Charlotte Knights blank Durham Bulls: From garbage to cotton candy

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KNIGHTS STADIUM/ FORT MILL, S.C.—On the ride home from Charlotte, not too far from Durham out on Interstate 85, they were doing late-night road work. The northbound route narrowed to one lane, traffic slowed to about the speed of an R. J. Swindle curve ball, and for a few miles we were riding behind a garbage truck.

Ah, the perfect way to close out this long, late-August sequence: For close to two weeks I've been following the Bulls, first to Norfolk, Va., then back to Durham, and then further south to Charlotte. Almost all along, they've stunk, and their drive toward the playoffs has been slowed.

The Bulls lost last night to Charlotte, 2-0. The game really came down to one pitch. Mike Ekstrom, on in relief of Chris Archer, who had pitched seven shutout innings, allowed a leadoff single in the eighth inning to rehabbing White Sox catcher A. J. Pierzynski. Dallas McPherson followed with a double to right-center field, and a scoreless tie looked sure to be broken.

But Ekstrom fought back, striking out Lastings Milledge and Jim Gallagher on consecutive full-count pitches.

On the very next pitch after Gallagher struck out, Jordan Danks dinked a 130-foot, opposite-field, namby-pamby double over third base, right on the chalk line, to score two runs.

And so it goes. Game over. I've been writing that a lot lately, and seldom on Durham's behalf.

It's not just the Bulls who lost a chance to win. The Gwinnett Braves sent ace Julio Teheran to the mound in Norfolk, he was bombed for six runs in three innings, Gwinnett lost, and Durham is now just a single win or Braves loss from clinching the IL South Division.

I'm not sure I can say anything else with any certainty, but I'll try.

Charlotte manager Joe McEwing is going to be a good big-league skipper someday. He's personable, accessible, and talkative while also being cagey and circumspect. His shortstop, Eduardo Escobar, interrupted our post-game talk to say goodbye to McEwing. McEwing excused himself for a moment, the sound of a hand clapping a back could be heard, and then McEwing returned without giving even the slightest indication of the obvious: Escobar had, of course, been called up to the major leagues for the first time in his career. Moments later, the Charlotte reporter asked if anyone had been or was expected to be summoned to Chicago, and McEwing said, "We'll see."

Most of the talk was about his team and his future, of course. (McEwing will manage the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League starting late September; beyond that, he revealed nothing but enthusiasm for managing.) But he was asked about the Bulls, who are staggering toward the playoffs as though stabbed by a matador. McEwing noted that every team goes through its bad times but that the Bulls happen to be struggling at an inopportune moment.

Then he actually broke out the "marathon not a sprint" cliche that has been the crutch of baseball guys for many decades. My inner eyes were rolling, but McEwing added this: "This is the sprint part."

Right. Exactly. That's why it looks so bad. The Bulls' confident strides in midsummer, when they steadily outpaced Gwinnett and pushed their division lead up to six games with 15 to play, are no longer fresh in the mind. All we see now is this final lack of dash; we may have forgotten that the Bulls built themselves a virtually insurmountable advantage long before "the sprint part." They don't actually need to sprint, and they are in fact doing better than crawling: In these last 13 consecutive games I've covered from Norfolk down to Charlotte, the Bulls have gone 5-8. That's not good by any means (it's a .385 winning percentage; only Rochester's is worse) but not a total collapse, either—and the Bulls would have to have a total collapse to miss the playoffs: They'd have to lose all four of their remaining games, and the Gwinnett Braves and the Lehigh Valley IronPigs would have to win all four of theirs.

Would you take that bet?

"They have a loose team over there," McEwing said, echoing Durham reliever Jay Buente's recent description of the team as "laid-back." McEwing added that the Bulls would be just fine—after all, they have Matt Moore and Chris Archer and Alex Torres as their 1-2-3 starters, perhaps the best trio currently at work in the International League.

The thing is, Archer was wonderful last night, and the Bulls lost anyway. You knew they would as soon as he left the game, after escaping the only real jam he encountered all night with a caught-looking strikeout to end the bottom of the seventh inning. And you really knew it when the Bulls managed a two-out baserunner in the eighth—one of just six for them all night—and failed to score and break the tie: both Rob Delaney and Mike Ekstrom were warming in the bullpen, but Delaney would only come in if the Bulls had a lead—that hidebound old approach to bullpen management, but there you go. When they didn't get that lead, Delaney sat back down and Ekstrom came on.

Ekstrom has a 4.48 ERA, which means that, high peaks and low valleys notwithstanding, he will average out to allow one run every other inning he pitches. He hadn't allowed any in his previous one, Sunday at home against these same Charlotte Knights. So he was due. It didn't matter that Ekstrom nearly pitched his way out of the mess he made—that he deserved to get out of it, given Danks's meek little flare down the left-field line. There is a sort of chalk-line law right now about the Bulls, i.e. everything falls on the wrong side of it.

And if they're indeed a loose team, as McEwing said, you couldn't tell that by talking to Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo. Usually he starts things off with a few comments about the game, but if it's going badly for his team he looks you in the eye, challengingly, and says "What you got?" He did that last night. The previous night, after the Bulls were routed, 10-2, he found me sitting in the carpeted corridor outside his office and joined me there—we were like a couple of oldtimers leaning against a stoop and watching the world go by. Not so last night, when he darted and feinted around in that same corridor, as agitated as I can ever remember seeing him. His eyes were wide with alarm. He was touchy, quick to contest, at wit's end.

Can you blame him? His team can't hit a lick. I don't know if Dylan Axelrod, a former 30th-round draft pick, is going to be a good pitcher. His numbers are good. He throws an 88-91 mph fastball, an attractive slider and a changeup. I don't know if Todd Redmond, a former 39th-roun draft pick, is going to be a good pitcher. His numbers are good. He throws an 88-91 mph fastball, an attractive slider and a changeup. I don't know if Mitch Atkins, a former... etc. (Actually, I just discovered that Atkins hails from Guilford County, N.C., but never mind that.)

The point is that the Bulls are making guys like these look like Greg Maddux these days. Montoyo isn't so much fed up as used up: He seems to have no idea what to do anymore. Have a meeting? He replied to that question, quickly and a bit aggressively, that he has one of those with his team every day—did I think that he doesn't? Not only that, his hitting coach, Dave Myers, had an additional meeting with the hitters before last night's loss. Result? Four singles and two walks. Ray Olmedo tried to stretch one of those singles into a double and was thrown out by 10 feet. In no inning was a Charlotte pitcher forced to throw 20 pitches. Maybe they're doing their job well, but the Bulls are making it easier for them.

Montoyo has said on a couple of recent occasions that, when he looks down at the lineup he has just filled out, he sees good hitters and the promise of many runs. You can see what he sees, but you can also see something else. Now that Brandon Guyer and, a month ago, Desmond Jennings have gone up to Tampa, there are a bunch of pretty good hitters remaining but not a single one who seems really dangerous every time up. Even Russ Canzler, his recent MVP award notwithstanding, mismanages at-bats sometimes and can often be retired if he fails to guess right on his pitch early in the count.

Leslie Anderson? Matt Carson? Nevin Ashley? I'm not singling out any of these hitters, but they are just three examples of Bulls position players who won't really scare you when they step to the plate. Make your pitches and you'll probably get them out. Pretty much all of the Bulls save Dan Johnson are impatient, aggressive hitters. They don't draw walks. Hitters who don't draw walks are subject to deep, deep funks when the hits aren't there—and they won't be there sometimes, for entire teams.

And now they're all pressing. Even when they do get hits, they don't drive in runs. That makes them press harder. Daniel Mayora has two hits in his last 19 at-bats. Stephen Vogt: 1-15. Nevin Ashley: 3-26. Matt Carson: 0-13. Russ Canzler: 4-25, 11 strikeouts.

"What do you want me to do?" Montoyo asked rhetorically. "Yell at them? They're just going to press more." Asked if he'd thought about rejiggering the lineup, Montoyo replied that that, too, was liable to damage their morale. How is, say, Matt Carson going to feel, Montoyo asked, if he suddenly finds himself penciled into the No. 9 spot in the batting order? (Well, if he goes 4-4 there, really good. But would you bet on that?)

***

The bright spot was very bright: Chris Archer. He had his fastball all the way up to 97 mph on one pitch (he struck out Kyle Shelton with it). Everything was working, and he was amped up. He struck out Pierzynski in the first inning and pumped his fist: imaginably, Pierzynski is the first big-league hitter he has struck out in a game that counted. He threw 98 pitches, 70 for strikes—that's a ton—and Charlotte swung at astonishing 61 of them. That's also a ton. I'm not sure if that means his pitches were all hittable and the Knights just didn't hit them, but I don't think it does, other than a few fastballs that were perhaps up in the zone. (You can get away with that when they move as Archer's did.)

It is also worth noting that Archer began the first and the second innings by taking hard ground balls off of his foot. In the first, he actually reached out and tried to kick-save Justin Greene's grounder (it wound up in shallow left field); in the second, he couldn't elude Lastings Milledge's. The trainer and Montoyo came out to the mound. Archer threw a couple of practice pitches, declared himself fine, and continued. He's a tough and athletic pitcher, to judge from these first two starts. He record an unassisted putout. He fought rain, wind, foot bruises, A. J. Pierzynski, a lack of run support. He fielded his position well.

Archer leaned hard on the fastball, and it worked for him. He threw it up high, down low, in and out. He used his slider well, he dropped his curve in for strikes. And when he finally ran into trouble in his seventh and last inning—putting runners on second and third with one out—he pitched out of it.

"He found another gear when he had runners in scoring position," McEwing said of the 22-year-old who blanked his team for seven innings. "He's a special kid."

And after finding that extra gear, Archer stalked triumphantly off the field to exchange a demonstrative high-five with his pal, Tim Beckham. It's Beckham whose walkup music at the DBAP is Travis Porter's "I Put on a Show," but Archer was the showman last night. He has what they call strong "mound presence," and isn't immune to shows of excitement when he does something good.

That's what the Bulls need: an extra gear for the last few strides of this marathon-turned-sprint.

I think I'd rather use a different metaphor, though, and one that is much sweeter than the one with which I started this story—I'm just a bright-side kind of guy. My colleague at Bull City Summer, Sam Stephenson, recently profiled Herman Reeder, a cotton candy vender at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Asked about the physical rigors of carrying the pole of cotton candy around all night, Reeder answered: "There are 30 bags on a pole and the poles get lighter as you sell bags, but the bags get heavier. A bag of cotton candy starts out light but it gets heavier after it sits in the bag for a while, if you don’t sell it."

This is a truly mind-bending thing, although I'm sure simple science explains it. In any case it serves, like the opening garbage truck image, as a convenient metaphor for the Durham Bulls' sticky situation these days. At the beginning of the season, you have a full pole's worth of games, but early on they are light as air. From April to the All-Star Break, what provides the weight is the sheer volume of games—which for the first half of the year are easily disposed of. You look up from what you were doing and suddenly it's mid-July, the pole half-empty.

You'd think that the season would then, relieved of much of its cargo, lighten as it spins toward Labor Day, but the thing is that the individual games get heavier and heavier, especially with the promise of the post-season after all the merchandise is unloaded. A kind of inner density seems to form in every game from within, and by the time you reach the last couple of weeks of the season, the team groans under the individual weight of each one as it is lifted off the schedule. The Bulls have had just two light, sweet wins in the last month (and none over two weeks); some close, hard-won wins; and a whole bunch of buckling losses—both blowouts and heart-breakers. The games, like the bags of candy, are getting massively heavy as we reach the bottom of the pole. They have lately been agonizing, punishing, exhausting, Sisyphean.

Four more to go. Will Durham win one of them? Is the team as good as it was two weeks ago, or as bad as it has been since then? Is it just a hitting slump, or are the Bulls just bad hitters? It was sort of helpful to see them out of town again for the last two of these unlucky 13 games. Charlotte is the worst-drawing team in the league, averaging fewer than 4,000 spectators per game, so it doesn't take much for any given fan to stand out in the crowd (as the Uh-Huh Guy does whenever he shows up).

Last night, on Thirsty Thursday—little eight-ounce beers cost just a dollar—a group of them sat not far from the field behind home plate. Loud and louche throughout, they got louder and loucher as they drank more and more beers. They didn't even know who they were heckling, but still they heckled. To them, the Bulls were just small beer: another anonymous road team to scream at. And after Ray Olmedo flied out in the top of the eighth inning, one of them yelled out something I've never heard before:

"Hey, Durham! You suck!"

It was hard to argue.

The guy who yelled it, his friends and the Charlotte Knights mascot had the last word, so I'll give them the last picture, too. As for me, no, I'm not going to Norfolk again. The Bulls and I both need a little break from baseball, but I'm the lucky one: I get one.

I'll be back—I think (?!)—with a playoff preview next Tuesday.

Knights Stadium, 1 Sept 2011.
  • HAMedia
  • Knights Stadium, 1 Sept 2011.

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