Charlotte Knights drub Durham Bulls: Dog Days

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DBAP/ DURHAM—Convenient of the Bulls to schedule their annual Bark in the Park bring-your-dog promotion to coincide with the team's current slobbering and panting and begging ways. The Bulls made a dog's breakfast of a manageable 4-3, deficit last night, helping the Charlotte Knights send 12 batters to the plate in the seventh inning and score eight runs en route to a 12-7 whipping of the locals. The Bulls have lost three straight games, and four of five overall, to bad teams. This dog won't be in the (playoff) hunt unless it starts dominating the runts again.

The Gwinnett Braves did what the Bulls could not: they beat Norfolk at home (and Charlotte at home, twice, before that), and crept to within three games of the Bulls for first place in the IL South Division with 12 left to play. The two teams go head to head for two games at the DBAP on Monday and Tuesday. Four days ago, it seemed like those games might wind up being virtually meaningless, but with Gwinnett having recovered from their own bad stretch—they went 2-6 from August 14-21—and the Bulls currently ensconced in a three-game losing streak, you might need to drop whatever bone you're planning to worry those nights, and get out to the ballpark.

When a team is struggling, it finds new and terrible ways to blow it every night. They don't hit with runners in scoring position. They don't get runners in scoring position. A starter allows only two hits but walks seven batters.

And so on. Last night, with Durham trailing 4-3 in the sixth inning, Russ Canzler, trying to do something to shake up the team (I guess?), attempted to stretch a perfectly adorable single into a double, and was thrown out by about 30 feet. The Bulls pitching staff walked five batters, all five of them scored, and Durham lost by—yep—five runs. Even Wool E. Bull got into the act, missing his music cue before the eighth inning, when he customarily speeds his little go-car around the perimeter of the ballpark.

And then there was this: Early in the Knights' eight-run seventh inning, when only two of the eight runs were in and two runners were on base with one out, Charlotte slugger Dayan Viciedo hit a foul pop down the left-field line. Shortstop Tim Beckham called off third baseman Dan Johnson—it's the shortstop's play in that situation, if he wants to claim it—but Beckham dropped the ball. (He wasn't charged with an error, but it's a catch he would probably say he should have made, especially since Johnson seemed to have it in his sights.)

Given that reprieve, Viciedo wound up drawing a walk from Mike Ekstrom. Then Jim Gallagher hit a little pooch to shallow center field that Matt Carson should have been able to come in and catch. But he seemed to get a bad read on it, and started in too late, and a ball that seemed certain to be caught suddenly became one that Carson obviously had no chance at all to catch. It fell in for an RBI single.

7-3, Knights. That's a good lead, but not a really secure one at the hitter-friendly DBAP. A grand slam will tie it, don'cha know.

Jordan Danks came up next. One thing that Danks is good at is striking out. He's done that 140 times this season in less than 500 plate appearances, and he did it a lot in 2010, too, 151 times. Ekstrom, despite his troubles this year, has swing-and-miss stuff at his best. But he walked Danks, just as he had walked Viciedo, the ball-four pitch appearing to cross up Robinson Chirinos—it ticked off his glove (at least I thought I heard that sound) and went all the way to the backstop. 8-3, Charlotte.

And then Andrew Garcia, a .209 hitter—pointed comments from Charlie Montoyo below about .200 hitters—then hit a rather harmless opposite-field fly ball down the left-field line. Stephen Vogt drifted back on it, and then turned to catch it off the Blue Monster, and then, like Carl Yastrzemski v. Bucky Dent, 1978 (former Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella is in that clip!), watched the damn thing somehow squeak over the Blue Monster for a 315-foot, opposite-field, grand slam home run, thanks to that hitter-friendly DBAP.

Instead of tying the score, duh, Garcia's stinkbomb made it 12-3. The hounds had been officially released.

Earlier in the game, Charlie Montoyo tried to coax one last out from starter Brian Baker so that Baker could give him the five innings Montoyo was hoping for. But Baker, who was on a 75-pitch limit, walked two guys with two outs and no one on base in the fifth, the second of them on his 75th pitch.

Montoyo replaced Baker with Lance Cormier, and Eduardo Escobar greeted Cormier with a broken-bat single to center field to score Price and tie the game, 3-3. Then Lastings Milledge smacked hard single into right-center field to score another run and give Charlotte a lead it would never relinquish.

"That wasn't the game," Montoyo said later. "But that was big."

Part of its bigness had to do with the Knights who did the damage. The first of Baker's walks was issued to catcher Jared Price, who batted an astoundingly terrible .132—in Double-A, no less—before joining the Knights on August 15. And even though Price was hitting .250 in seven games with Charlotte, Montoyo, usually as sympathetic as anyone I've encountered toward struggling hitters—he often was one himself—wasn't feeling generous.

"There's some guys in the lineup you need to get out, because it's August and they're hitting .200 for a reason. That's baseball. Whoever is hitting .200, you're not having a good year. We gotta keep those guys off the bases for Viciedo. Viciedo's gonna be a big-leaguer for a long time. You want to beat that club, you gotta keep those guys off base for the good hitters."

Indeed, Viciedo had hit a two-run homer off of Baker to open the scoring in the fourth inning. It should have been a solo shot, though. After Escobar singled to lead off, Milledge hit a grounder that looked like a likely double play. Second baseman J. J. Furmaniak appeared for a split second to think of tagging Escobar and then throwing to first; but he realized he would have to wait too long for Escobar to get to him, and then flipped the ball to Beckham at the second-base bag. The little hesitation seemed to disrupt the flow of the play just enough so that Beckham dropped the ball. He picked it up in time to retire Escobar, but Milledge reached first base on a fielder's choice—and then Viciedo went yard.

Montoyo's comments about players hitting .200, uncharitable as they were, actually said more about his attitude toward his own club than toward light hitters like Garcia, Price and Escobar. The latter was hitting a rather hollow .254 but went 4-5. Really, the commentary was aimed at his relievers, who have been plain bad lately. All of the Twitter badinage and bullpen hijinks during games are cute and even apishly charming when you're pitching well; but when you aren't, well, the bullpen is more like a doghouse.

In 2009 and 2010, the Durham bullpen was anchored by Winston Abreu. Abreu was a pretty quiet guy—around the media, anyway—but he was an extremely hard worker, a model of preparedness. At least one of his teammates expressed awe over Abreu's work habits.

This year's bullpen ringmaster is Rob Delaney. Delaney is having an excellent season, with a 1.88 ERA and a WHIP right around 1.00 in over 60 innings. He is beyond reproach, and has earned the right to play whatever character he fancies among the Bulls' dramatis personae. His demeanor is totally different from Abreu's. I really like Delaney's goofball antics, his caterpillar mustache and his Buddha belly. If he weren't a ballplayer, he'd make a great professional wrestling character.

Delaney obviously sets a very different tone in the bullpen than Abreu did along with low-key Dale Thayer and, in 2010, the cool customer Joe Bateman, who, when greeted and asked how he's doing, usually replies with a fist bump and the word "chillin'."

Let's not forget that relievers are often called firemen. They are there not only to respond to emergencies, but to keep the trucks clean and hoses coiled at all times, to be fire engine red and ready, focused and fit: upright citizens. Firehouses are safe havens. A civic institution.

Now for all we know, real firemen sit around all day guzzling Natural Light, watching Jersey Shore and seeing who can spit his toenails farthest. Surely there's a fair amount of horseplay that necessarily balances the chaos and danger and life-or-death seriousness of fighting fires. But I usually see stationed firemen playing a little basketball, washing their trucks, and maintaining spartan and spruce quarters.

The Bulls firemen are shaggy—shaggy dogs, even. That could provide an appropriate mood for the team overall—even when the bullpen struggles—if it was balanced by soberer leadership elsewhere in the clubhouse. Maybe hoping for that on a Class AAA team is barking up the wrong tree, what with all the comings and goings of the better players, whose excellence on the field usually translates to alpha dog status off of it.

Regardless, there doesn't seem to be a leader of this pack after Montoyo. The recent Double-A callups are unlikely to claim the role, which customarily belongs to a veteran; grinders like Russ Canzler and Brandon Guyer, despite their calm and workmanlike presences, are in their first season of Class AAA—relative greenhorns, themselves.

In yesterday's profile of Chris Archer, I sang the praises of youth. The downside to that youth is a lack of steady, veteran guidance. The older guys on the Durham roster don't quite fit the mold, like Joe Dillon and Chris Richard did last season. Ray Olmedo is a cut-up, J. J. Furmaniak rather quiet. Dan Johnson circles in his own orbit. Dirk Hayhurst has been injured, and also distracted by his second career as a writer. Matt Carson is a newbie.

I suppose this is a bit of a shaggy-dog ramble: Does it really matter if the Bulls have a leader? What would that leader be leading the team toward, exactly? The International League playoffs? Does, say, Leslie Anderson care about that? Adam Russell? Do any of the players? It's a question that gets frequently revisited, especially toward the end of any given season, when both the restful promise of the off-season and the excitement of the September 1 roster expansion date approach. The players' sights begin, justifiably, to focus elsewhere.

Thinking back to last season, the Columbus Clippers stormed through the Governors' Cup tournament, winning six of eight games against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Durham, the last few of them absolute crush-jobs—they trounced the Bulls. Watching the Clippers celebrate on the DBAP infield last September, I admired how genuinely pumped their players were to win what is, let's face it, a basically meaningless trophy. The Clippers had some players who had come up from Class AA during the season and helped push the team not only into the playoffs but then potently through them: guys like Paolo Espino, Jared Goedert, Jerad Head, Jason Kipnis, Cord Phelps and Josh Rodriguez. All of them were on their way up: they'd never played in Class AAA before. They played against Durham as though they had something to prove, a prize to win that was higher than any prize they'd ever competed for.

That may not really have been true. Some of those players went to big-time college programs, and maybe they didn't care a whit about the Governors' Cup until they found themselves three wins away from earning it. But I don't think so.

Which leads me to the conclusion that it's the Bulls' Class AA callups—risen Biscuits like Chris Archer, Tim Beckham, Matt Moore and Stephen Vogt—who are best suited to rouse the whimpering kennel, call the canines to attention and howl their way out of this slump and toward the post-season. The Bulls need not one or two leaders but a hungry half dozen of them to get the rest of the dogs barking again.

***

I'll throw you this bone from late last night. With a 12-3 lead, Knights reliever Wes Whisler came on in the ninth inning for a mop-up stint—the best kind for him. The lefty Whisler spent most of the season with a pair of Class A teams, and in 10 games as a Knight had a 7.20 ERA. He had suffered a loss against the Bulls in his only appearance against them back on June 30, walking five batters in two innings.

Russ Canzler led off with a single to left, and this time didn't try to stretch it to a double. Vogt popped out, but Robinson Chirinos blasted a prodigious first-pitch homer way, way out of the ballpark. Leslie Anderson fouled out, the Knights' Gookie Dawkins making the catch in foul territory in left field near the spot where the Bulls could not, disastrously, two innings earlier.

(Fact: Since July 9, Leslie Anderson's batting average has not strayed more than five points in either direction from .280. His OBP has not been more than 10 points away from .310. His SLG has not been lower than .414 or higher than .437. He has always struck me as an unpredictable and mercurial player, but he is, in his weird way, a model of some sort of consistency that I can't quite describe.)

Two outs now, after Anderson's foul out, but Whisler walked Furmaniak. Were Charlie Montoyo the Knights' manager, he'd have had occasion to bemoan putting the other team's .200 hitter on base—although, to be fair, Furmaniak is hitting much better than that since the All Star break.

It got worse for Wes. Whisler hit Matt Carson with a pitch, wild pitched Carson and Furmaniak to second and third, respectively, and walked Tim Beckham to load the bases.

That was enough for Charlotte manager Joe McEwing, who probably couldn't believe he had to bring another reliever into this blowout. Gregory Infante came on, and Brandon Guyer smacked a line drive to third base that Gookie Dawkins wasn't able to catch—it went off his glove into left field. I thought he should have had it, but it was scored a double, and two runs scored. Dawkins had made another misplay in the second inning, pulling the olé move on Canzler's grounder and letting it go by for an error. He also hit a solo homer, though.

It was now 12-7, still not really a game at all—but the heart of the order was coming up, and the crowd, an admirably howly one, was getting into it. You know what they say about sleeping dogs.

Infante fell behind Johnson, 3-1. One's mind went to that place: If he walks Johnson, Canzler comes up, and then Vogt—who would be the tying run. A pair of power hitters. Could it be that...? I reminded myself that Charlotte's starter was Deunte [sic] Heath, the same Deunte Heath who took the stunningly improbable loss in the crazy 2009 game that remains the wildest one I've ever seen at the DBAP, in which the Bulls rallied in the bottom of the 14th inning, down two runs, to win it for reliever... Ray Olmedo? Yes. Maybe Deunte Heath has some sort of Durham curse that only the slaughter of a rooster can undo, or whatever the line from Bull Durham that I'm probably misquoting.

But on the 3-1 pitch, Johnson grounded out to first base, just as he had back in the second inning. Game over.

Still, the Bulls had scored four runs in the inning, more than they had scored in a single game since last Thursday. They had in fact scored more than four runs in just three of their last 10 games.

One final takeaway from the rally, though: All three of the hits were by refugees from last year's Tennessee Smokies team, the Cubs' Class AA affiliate that also featured Chris Archer. Maybe we just found the Bulls' true pack leaders?

And does the four-run ninth portend an uprising to come? Do the Bulls have one more surge in them that will allow them to get back on their paws feet and secure a berth in the post-season? Can they find their snarl again? The next hunt starts at 7:05 p.m., with Andy Sonnanstine leading the pack.

*

**

One more thing before I go. We've been blessed this season at the DBAP by the presence of photographer Al Drago. If you read these game stories regularly, you may have noticed that every single action shot from the ballpark in 2011 has come from Drago's lens. He is not only the first everyday photographer we've ever had at the games, but he happens also to be a really good one, as his images have proved on a daily basis.

What you may not be aware of, though, is that Al Drago just finished high school—he's a veritable pup. He starts his freshman year of college at Elon University today, and so his tenure as our Bulls photographer, sadly, comes to an end.

The nascent Bull City Summer project is fortunate to have a clutch of veteran photographers on board for this last home stand of the season, and our image-making will continue on to the end. But Al has been with us, night in and night out, from Opening Day to the dog days. Our deepest gratitude goes to him for his work this summer. We wish him great success at Elon and beyond, and we hope he'll be back at the DBAP next year. If not, we'll be able to say we knew him before he was a big dog. Thanks, Al. You'll be missed.

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