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Pitching Havoc

While the Buffalo Bisons have put together a winning season so far and have a tenuous hold on first place in the International League North Division, Manager Torey Lovullo has to be pulling his hair out dealing with his pitching woes.

As the season enters the month of June, Buffalo is 13th in team pitching in the 14-team league, with a team ERA of 4.56. Hot pitching prospect Adam Miller hasn’t played since May 12. At the time he had built a 4-1 record and a 2.45 ERA and was on a fast track to an All Star designation. Then he missed a start because of a “bruised middle finger.” Then he missed another start. Eventually it came to light that the injury was far worse then initially diagnosed. Miller apparently had a bruised tendon, and was officially placed on the disabled list on May 28.

While Miller’s problems have caused a mess on the Bison’s pitching rotation, Miller’s teammate from Akron, Sean Smith, has been solid for Buffalo since being pressed into a starting role, compiling a winning record and even earning “Pitcher of the Week” honors from the International League for the week of May 21, after two outstanding starts against Ottawa and Indianapolis on May 15 and 20.

Another name familiar to Buffalo fans, Jason Stanford, has performed capably for the Bisons, compiling a 4-1 record over nine starts with Buffalo, with only a May 11 meltdown against the Rochester Red Wings messing up his record.

Beyond that, Lovullo has had to turn to the AA and A rosters to help fill out his staff, and that means players named Bubbie Buzachero, Aaron Laffey and Richard Rundles being pressed into action at the AAA level, leaving fans wondering if these guys are ready to perform here.

Then there’s Jake Dittler.

Dittler played for the Bisons as a starter through all of the 2006 season and was absolutely dreadful, to put it mildly. It might be fair to say that Dittler’s failures cost the Bisons a chance for another playoff berth last season, and as the 2007 season started Dittler found himself at AA Akron.

But with all the pitching problems in Buffalo, Dittler received another promotion to the Herd on May 14 and has been used primarily in a middle relief capacity. “I wouldn’t call last year a huge disappointment,” said Dittler. “Because every time you go through something like that you learn a little bit about yourself.”

While Dittler would prefer to remain a starter, he is accepting his role in the bullpen as a more secure path to the big leagues. “Whatever it takes to get me up there I’ll accept. Yeah, I would have liked to start but I am getting used to my new assignment quite well.”

Lovullo admits that, while callups and shakeups to a pitching rotation are typical at a minor league level, this season has been more trying than most. “I can put our entire pitching effort into one word—inconsistent,” said Lovullo. “We started the year with five solid guys in our rotation, but with the injuries, the callup to [Rafael] Perez and everything else that’s happened, we’re now looking to our new guys to step it up and just calm things.”

So how does a team place so poorly in pitching and still maintain a division lead? Lovullo replied, “It’s a credit to this team, their character and the ability to think that no matter what happens we’re going to go out there and get the job done.”

Lovullo hopes to have Adam Miller back and pitching again in a couple weeks, while the outlook for another injured starter, Brian Slocum, is a late July return. “Bit by bit we will put the pieces of this puzzle together again,” said Lovullo. Miller is working with a hand specialist in Baltimore to make sure his finger heals completely and that he is ready to return. “He’s practicing with the team, he’s throwing the ball, just not in simulated game situations yet.”

When a staff is struggling like the Bisons pitchers are, sometimes it takes a group of guys to lift each other up. Lovullo explained, “There are six or seven guys out there, separate from the dugout, talking baseball all the time. They become almost a family, a subculture, a unit that hangs out together.”

First-year pitching coach Scott Radinsky also received a vote of confidence from his manager. “Because of his role as a former bullpen guy, he has been able to lift me up in an area that wasn’t my strength,” Lovullo said. “Dealing with a bullpen is something that is new to me…When I called to the bullpen, I always thought from the mindset of what the offensive person was thinking. [Radinsky is] teaching me to think both ways…what the pitcher is thinking.”

Thanks to stellar team hitting, the Bisons have averted disaster so far. But look at it from this perspective: If the pitching staff does indeed settle down and a healthy and effective Miller and Slocum come back for the August pennant chase, we could be seeing baseball at Dunn Tire Park well into September.