by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM—The Durham Bulls got a lot of breaks last night and lost anyway to Norfolk, 4-3. The Tides made an especially bad S.B.G. that cost them a run; misplayed what should probably have been out into a double; botched a sacrifice (for the second straight night); scored a run for Durham with a throwing error; and hit a batter to turn the inkling of a Bulls threat into a full-blown rally.
Yet for the second straight night, the Bulls failed to drive in runners on third base with less than one out, including Ray Olmedo's game-ending double-play with the tying run on third. The bullpen sprung another ruinous leak. And Durham saw the Tides' closer, Mark Worrell, for the fourth straight game, and for the fourth straight game didn't score against him.
The breaks. Who gets them? And why are they called "breaks," anyway? Broken like glass? Like records? Like habits? A break like an escape from jail? Like a day off? Just what do we mean when talk about getting a break?
All of the above, perhaps.
To turn this break thing around, the Norfolk Tides really got more breaks from the Bulls than the Bulls got from the Tides—seven, to be precise. That's how many batters Durham starter Alexander Torres walked in just five-plus innings. The "plus" was really a minus: Torres opened the sixth inning by loading the bases on walks, and was pulled from the game.
A walk is the commonest and homeliest of breaks a team gets. It's the other team's pitcher not requiring you to hit your way on base. The general batting average on balls in play hovers around .300, so if you get a guy to hit the ball, 70% of the time he's out. If you walk him, well, 100% of the time, you know...
Torres is fortunate that only two of the guys he walked wound up scoring, but when your team loses by one run, the math is pretty clear. Moreover, Torres gave the Tides a break, of sorts, by getting himself out of the game after completing only five innings of work. He allowed only two hits, and when he wasn't wasting pitches out of the strike zone he was unhittable after the first inning. Perhaps that's partially because he couldn't throw swing-worthy strikes—the Tides swung just 33 times at his 92 pitches—but even a minor improvement in his control might have helped him allow less than the three runs with which he was charged.
It started out badly. Kyle Hudson opened the game with an infield single, one on which the Bulls' shortstop, Tim Beckham, had no legitimate play—he tried his pirouette move again, for the second straight night, on a grounder up the middle, but the 360-degree spin takes too much time to complete and Hudson, who runs well, beat Beckham's throw.
Tyler Henson tried a sacrifice but his bunt was too hard and Torres forced the lead runner, Hudson, at second base. Then Torres walked Josh Bell, and followed that with his only real mistake over the plate all night: a meatball that Brandon Snyder drove to the right-center field wall for a two-run triple.
Torres walked Robbie Widlansky after Snyder's triple, which meant that the only out he'd gotten, five batters into the game, was on a poorly executed bunt.
Torres recovered, though, and struck out the next two hitters to prevent further damage. From there, he gave what was, regrettably, a typical Torresian start: lots of walks and strikeouts, few hits, and too many pitches burned up too early in the game. "He's almost like the same," Charlie Montoyo said later—that's the broken record part of the breaks from last night.
To take the word another way, consider that Torres had been pitching better after early-season struggles, dropping his ERA a full point over the last two months and lowering his walk rate. But after last night's seven-walk performance, tying his season high for bases on balls, Torres looked like he might be kind of broken again. He's up near 140 innings pitched, about as many as he logged last season. Maybe he's getting tired.
Montoyo noted that Torres is leading the International League in walks allowed (last night he overtook Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's Andrew Brackman, who is such a total disaster that he doesn't really count). "He's got to stop that"—he's got to break that habit—"to become a big-league pitcher. I told you how good he is. He's got men on base all the time and he finds a way to get people out. But the walks got [Norfolk] back in the game." For a while, the Tides had three runs on just two hits.
The Bulls, meanwhile, scored their three runs on three hits in the space of three batters in the third inning, erasing the 2-0 deficit they'd inherited in the first inning via Snyder's triple. With two outs and no one on base, and Norfolk starter Mitch Atkins perfect through 2 2/3 innings, Ray Olmedo hit a grounder that a top-quality first baseman would have handled. But Snyder didn't, and Olmedo was credited with a single that could have been scored an error.
Justin Ruggiano, starting his rehab assignment, then whistled a single to center field, moving Olmedo to third. On Atkins' next pitch, Ruggiano stole second base, and the throw from catcher Adam Donachie, just activated yesterday after a two-week stint on the disabled list—remember that little detail—was a bad one. It went well wide of second base and into the outfield, and Olmedo scored from third.
The next batter was Tim Beckham. With the count 1-1, Atkins hung a curve ball on the inner half of the plate, and Beckham turned on it and crushed it over the Blue Monster for a two-run home run. The ball either hit one of the flagpoles or the brick facing of the building which houses Tobacco Road Cafe. There are a lot of cheap homers hit over the Blue Monster; this was not one of them. 3-2, Bulls.
I asked Beckham after the game—a digression about him follows, you've been warned—if he was looking for the breaking ball. No, he said he seldom sits on an offspeed pitch. He was actually expecting a fastball, but adjusted to Atkins's poorly thrown deuce and nailed it. Two innings later, Beckham smacked a first-pitch fastball from Atkins for a hard line-out to third base. Reports from the lower minors on Beckham's plate approach were middling, but so far in Durham he looks like a hitter with skills and the canniness to use them. Best of all, he hits line drives. Even his homers travel low to the ground.
The only thing to keep an eye on, as far as I can tell, is actually a good tendency of Beckham's that has, at its outer extreme, a downside: His batting eye can be at times a little too fine. A couple of times, including last night, I've seen him take pitches right on or near the outside corner that were called strikes, to his displeasure. Russ Canzler sometimes does it, too. But this is really a minor quibble. In fact it's a good habit to see in a 21-year-old, one you don't want to see him break.
Beckham is fun to watch in the field, too. He often gives a little leap/hop before the pitcher winds up, in order to stay on his toes. He'll sometimes follow that with a little roll of the shoulders. He's lean and athletic and coordinated, and he's got energy to burn—the kind of player you want to nickname "Jitterbug" or "Zipper." He charges soft grounders with great quickness.
Beckham is quick in every way. In the top of the ninth, he tried to convert a 4-6-3 double play. Second baseman Ray Olmedo had fielded Hudson's broken-bat grounder and made a good throw to Beckham at second base, but the ball was hit rather slowly and the lead runner, Carlos Rojas, was bearing down on Beckham. Trying to unload the relay throw in a jiffy, Beckham whipped it a little too sidearm, and the ball tailed way off and into the Bulls' dugout, advancing the speedy Hudson, who had the throw beaten anyway, to second base. (He didn't score.)
Beckham's quickness of body may come from quickness of character, too. I asked him if he thought the Bulls were maybe a little tired, perhaps suffering the delayed hangover of a 10-day road trip from Buffalo to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to Norfolk to home. "Tired?!" he shot back, incredulously, as if only a total lazybones could possibly think such a thing. No way. You win some, you lose some, he explained, and there's another game tomorrow. To repeat: Tim Beckham is still only 21. Tired? Who's tired?
My last question was about his ninth-inning throwing error, and Beckham's eyes, well, quickened. He was taken aback, perhaps, just a little, for just a second, as though dwelling on the negative was a pointless and frankly annoying thing to be asked to do. Yes, he quickly agreed—mainly to dismiss the line of questioning, I perceived—the throw was too sidearm; and then he was ready to move onto the next thing, which happened to be the shower. I bet he was in and out in two minutes.
It was still 3-2, Bulls, in the fifth inning when Torres walked Bell, Snyder and Widlansky in order with no one out. Given how good Torres often is at bearing down when he gets himself into trouble, I sort of wanted to see him stay out there and try to pitch out of the situation. But Torres had thrown 92 pitches, and they were a high-labor 92, so Dane De La Rosa came in, three days after his laborious 46-pitch outing at Norfolk on Sunday.
De La Rosa threw a wild pitch on a slider, but Josh Bell must have misread the distance it skittered away from catcher Robinson Chirinos. Bell got partway down the third base line, decided he had no chance of scoring—I thought he could probably have done so without much fuss—and then headed back to third base.
Problem was, Snyder was already standing on it. De La Rosa tagged Bell out. Then he struck out Brendan Harris for the second out. De La Rosa was, remarkably, on the verge of keeping Torres's pepper jam in an unopened jar, making Montoyo's choice to lift Torres look like the right one. But then De La Rosa threw another wild pitch, on another hard breaking ball that knifed down and away from Chirinos—it's a ball that Chirinos would probably say he should have blocked—and this time the Bulls got no break other than the too-sharp one on De La Rosa's pitch. Snyder scored, tying the game.
And then, leading off the sixth inning, Adam Donachie—who, you will recall, hadn't played in more than two weeks—hit De La Rosa's second pitch off the painted grass under Ye Olde Snorting Bull above the Blue Monster for a go-ahead solo homer. 4-3, Tides. Donachie is owed a salad by the Marriott Hotel restaurant. Pass.
I wrote at the end of yesterday's story that one of the lessons of Jorge Luis Borges has to do with treating each individual moment as its own radical event, colored by the past but in its own way detached from it, freewheeling in time. Thanks be to baseball, that quiet old oak rooted deeply in the past: you go back to its ancient trunk after you crawl way out onto its young limbs.
Two games ago, in the bottom of the seventh inning, the Bulls had runners at second and third with one out, but failed to plate either of them, a choke that, in my opinion, cost them the game. So when the Bulls put runners on second and third base, again with one out, again in the bottom of the seventh inning, again last night, a certain dread mounted around the situation: Once more into the RISP garden. You felt history clamping down on the situation, even controlling it.
And here the Bulls got a bad break, one handed to them by the Tampa Bay Rays before the game even started. Justin Ruggiano was the next scheduled hitter, and there was no doubt in my mind that he would have at least hit a game-tying sacrifice fly, if not something even better than that.
But the Rays' schedule overruled that of Montoyo's lineup. Ruggiano was only going to hit three times last night (he was the designated hitter), and had done so after the fifth inning. Daniel Mayora replaced him. Mayora hadn't played since Sunday in Norfolk, and whether out of impatience, anxiety or just habit, he swung at the first pitch from Atkins and hit a weak squib to first base with the infield in. He was out, and the runners stayed put. Beckham popped out to second base to end both the inning and a good night for Atkins, who came into the game with an ERA over 5.00.
It didn't matter that the Bulls put a runner on third base with one out in the ninth inning, still down 4-3. The seventh-inning failure, a haunting repeat of the previous night's, seemed to have already sealed the deal. Matt Carson doubled off of Worrell, the tireless closer with the sidearm hesitation delivery—Carson finally solved it, missing a homer by not much when his high drive hit way up on the Blue Monster. (Worrell's curveball drops below the knees right at the end of its life, too low for Carson to get enough loft on.) J. J. Furmaniak sacrificed Carson to third, and then Robinson Chirinos walked on four pitches.
Ah, the thing about breaks: Sometimes they aren't what they seem. Chirinos was the potential winning run on first base, but he also set up a double play there; and with the way the Bulls have been breaking down recently, it was practically a foregone conclusion that Ray Olmedo would hit into one. His grounder to second base was a cinch twin-killing. Olmedo, desperate to foil it, dove into the first-base bag. Diving is generally held to be actually a bit slower than running through the base, but it wouldn't have mattered. Olmedo was out, eating dirt, and the Bulls had lost again.
What lingered were two things: One was the desperation, of course. It seemed a little revealing that a team with a four-game division lead (Gwinnett had the night off) would play with the headlong, dirt-diving urgency of a club under pressure to win, trying to scratch one out. Second, the clear window to the playoffs through which the Bulls seemed on the verge of stepping is now revealed, as the team gets closer to it, to be a little broken.
Charlie Montoyo may have seen the hairline cracks all along. Instead of dejection or rage, he adopted philosophy. The first words out of his mouth when we went to talk to him after the game? He gestured at the box score printout that had just been handed to him, at the top of which was the Bulls' current record (74-55), and said:
Looking at the record, why am I gonna get mad at these guys because we lost two straight games? We got a bunch of good guys here; they play the game the right way. You might see me screaming if nobody plays hard. But they're trying, believe me. You don't think Olmedo wanted to get a hit, diving into the base? Our pitching has struggled the whole year. We're not the best in the league. The hitting's not the best in the league. But we're in August and we've still got a chance. I could start pointing fingers—we're not hitting, and the bullpen has struggled—but I don't want to do that. [Norfolk] played well. Just because their record's bad doesn't mean anything. They're Triple-A players. We just need to hit, and we need to pitch better. Duh.
We all laughed at Montoyo's uncharacteristic use of a slang word like "duh," but there is some serious stuff in that speech. For one thing, it offers perspective on the season his team has had (and, not incidentally, allows Montoyo to cushion himself a little against the current rocky skid and where that skid might lead). These are not the 2010 Bulls, who were loaded with talent everywhere you looked, had the league's best hitting and pitching, and were never seriously challenged in the regular season. Montoyo knows that this year's model has been in constant beta, and not an Alfa Romeo.
But lest we worry that Montoyo is resigning himself and not, you know, managing—with all of the strategy and tactics that managing involves, including how he handles post-game interviews—a closer look at the team tells a slightly different story than the one Montoyo spun. Durham has the league's second-best team OPS and it's fourth-best team ERA. Those stats suggest that the Bulls are basically the IL's third-best team, and as such ought to be in the post-season. (As it currently stands, they have the second-best record in the league behind runaway train Columbus.) The window to the playoffs maybe cracked a little, and perhaps Bulls in china shops break excessive glass, but they should still find a way through.
I wondered aloud whether the day off on Monday had actually hurt the Bulls rather than helped them. It's nice to have a break, but did it break their momentum? The Bulls went 7-3 on a 10-game road trip before losing two in a row to Norfolk. Last year, J. J. Furmaniak told me that players get "draggy," as he put it, not on the day after their team returns from a road trip but the day after the day after. And when that road trip lasts 10 days, longer than normal tours tend to do, perhaps the drag continues into day three.
Montoyo only acknowledged that "we're not looking right." They may not change that immediately, but they are going to change whom they're looking at. Charlotte comes to town today, and Norfolk is gone. Yes, it's a little shameful to lose three of four games to a team 30 games under .500, but a quick chat with the Tides' Tyler Henson was illuminating. Morale, he said, has never sunk, and he was quick to point out that they've lost a lot of one-run games—they're not doormats. In fact, Norfolk has played 43 one-run games, and holds a league-worst .349 winning percentage in those games. (Know who has played the most one-run games? Yep, the Durham Bulls. They're 23-22.)
The reason for that seems pretty simple: The Tides have blown an astounding half of their save chances. They're 25/50; the Bulls, by contrast, are 38/53. Mark Worrell, Norfolk's main closer, is 19/25, which is of course much better, and Norfolk relievers not on the current roster have gone just 2/11 in save opportunities, making the Tides look worse overall than their current bullpen actually is. With Worrell installed as stopper, the Tides are an improved team in close games. (One curious stat: Norfolk's pitching staff is last in the league in strikeouts, and it isn't even close: They trailed the next-closest team by 130 Ks coming into last night's game. Orioles pitching philosophy at work, or just a chance occurrence? Hard to know.)
Not only was the bullpen going to improve, but the law of averages almost assured that the Tides were bound to break out of the prison of their season-long awfulness. Norfolk may be 28 games under .500, but the Tides are in fact a .500 club since July 29, and they have talent. As Charlie Montoyo said on both nights of this two-game set against the Tides, "they're Triple-A players," just like the Bulls are, and "good enough to beat you." Eventually, they will—and did, twice in a row. Montoyo added that the Bulls were lucky to win the one game they did, needing extra innings at Harbor Park on Sunday. "They played better than we did," Montoyo concluded, rightly and simply.
So the Tides roll out. The Bulls conclude their season with four more games at Norfolk in about a week and a half. Until then, they play Charlotte seven times, starting tonight. It's Brian Baker for the Bulls versus... a Knight in shining armor, or perhaps in white satin. We don't know yet; or in any case, if we know, we don't know that we know.
What we know about is the Bulls. A four-game lead with 13 to play is nothing to belittle, but of course the Bulls are going to have to put the
breaks brakes on their little engine that currently can't and win some games. I'll wager that they start doing it soon and wind up winning the division. The Bulls may currently look a little bent, but they're not broken.
See you at the DBAP at 7:05 p.m. Thirsty Thursday! And to encourage you, the Bulls charge only a buck for salty edibles like hot dogs and boxes of popcorn. That ought to
salt sweeten the pot for you.