Friday, July 04, 2008

Checking in on Da Bulls

It was more than a year ago when we awarded our very first Publix Cookie Lifetime Achievement Award to Chris Mason, then pitching for the Montgomery Biscuits. He threw an Immaculate Inning, and while this sort of thing may be more common than we realize in the minor leagues, it was the first we had heard about. The pitching coach that day actually said he was disappointed in Mason for not "working the count," but of course pitching an Immaculate Inning is way more impressive than throwing waste pitches so far out of the zone that it makes the hitter giggle. Mason finished last season very well, throwing 161.1 innings with 136 strikeouts, 44 walks, and a sparkling 2.57 ERA. The Gastonia, NC got to come home this season as he was assigned to the Durham Bulls.

Last night, I went to see the Bulls take on the Charlotte Knights, and Chris Mason was the starter. Mason has struggled this season, and holds a 6.38 ERA in 17 starts, though he's still striking out a lot of hitters- 77 in 86 innings, with a respectable number of walks (29). He's just giving up way too many home runs, 18 so far! He's currently the worst starter on a staff that is in the middle of the pack in the International League (4.51 runs/game). It's the excellent hitting that has propelled the Bulls to first place in their division. On July 3 they were taking on a Charlotte Knights team that was 10 games under .500, but this game was all Knights from the beginning.

In the first inning, Mason came out throwing his 92 mph fastball up in the zone, and paid for it. He gave up a leadoff double to Jason Bourgeois, a 26-year old minor league lifer. After inducing a groundout to first, up came David Cook, another 26-year old only recently promoted from AA. Cook jumped all over a 2-1 slider and hit a bullet to the centerfield lawn for a two-run homer. Mason later gave up a double in the inning, but stranded that runner. The second inning didn't start off well, allowing a bloop single to yet another 26-year old, Fernando Cortez. Backup catcher Hector Gimenez tried to pick off Cortez with a snap throw that ended up going down the right field line. Mason walked the next batter and then Knights manager Gary Allenson went small ball, calling for a sac bunt followed by a Sac Fly from Bourgeois.

Mason then calmed down for two innings, and had a nice play on a comebacker in the fourth inning, making a diving stop to his left. He would give up another run in the fifth on a double by Bourgeois and an RBI single by Danny Richar, but got a 6-4-3 double play to end the first half of the game with the Bulls trailing 4-0. Mason's night was done and the numbers weren't pretty: 5 IP 6 H 4 R (all earned) 1 BB 3 K, and just 49 of his 76 pitches were strikes. The Bulls would rally in the bottom of the fifth, including an impressive play by first baseman Chris Richard, who scored from second on an infield single. Fernando Perez would add a two-run double to make the score 4-3, but the Knights pulled away in the 7th inning due to innefective relief work from Kurt Birkins and Nick Debarr (whose first pitch was wild, allowing the fifth run to score from third).

The loss drops Mason's record to 3-9 on the season, but he gave up another home run, which is probably more damaging to his prospect chances. Mason recently turned 24, and with Tampa Bay's pitching staff beginning to come together, Mason needs to regain the control he had as a Montgomery Biscuit last year. As for the Bulls, their strengths continue to be hitting, though they are weaker on the prospect front than previous years. The top youngsters on the team are infielders: there's Reid Brignac, a 22 year old shortstop who didn't play last night. Eliot Johnson played short last night but normally plays second base; the 23 year old is infamous already for colliding with Yankees' catching prospect Fransisco Cervelli in a spring training game, breaking the catcher's wrist. Finally there's 23-year old 3B/OF Joel Guzman, who is playing in his third season with the Bulls. Guzman is famous locally for a tape-measure home run in 2007 that reached, in dead centerfield, the third floor of the then under-construction Diamond View office building. Guzman has the most cups of coffee of the three, with 56 days in the majors; still, his development is hampered by a puzzling inability to get on base- for both 2007 and 2008 his OBP is just .281.

Also of note in the game was an ejection for my least favorite Durham Bull- Justin Ruggiano, for arguing balls and strikes in the fourth inning. Ruggiano may be the Bulls' player closest to the majors, getting a chance to hold down right field for the Rays after they traded away Delmon Young. Ruggiano performed well in the majors but was demoted after the Rays traded for Gabe Gross. Still, the reason I despise Ruggiano is for two lazy incidents in the field during games I
attended. The first was opening day of 2007, when Bulls ace Mitch Talbot left after six innings, yet to give up a hit on a cold, breezy day. In the seventh, the first batter hit a looping ball towards right field. Ruggiano was slow to react and moved in the general direction of the ball, which fell about a foot in front of him for the first hit of the game. The crowd booed Ruggiano with great anger. Later that season, I attended another game in which the Bulls were leading after 8 innings; however, the Bulls closer imploded and the game was tied. There was a runner on first with two outs, and there was a solid hit down the right field line. Ruggiano took his sweet time
getting to the ball as the go-ahead run raced around the bases. Rather than try to get the runner at the plate, Ruggiano offered up a looping throw in the general direction of the first baseman, and the Bulls went on to lose the game. So, despite Ruggiano leading the Bulls in basically every offensive category, I will always hate him.

It is certainly encouraging to the Tampa Bay Rays and frightening to the rest of baseball that they not only have the best record in the majors, but their AAA team is also one of the best. To me, though, the prospect-status of the Bulls has waned from the years of Evan Longoria and BJ Upton; this team is full of 25/26 year old AAAA-type players. The true prospects are on the way- I plan on going to see as many of David Price's starts as I can, if he comes to Durham

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