to be ready to pitch in the majors in ten days—especially not against the Yankees, who have baseball’s most potent lineup.
But you didn’t need to read Peavy’s eyes to see that he didn’t feel ready. You just had to watch the game. Peavy struck out Fernando Perez on diving breaking pitches to start the first inning, and got Matt Joyce to ground out to first. But then Akinori Iwamura punched a first-pitch single the other way—the single over third base seems to be his favorite hit to get—and Ruggiano smacked a 2-0 pitch to left for a double. Chris Richard followed with a broken-bat bloop single to center to score two runs. Two batters later, leading off the second, Weber banged his league-leading 44th double to left-center field—he’s now five away from tying the Triple-A club record—and he eventually scored when Peavy dropped a throw covering first base; had Peavy made the catch, it would have completed an inning-ending double play.
Peavy mostly settled down after that, retiring six of the last seven batters he faced, four via strikeout, but the one he didn’t retire was Joe Dillon, who lined a homer over the Blue Monster and off the “Win Salad” portion of the Bull—just as well that he only earned the appetizer, since Dillon had already devoured Peavy’s meatball. Peavy left after four innings, with an unimpressive line of 4 4 4 3 0 5.
So the Bulls may not have been cowed by Peavy, but they had every reason to be afraid of the guy who followed him. Carlos Torres, recently back down from Chicago after a brief stint with the White Sox, is 3-0 this year against the Bulls in four starts, with a 0.75 ERA. “Torres was Cy Young,” not Peavy, Charlie Montoyo cracked after the game. Torres relieved Peavy and this time the Bulls did a bit more damage than usual against him, getting six hits (including two doubles) and three walks; but they managed only one run, putting up a depressingly familiar 2-13 with RISP mark for the game. They left eight men on in four innings against Torres.
But Wade Davis (pictured, left) made sure it didn’t matter. He was superb, keeping the ball down in the zone all night—especially his fastball, which he sometimes allows to rise up around the belt, where it’s often pounded. His slider and his sinker had great action, and we saw what happens for Davis when those pitches are really working for him: fewer outs in the air, fewer strikeouts, more grounders. Davis struck out only three Knights, but he got an uncharacteristic 10 ground-ball outs. (“He threw more strikes,” Montoyo said, “so he got quicker outs.”) A couple of well-placed grounders led to two runs in the sixth (when he lost an inchoate no-hitter), but overall this was one of his best starts of the year.
The only disappointment for Davis last night was his near-miss at matching the Bulls’ team-high for longest outing of the season. Jason Cromer, Carlos Hernandez and Andy Sonnanstine have all had one eight-inning start in 2009, and Davis had thrown 103 pitches through 7 2/3 with no signs of tiring. Josh Kroger stepped in and fought Davis through a tough nine-pitch at-bat, fouling off a few two-strike offerings and getting the benefit on some borderline pitches that were called balls, much to Davis’s (and the fans’) dismay. When Kroeger looked at ball four, Davis was quite disappointed. Charlie Montoyo emerged from the dugout and Davis left to a hearty ovation. Dale Thayer came on and struck out slugger Mike Restovich on a belt-high fastball to end the inning. It wasn’t a good pitch; Restovich, who has hit more than one long home run over the Blue Monster this year, just happened to miss it.
And Thayer scuffled in the ninth, too. His first pitch was smacked up the middle by Josh Fields. It took a bad, high hop, which had contradictory effects: it made the ball very tough to catch, of course; but it also slowed the ball down just enough for it to be possible to catch it. And that’s precisely what Henry Mateo did, making an unlikely stab of the ball as it bounded toward center field. Mateo then made a good throw to first with his momentum taking him away from the base, and Fields was out. It was the fourth outstanding play in the field by the Bulls last night, highlighted by a diving catch by Matt Joyce in right field to end the fifth inning. Had he not caught Miguel Negron’s sinking liner, it would have rolled all the way to the wall and scored a run.
It was a very good thing that Mateo made his play in the ninth inning: two of the next three hitters also smashed balls past Thayer, and no one had a chance to catch those. Suddenly the tying run was at the plate—that sweaty last-inning scenario seems quite frequent these days—but Thayer got Andy Cannizaro to ground into a forceout for his 17th save.
Gwinnett won—again, despite a mediocre performance from their own rehabbing major-leaguer, Tim Hudson—and maintained its three-game lead over the Bulls in the International League South Division. Informed of that, Charlie Montoyo scoffed: “Ohhh, whatever.” What other teams are doing is the very least of his concerns these days. The roster continues to slide all over the place. Notes on that follow:
* Akinori Iwamura started at second base and was scheduled for five innings, but he left after three. Charlie Montoyo told us that Iwamura had taken himself out, apparently with some sort of ouchie, but Montoyo didn’t know what it was—or in any case, he didn’t tell us what it was.
* Fernando Perez began his rehab assignment and said “I feel great” after playing five scheduled innings in center field. He also stole a base in the third inning, and made an opportunistic break for second on his fifth-inning hit and turned it into a double.
* Jeff Bennett arrived in the Bulls’ clubhouse and will probably start in place of Carlos Hernandez on Friday. Bennett isn’t a starter, but someone has to take the ball with Hernandez still out. When asked if Hernandez is expected back this season, Montoyo said: “I wouldn’t think so, but I don’t know.” Hernandez is probably going down to Florida for treatment, and his return to Durham from there is currently unscheduled. I’d be surprised if the fragile left-hander throws another game for the Bulls this year. Look for Mitch Talbot to return sooner than later, or perhaps for the arrival of reinforcements from elsewhere. It’s simply untenable to keep blowing out the bullpen every fifth game.
* Elliot Johnson, who missed his fifth consecutive game with a strained quadriceps, was put on the 7-day disabled list retroactive to Sunday. That cleared a roster spot for Bennett.
* Meanwhile, the Bulls still have four catchers—although Charlie Montoyo joked that the last of them, Craig Albernaz, who pitched a scoreless ninth in emergency mop-up in last night’s blowout loss to Scranton, is now his short reliever. “I only said that because he’s five-two,” Montoyo added, bringing down the room. That was unquestionably the line of the night, and the unexpected highlight of the circus.
* CORRECTION. In noting that Chris Richard is nearing the Bulls’ Triple-A club record for career homers, I got my numbers wrong. The record, held by Scott McClain, is 62; Richard has 61.
Andy Sonnanstine, coming off of a poor start against the Yankees on Friday, starts for the Bulls tonight. His opponent is 22-year-old right-hander Daniel Hudson. The Old Dominion product will be making his third start for Charlotte, which is his third North Carolina team of the season. Hudson has also played for Kannapolis and Winston-Salem while zipping up the White Sox’ farm system this season from low A-ball all the way to Triple-A. (Why does Chicago have three teams 700 miles away in North Carolina, and a fourth, Birmingham, even farther?) His overall numbers are cause for worry: 134 1/3 innings pitched, only 94 hits, 28 walks, and 150 strikeouts. Nonetheless, he didn’t wow scouts last year, although he seems to have improved since then. But by all means, come see for yourself. You never know when you’re seeing the next Jake Peavy. Game’s at 7:05 p.m.