J. J. Furmaniak was 3-4 with three RBI last night
  • photo courtesy of Durham Bulls
  • J. J. Furmaniak was 3-4 with three RBI last night

DURHAM/ DBAP—They may not need no stinking Dan Johnson anymore, but the Durham Bulls are a decidedly different team without him—and if you can think way back to the misty yesteryear of May, in the innocent age before anyone had heard of WikiLeaks, you may recall that the pre-Memorial Day Bulls also had the sluggers Hank Blalock and Ryan Shealy, who between them boasted about ten nuclear tons of biceps. Chris Richard, the Bulls’ career home run leader—and currently sporting a league-best .907 OPS, now that Johnson has left for the major leagues—usually hit way down in the seventh place in the Bulls’ batting order in the early part of the season.

But with the departures of Blalock (May), Shealy (June) and finally the league’s best hitter, Johnson (August), Richard is now the Bulls’ cleanup hitter. And with no outs in the eighth inning last night, Richard the Lionhearted stepped to the plate representing the potential go-ahead run. It was 3-1, Indianapolis. Elliot Johnson, who led off against reliever Daniel Moskos by legging out an infield hit, was on second; Justin Ruggiano, who walked, was on first.

The Indians had scored all three of their runs in their first two at-bats against Durham starter Heath Phillips, who then settled down and lasted six innings, allowing just two hits after the first inning. (One of the runs he allowed was unearned thanks to Jose Lobaton’s passed ball.) Darin Downs relied on three strikeouts and a bizarre caught-stealing (more on that later) to tiptoe through a three-hit, two inning stint. But the Bulls had left six runners on base from the third to the seventh, including five in scoring position—four alone were stranded by Desmond Jennings, 0-5 with a rally-killing double-play groundout in the third. The tempo of the game, brisk through five innings, had gone slowcore, and frustration was setting in for the clutchless Bulls.

But here was yet another opportunity. Johnson on second, Ruggiano on first, Richard at the plate. Richard fell behind, 0-2, first looking at a strike on the outside corner and then swinging and missing at Moskos’s next pitch, if I recall correctly—I think it was a breaking ball. Miffed at his 0-2 disadvantage, he stalked away from the plate, a veteran collecting himself.

And on the next pitch, Johnson and Ruggiano broke for third and second base, respectively—a snap reminder that they are both in the International League’s top ten in stolen bases.

Richard hung in there at 0-2 and got his bat on the ball, but he hit a ground ball to the shortstop, which would almost surely have been a double play had the runners not been in motion. Instead, Pedro Ciriaco’s only play was to first base. He threw Richard out, but now the tying runs were both in scoring position with one out.

“When you’re down, you gotta make something happen,” Charlie Montoyo said after the game, adding that he likes to run when the situation is right (e.g., if the pitcher is slow to the plate, which Moskos was—his delivery has a sort of elongated twist to it). In this case, Montoyo kept the pulse of the Bulls’ inning strong, and was rewarded for it: Moskos and his replacement, two batters later, Brian Bass, put the next three runners on base with a pair of walks and a hit batter—and just like that, the game was tied.

With the bases still loaded, Jose Lobaton hit a dribbler up the first base line that Bass fielded and tried gamely to shovel to his catcher, Jason Jaramillo, for a forceout at home; but plate umpire Lance Barrett ruled that Jaramillo’s lunge to catch Bass’s throw pulled his foot off the plate. It was a close call, but it got no argument from the Indians, and the Bulls had scored three runs to take their first lead without hitting a ball out of the infield.

And then, finally, the Bulls really capitalized on their convergence of aggressiveness and good fortune: J. J. Furmaniak, to that point 1-14 this season with the bases loaded, sent a single to right-centerfield to score two insurance runs and make it 6-3. Those extra runs helped in the ninth, when Winston Abreu allowed a run on two hits (it was unearned because of a throwing error by Elliot Johnson) to make the final score 6-4, Bulls. That enabled Charlie Montoyo to open his postgame comments with, “Good one, huh?” Yep.

On a day with lighter air and a pleasant breeze, free of the oppressive humidity and dramatic storms that have been subduing the Triangle lately, the way the Bulls won—with lightness of action and motion rather than heaviness of step and swing; with a spring in their step rather than weight in their bats—made perfect sense. As we move into the final quarter of the season, we may see them doing it more and more.

For the second straight game, the Bulls were down 2-0 before they came to bat. This time it was Heath Phillips leaving the ball up in the strike zone rather than Virgil Vasquez, but the result was the same. Doug Bernier singled, and after Phillips made a nifty kick-save of Akinori Iwamura’s grounder up the middle and threw him out (hey, welcome back, Aki!), Alex Presley drilled a run-scoring double to right-centerfield. Brandon Moss followed with an RBI single, but another opportunistic play by the Bulls—Jose Lobaton gunning down Moss at second base as Moss tried to take the base on Justin Ruggiano’s throw home—killed the rally. Looking back, Lobaton set the tone for the Bulls’ eighth-inning surge with that play, which also foreshadowed another game-changing basepath event involving Moss later on.

For a while, though, it looked like it wouldn’t make much difference. After the Indians tacked on another run in the second, without a hit—a hit batter, a passed ball, a sacrifice fly—they looked comfortably in control of the game. That’s because their starter, Charlie Morton, was throwing darts. Morton hurled a complete-game two-hitter against the Bulls in Indianapolis back in June, and although he has struggled in his major-league stints with the Braves and Pirates, he has major-league stuff. His four-seam fastball reached 96 mph on the stadium radar gun, and he also threw a swerving cut-fastball (according to J. J. Furmaniak, Morton has added that pitch to his repertoire since last season) that ran in on left-handed hitters. In the first inning, Morton threw 13 pitches, and all 13 were strikes. In the fourth and fifth, he fanned four straight Bulls.

But in the fifth, Furmaniak punched an opposite-field double down the first-base line to plate Leslie Anderson, who had turned around a 93-mph fastball from Morton and singled to center field; Angel Chavez, who was 2-3 with a double and the go-ahead bases-loaded walk in the eighth (plus a nice diving catch on a line drive at third base), followed Anderson’s single with one of his own to put Anderson in scoring position for Furmaniak. Leading off that same inning, Joe Dillon essayed a veteran at-bat against Morton—it reminded me of the one that gave the Bulls a win over Syracuse a couple of weeks ago—falling behind but then sticking out an eight-pitch battle. It ended with Dillon striking out, but it made Morton work—and it also pushed him along toward a 29-pitch inning. That guaranteed that Morton would have no chance to finish another game against the Bulls, and led ultimately to the bullpen meltdown that lost the game for Indianapolis in the eighth inning.

Speaking of Dillon—and to echo the veteran poise of Chris Richard—he made a canny play in the top of the eighth inning to help keep the Bulls close enough to rally. Darin Downs allowed consecutive one-out singles to Presley and Moss, and with Mitch Jones at the plate they both broke for the next base, just as Johnson and Ruggiano would do in the bottom of the inning. But Jose Lobaton’s throw beat Moss to second base by so much that Moss—alertly, it should be said—stopped short and initiated a rundown, heading back toward first. This was a gambit: Moss was daring the Bulls to chase him, hoping that Presley, who had reached third base, could leave the building slip home during the pickle.

But Dillon, who told me after the game that he used to be a regular first baseman (I think of him as a second- and third baseman, because that’s mostly what he plays now), spotted Presley straying too far from third as Dillon chased Moss back toward second base, and he fired to Chavez at third, who tagged out Presley trying to dive back in. It went as a caught-stealing (although the league contested the Official Scorer’s ruling, arguing that Presley should be credited with a stolen base), 2-6-3-5, a sequence I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before. In any case, a play that, at worst for Indianapolis, should have resulted in a man on third base with two outs—and at best a run in and one out with a man on second—became two outs and a man on second. Downs struck out Jones to end the inning. And the Bulls, still within two runs, struck hard in the bottom half.

The Bulls have hit only one home run in their last four games. They still have long-ball threats in their lineup, of course, but they were leading the league in homers not too long ago and now they’re a distant third and falling toward the middle of the pack. (Louisville is now first; the young, talented Bats have won an astonishing 27 of their last 33 games, have surged to the top of the wild-card pack, and are putting serious heat on Columbus for the West Division crown. I, uh, told you so.) Their newest acquisition, Leslie Anderson, looks like a classic line-drive hitter, not a tater-baker. Omar Luna, who looked like a temporary fix for a while, seems to have made himself indispensable; he has no homers this year. Neither does J. J. Furmaniak. Desmond Jennings has only three after hitting 11 last year. Fernando Perez has four, one off of a knuckleballer and another off a right fielder, and can’t swing the bat right now anyway. With all due respect to these players, who add value to the team every game (Furmaniak drove in three of the Bulls’ six runs last night), they aren’t power hitters. Johnson and Shealy and Blalock (oh my!) are no longer a menace, and the Bulls may have to start thinking smaller, using their wits rather than weights, winning by degrees rather than decrees, now that the season, too, is growing small. They could even give themselves a little motivating shot in the arm by recasting themselves—this lighter, speedier team—as underdogs, or at least as challengers. If they faced Louisville today, that’s exactly what they’d be.

A few notes before I sign off:

* I erroneously wrote yesterday that Virgil Vasquez’s seven-inning complete game was the only wire-to-wire start of the season by a Bulls pitcher. I was using a stat reference guide that hadn’t been updated for a while, apparently: Heath Phillips tossed an eight-inning complete game on April 29; the Bulls lost that game, 4-0, one-hit by Buffalo starter R. A. Dickey, who also went the distance. The game took only 1:45 to play.

* Justin Ruggiano was back in the lineup despite fouling a ball off his foot, painfully, late in the second game of Friday’s doubleheader. He told me afterward that it’s just sore, and he’s basically fine.

* Carlos Hernandez, on the disabled list since July 19, was spotted after the game in the clubhouse with his shoulder packed in ice. Perhaps that means that he threw a bullpen session yesterday and is close to returning to action.

* A statistical head-scratcher: The Bulls have committed the fewest errors in the International League this year (52); the next team has 70, so it isn’t even close. The Bulls’ opponents have made 88 errors, a wide advantage for Durham. What’s strange, though, is that, despite the disparity strongly in the Bulls’ favor, they have actually allowed more unearned runs that their opponents, 52-48. This is probably just a fluky improbability, but it sticks out nonetheless.

* Spoke briefly with Jake McGee, who has been officially activated; I bet he pitches on Sunday. The affable lefty says he feels good; in fact, like some other pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery, he said that his arm actually feels better than it did before the procedure, freer and easier, although he was quick to add that he’s also a year older and maturer—which could explain his feeling of ease. It has been a while since McGee has pitched out of a bullpen: Not counting Spring Training work over the last few years, he hasn’t relieved in a game since high school. But he didn’t seem at all concerned about doing it now, and said the decision to move him to the bullpen was probably just the Rays’ means of keeping his workload a bit lighter: Despite the successful surgery, McGee is still in the last part of the recovery phase; and he threw just 30 innings last season after not pitching for about a year in the wake of the operation. He logged 88 1/3 innings with Montgomery; that’s more than he’s thrown in a season since 2007. I’ll be surprised if he reaches 110 by the end of this year.

* Slightly alarming note about Desmond Jennings: In the second inning last night, with a runner on third base and one out, the Indians’ Jason Jaramillo hit a fly ball to medium center field. Jennings did a good job of lining it up so that he could catch it while moving in toward the infield, in order to aid his forward momentum as he threw home. He caught the ball, reared back… and threw a rainbow floater about 15-20 feet up the first base line, way too late and way too off-target to beat the runner, who scored. I haven’t seen Jennings air it out much with his arm—in fact, the reason this play stuck in my head was that I don’t think I’d seen it at all before that—but if that’s what he’s got for a gun, he’ll get run on at will in the major leagues.

* Darin Downs got the win last night, improving to a surprising 5-1. That’s another reminder that won-loss records are poor indicators of performance, but on the other hand he’s been pitching better lately: in his last five appearances, he’s allowed five hits and two runs in 8 1/3 innings, with two walks and seven strikeouts. He’s knocked nearly three runs off his ERA over the last three weeks. I don’t know whether he’s made an adjustment or has simply started to feel more comfortable in Triple-A—I’ll try to talk to him soon—but if he can maintain his effectiveness, he’ll be a useful weapon out of the bullpen, capable of giving Charlie Montoyo a left-handed, two-inning option.

* Sunday’s game starts at 5:05 p.m. Jeremy Hellickson, by Charlie Montoyo’s account probably tethered to a three-inning, 45-pitch pole, starts for Durham against the Indians’ Mike Crotta, whom the Bulls have not faced this season. I won’t be there, but you should be: You’ve probably got only a few more chances to see Hellickson pitch for the Bulls, before he ascends to that great big-league in the sky. More reasons to be at the DBAP on Sunday: Monday is an off-day, and after that temperatures climb back up in to the upper 90s; and Sunday’s game is not only the Bulls’ last of the season against an opponent from another division, it’s also the last one against a team with a winning record—the Indians are hanging on at 58-57. From here on out, it’s nothing but South Division “rivals” Gwinnett and Charlotte and Norfolk (oh… my?), ad nauseam. Think of it this way: Better enjoy your loaded sub tonight, ’cause all we’ve got left is egg salad, tuna fish and baloney.

See you Tuesday, when Egg Salad Charlotte comes to town. If nothing else, we can watch the Knights’ Stefan Gartrell, who has 23 homers, continue his quest to try to overtake Dan Johnson for the International League crown.