Homerpalooza Rolls Through Durham

Fans in International League cities are treated about once per season to an elite pitching prospect on an opposing team. Twins righthander Matt Garza, for example, stopped off in Rochester just long enough last year to make one of his five Triple-A starts in Durham, where he gave up two runs in five innings of a July 30 start. The year before that, Twins lefthander Francisco Liriano, the league’s premiere pitcher at the time, opposed the Bulls on July 14, but lost despite pitching six scoreless innings.

Reds righthander Homer Bailey more than likely secured his place as the best visiting pitching prospect of 2007 with his start against the Bulls last night. Though the outing was not Bailey’s best in terms of run prevention (he gave up a season-high four runs on seven hits and three walks in six innings), it did continue his trend of high strikeout games‘"a trend that began when he returned from a strained right groin on May 22.

In his last three starts, Bailey has fanned seven, nine and eight batters, which rate as his three highest strikeout outings of the season. Not coincidentally, Bailey, the seventh overall pick of the 2004 draft, has won all three of those starts, moving him to 6-1, 2.31 on the year.

The 21-year-old Bailey, though, was pitching for more than Louisville’s playoff chances‘"he was also auditioning for a big league rotation spot with the reeling Reds. Because Cincinnati had optioned lefty Bobby Livingston back to the minors, they had no obvious starter for Saturday’s contest with the Indians, leading to speculation that Bailey could get the call.

“Bailey pitches tonight, and if he has a good game, he has a shot at it (starting Saturday). It is up to him,” Reds manager Jerry Narron told the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News Saturday.

Regardless of whether Bailey gets called up or not, his performance against the Bulls neatly encapsulated all the 6-foot-4 Texan is capable of on the mound. He pitched at 91-95 mph, with the Durham Bulls Athletic Park radar gun flashing a few 97s, and seven of his eight strikeouts were of the swinging variety. Durham center fielder Dustan Mohr twice struck out swinging through mid-90s heaters before being caught looking at a curveball in the sixth inning.

In fact, Bailey’s command of the curveball, and his confidence in that pitch and his changeup, has made a significant difference in where he stood in start No. 1 to where he stands after start No. 10.

“His concentration has improved,” Louisville pitching coach Ted Power said. “He’s getting his offspeed pitches over for strikes now.”

Though Bailey relied on his fastball to get through his six innings in his 108 pitches, he used his 12-to-6 hammer curve to great effect to set up his heater, the pitch on which most batters were retired.

“Early in the year, he definitely threw his curve low in the zone a lot,” Power said, “so that if a batter saw something that was low and spinning, he’d lay off. Now he’s gotten to where he can throw it for strikes, and then throw it low in the zone to get batters to chase.

“He’s got a darn good fastball and curveball, and he’s made huge strides with his changeup. I’d say he’s got three quality pitches, especially now that he throws his changeup when behind in the count.”

With 78 degree temperatures, overcast skies and intermittent rain, game-time conditions were less than ideal, and Bailey seemed to settle down only after a rough first inning, during which he let in three runs. He made up for it later, though, by registering his highest average velocities in the sixth, his final inning of work. His final pitch, a swing and miss to retire shortstop Ben Zobrist, was clocked at 97 on the stadium gun.

“Well, it definitely wasn’t the best I’ve seen Bailey,” a scout for a National League club said as he was leaving the game, “but he had more than enough left at the end.”

Staked to a two-run lead courtesy of a Josh Hamilton bomb in the first, Bailey surrendered a two-run home run, just his third of the season, to light-hitting second baseman Jorge Velandia on what appeared to be a backup curveball or hanging changeup. Velandia golfed the ball over the blue monster in left field and out into the DBAP’s parking lot. Five batters later, Bailey allowed a run to score on a wild pitch.

“He was a little out of sync in the first, when he gave up some runs,” Power said. “But he showed composure and pitched his style and we were able to come back and win the ballgame.”

The rehabbing Hamilton, a product of nearby Raleigh, N.C., received the loudest ovation of any player. In the top of the first, he crushed the first offering from Durham righthander Jason Hammel over the right-center field fence to put Louisville up 2-0. Hamilton’s night would not be all good, though, as he flubbed a fly ball from Velandia that would have been the game’s final out. Right fielder Justin Ruggiano tested Hamilton on the very next play and was retired without incident.