editor’s note: Travis is joining the blog as someone who lives in the Durham area and gets to see a lot of Durham Bulls games and news. He will be contributing often – here’s his first effort.
The Durham Bulls have been pounding teams over the past week. The Bulls and their hot bats won five straight and are averaging over 10 runs a game. Last night against the Charlotte Knights every member of the Bulls lineup scored, and eight out of nine Bulls had at least one hit. The Bulls are currently the top scoring team in the International League, leading in runs scored, home runs, and steals. The Bulls also boast a league best 10-3 record. Players like Ryan Shealy, Alvin Colina, and Dan Johnson are leading the way and don’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. With the healthy return of Desmond Jennings on April 18th the Bulls offense just got better.
The suspect position for the Bulls & Rays thus far has been pitching; mainly relief pitching. As most of you know the Rays starting pitching has been decent this year with Matt Garza and David Price leading the way. Wade Davis is in the mix but has yet to really show his full potential. Meanwhile down in AAA guys like Jeremy Hellickson, Virgil Vasquez, Heath Phillips and Aneury Rodriguez have been putting up ridiculous lines so far this season.
With 7 1/3 shutout innings April 18th, top prospect Jeremy Hellickson career record is now 9-1 with a 2.24 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 91/18 strikeout-to-walk split in 76 1/3 innings at Triple-A. So far in 2010 Hellickson is 3-0, 1.42 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 21/3 K/BB. Aneury Rodriguez has been back and forth from AA to AAA, but after last nights line 7 innings, 4 hits, no earned runs, and 6 strikeouts I think it will be hard for Montoyo to send him back down.
The struggles of the relief pitchers began for the Rays during their first home stand against the Yankees. Last week against the Yankees; Andy Sonnanstine, Lance Cormier, Randy Choate and Mike Ekstrom combined to allow 15 earned runs in 12 2/3 innings and a 10.65 ERA. It potentially could be a very frustrating year if the Rays can’t hand the game over to the middle relievers and trust they can keep the lead until Soriano closes it out. J.P. Howell is the missing link right now. However, Howell and his strained left shoulder are not expected to return until late May. Could the short term answer be Joaquin Benoit? Once fully healthy I think, yes. Benoit has been in and out of the MLB since 1996 when the Rangers drafted him as a free agent. Benoit has struggled over the years with multiple shoulder injuries and last year he was on the DL all year after having rotator cuff surgery. The good news is Benoit is almost healthy and this guy is a strikeout machine. He throws a wicked changeup and his fast ball usually hits the radar around 95-96. In 2004 he set career strikeout numbers with 95 in 28 appearances, 15 being starts. In 2007 Benoit was named Rangers pitcher of the year and ranked 2nd among AL relievers in strikeouts with 87 (only three behind Francisco Rodriguez) and 3rd in the AL with 82 relief innings. Benoit set career bests in 2007 with a 2.85 ERA, 70 appearances, 7 wins, and 6 saves.
At this point I feel like the Rays are just biding their time with Mike Ekstrom. Ekstrom beat Benoit out this spring for the last bullpen roster spot. In my opinion the only reason this happen was because Ekstrom was 100% healthy and could pitch back to back games if needed. Benoit has the better stuff, but the Rays and Bulls want to bring him back slowly to make sure he has completely recovered from surgery. Once Charlie Montoyo gives the thumbs up on Benoit, Joe Madden will have no choice but to replace Ekstrom with Benoit on the Rays roster. Thus providing the Rays with some much need help for the middle relievers. All in all the Rays may struggle for a couple more weeks, but once Howell returns from the DL and Benoit gets called up everything should return to normal for the Rays and their pitching woes.