DBAP/ DURHAM—It was already misting at gametime this afternoon, sprinkling in the third inning, and by the seventh-inning stretch it was pouring. Finally, the sky began to get higher and the downpour subsided an inning before the Bulls finished off their 7-2 win over Charlotte, earning a split of the series and the homestand.
It was nice to see the Bulls’ bats wake up a bit, although they continued to scuffle with runners in scoring position. They hit three home runs today (Brignac, Richard, Ruggiano), which accounted for six of their seven runs, but still managed to strand 11 baserunners. They had a man on third with one out in the second inning and then again in the third and failed to plate him both times, and they left the bases loaded in the seventh and eighth; in the seventh, they had the sacks F.O.B. (Full of Bulls) with no outs but went cold after a pitching change that brought in Knights’ reliever Jon Link. The Bulls are currently limp-RISPed.
The statistical oddity of the day was that the Bulls flew out to left field eight times. The major-league record for a nine-inning game is eleven, so the Bulls were within shouting distance.
On the other end of things, the Bulls executed what is becoming their idea of a typical pitching effort: The starter, in this case James Houser (mid-80s fastball, 67-mph curve), went five serviceable innings, allowing seven hits and two runs, and then the bullpen made it stand up with four scoreless frames. Rehabbing reliever Jason Isringhausen made his second appearance as a Bull, and this time was even more mercenary than the first. He threw just ten pitches (six strikes) to record three outs, a performance even more remarkable considering that he also gave up two hits.
Isringhausen gets batters to swing the bat, and you can tell he’s a major-leaguer by that skill alone: Hitters are swinging at his pitches, not waiting for theirs. After retiring Josh Kroeger on a first-pitch flyout to left field (the hot spot of the day), Izzy gave up a long double to Andy Phillips on a 1-0 count. He then threw ball one to Michael Restovich, a big slugger who in his previous at-bat had deposited a homer over the Blue Monster that landed in more or less the same spot as the other two he hit at the DBAP during the last week — it’s like his favorite tree to mark. On the next pitch, Restovich tapped out to third.
The next batter was an even bigger slugger, Daryle Ward, the son of former big-leaguer Gary Ward — who is now Charlotte’s hitting coach (!). Ward has had decent success hitting long dingers in the majors; he’s the only player ever to hit a ball (non-Home-Run-Derby Division) out of Pittsburgh’s PNC Bank Ballpark and into the Allegheny River on the fly. In other words, if you make a mistake to Daryle Ward, he will crush it. Isringhausen started him with a high fastball for strike one. The pitch registered at 94 mph on the stadium radar gun — three mph faster than any other pitch Isringhausen has thrown as a Bull. Then he buried a 78-mph curveball down and in; Ward laid off of it. On the next pitch, shortstop Reid Brignac broke for second — I guess for a pickoff play that Isringhausen didn’t make — and the lefty-swinging Ward hit a grounder right where Brignac would have been standing had he not made his move. With runners on the corners after Ward’s shouldn’t-have-been-a-single, Isringhausen threw ball one to Gookie Dawkins — the eight-putout-making Charlotte leftfielder — and then induced another grounder to third, which turned into an inning-ending forceout at second. Isringhausen trooped off the mound and probably continued directly to the clubhouse buffet. In both outings in Durham, he seemed to be saying to the Tampa front office, “Any questions?”
What to make of the Strange Case of Dale Thayer? Thayer is more or less the Bulls’ closer (although the way Charlie Montoyo is forced to rotate his bullpen guys, Thayer can’t be sent in exclusively for save situations). He pitched the last two innings today and retired six of the seven batters he faced, stranding a one-out double in the eighth. Thayer doesn’t throw especially hard, he hasn’t got a signature pitch, and he’s neither very tall nor very big. He was originally signed by San Diego as an undrafted free agent out of Chico State (CA) University in 2002, and it must have been a surprise to the Padres that he locked down the Class-A Midwest League in 2003, saving 25 games with 72 strikeouts and just 15 walks in 48 innings pitched.
It wasn’t a fluke. Thayer continued to thrive as he worked his way up the minor-league chain, yet the Padres traded him to the Rays anyway in 2006. He has never posted a season ERA above 3.00, has 135 minor-league saves and 401 strikeouts and 127 walks in 390 1/3 career innings (career WHIP 1.15), and has allowed just 17 home runs. He’s durable, too — he has never missed time with an injury and has pitched in more than 50 games in each of the last five seasons.
In other words, what does Dale Thayer have to do to get called up to the major leagues? He’s on the Rays’ 40-man roster and, now 28 years old — no longer a “prospect” by any means (the Rays’ Prospects web site doesn’t even mention him) — has little left to prove developmentally. His only noticeable blip came late last year, when he got knocked around with the Bulls after the All-Star break (he was on the International League All-Star team), a bad 19-inning stretch that was nevertheless an anomaly. Perhaps that stumble gave the Rays pause, perhaps they’re seeing something discouraging that the rest of us don’t — or maybe he just doesn’t look like a pitcher — but Thayer has been excellent again this year (he has a ridiculous 0.55 ERA in 12 games) and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Rays unclog part of their pitching glut by trading him to a bullpen-deficient team this summer. Surely Thayer — who “would like to be a fireman,” according to his Bulls’ Media Guide bio, “when [he] is finished with his baseball career” — could put out some fires for a major-league squad.
The Bulls head to Charlotte for two games — boy, will these two teams be tired of each other by midnight on Thursday — and then to Gwinnett for four more — boy, will those two teams be tired of each other by [etc.] — before they return home on Tuesday, May 12 to host ex-Bull Jonny Gomes and the Louisville Bats for four games. I’ll try to post a little about each of the six road games while the team is gone.
I leave you with the quote of the day from the press box, uttered by the guy who has replaced Dave Levine as Total Cast Operator. I’ve forgotten his name, but I know he went to school at Texas Tech. He said of the place, “Lubbock is so flat, you can watch your dog run away for two days.”