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Clubhouse chatter - Suns pitchers get taste of majors, and How(ard)

May 27, 2007|By BOB PARASILITI

Everybody in the minor leagues are working to get to the majors.

The Hagerstown Suns pitching staff got a preview of what that would be like when the majors came to the minors this week.

The Suns found themselves locked in matchups with a major leaguer on Wednesday and Thursday - and not just any major leaguer. It was Ryan Howard, the Philadelphia Phillies first baseman and reigning National League MVP.

"It was a good test," said Suns reliever Greg Bunn, who fared well in his matchup with Howard. "He was rehabbing and going through the motions. He knew he would be back in the bigs tomorrow."

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Howard, in all his home run-hitting prowess, played with the Lakewood BlueClaws as part of a two-day rehabilitation stint for a strained quad before returning to active duty for the Phillies. He went 2-for-6 with four RBI in the two games, which were split by the Suns and BlueClaws.

Still, there was a bit of drama for Chris Lugo and Bunn.

Lugo faced Howard in the seventh inning of a 3-3 game on Thursday and gave up a two-run home run after battling with the slugger for five pitches.

"I faced big leaguers before in the minors and during winter ball, but it was exciting," Lugo said. "I just wanted to go after him, especially after the first pitch. After I got to 0-2, I went out and made a mistake and he hit it out."

That's the difference between guys like the Howard who played for Lakewood in 2002 on his way up the ladder and the one who now plays for the Phillies. He hits mistakes.

For Lugo, it was a good confrontation that went awry.

"My first pitch was a fastball on the outside that was called a strike, then he swung over the top of the second pitch," Lugo said. "On the fourth pitch, I thought I had him at 1-2, but the umpire didn't give me the call.

"I went back after him with a fastball. I didn't back down and he got it."

It was part of a four-run inning which decided the game, but it was far from being a failure for Lugo.

"It wasn't a failure," he said. "It was a learning experience. It helps you as you go along. When you move up, you can't be making mistakes like that."

Bunn's story had a happier ending.

The reliever came on in the sixth Thursday to start three innings of work to protect the Suns' 6-2 lead. He hooked up against Howard with a runner on first and one out in the seventh.

"I wanted to work inside on him," Bunn said. "He was standing off the plate, trying to get me to throw away from him. He's in the big leagues. He's going to hit no matter what. You just use your best stuff against his best stuff."

Bunn could classify his experience as macho turned mindful.

"The first pitch, I went after him. It was aggression," Bunn said. "I fired a four-seam fastball that went outside."

Then, with the help of catcher Jhonathan Solano, Bunn realized he should take a slightly different tack.

"I wanted to get something that would get him out on his front foot," Bunn said. "I went to a two-seamer, which came in a little slower and got him out front."

It resulted in an inning-ending double play hit to short. The Suns went on for an 8-6 victory as Howard went 0-for-3 and vindcated Bunn's knowledge and coaching.

"I've been working on staying relaxed and keeping the ball down," Bunn said. "If you can keep the ball down, you can make a living in any league."

But, if all else fails ...

"I like to think he was going through the motions and didn't have any adrenaline pump because he was playing in the minors," Bunn said. "But still, it was a great expeience. It will be something to tell my kids about even it I never make it."

In memoriam

Baseball is a game. Life is reality.

Brett McMillan caught a dose of the latter on Thursday morning when he was notified that his father, Doug, had died of natural causes.

The Suns first baseman left the team before Thursday's game and was placed on the inactive list.

Doug McMillan, 60, was a scout for the Washington Nationals, working the Pacific Northwest and northern California.

He was responsible for finding outfielder Kory Casto, who has played for the Nationals this season, and outfielder Stephen Englund, the Nationals' second-round pick in the 2006 draft.

The moves

The Suns' roster continues to be an ever-changing picture.

After the last homestand, shortstop Stephen King - Washington's third-round pick in the 2006 draft - was sent back to extended spring training. King had been horrific at the plate, striking out 51 times in 128 at-bats while hitting just .180.

That brought pitcher Don Levinski to Hagerstown. The 6-foot-4 right-hander is 1-1 with a 9.72 ERA in two games. He was signed as a free agent in 2006.

Sheldon Fulse joined the Suns on Thursday when McMillan became inactive.

Fulse, an outfielder, came to the Suns from extended spring after being signed as a free agent before the season. The 25-year-old was drafted by Seattle in 1999 and has bounced around the minors. He played for the Road Warriors of the independent Atlantic League last season.

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