by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM—Last night, the Durham Bulls edged the Charlotte Knights, 3-2, to end a worrisome four-game losing streak. Raleigh-born Chris Archer, making his Class AAA debut, threw six solid innings of three-hit baseball to earn the win. The Gwinnett Braves beat Norfolk, so the Bulls retained their three-game division lead with 10 left to play.
I'm sure this etymology has been widely broadcast, or perhaps you already knew that the name "Irene" comes from that of a Greek goddess. Irene was the goddess of peace, and there's an adjective, irenic—"promoting peace; peaceful; pacific," as my dictionary defines it—correlated to the name. Or maybe vice versa.
Plenty of commentators must have noted that it was
irenic ironic that a destructive force majeure would bear such a name. Irene battered North Carolina yesterday, causing several deaths, copious floods and damage, and widespread power outages. Weather remains one of the only hazards human beings have not yet learned to control or ward off. There is nothing you can do but absorb the damage, lament the losses, and then recover.
Please accept an advance apology for what I'm about to say: Irene caused plenty of havoc, but the hurricane really could have been worse, a lot worse, for North Carolina. Katrina is the one-word argument for that claim, but in fact the effects of Irene fell below the predictions, or at least short of the doomy worst-case scenario.
And forgive, too, the use of a potential natural disaster of epic impact to support a minor-league, Durham Bulls analogy: The Bulls' losing streak could have been worse. Four games isn't really that many. The Bulls still have a three-game division lead. They have Matt Moore pitching their next game. They have a chance to sink Gwinnett, head-to-head, with two upcoming games at the DBAP on Monday and Tuesday.
So why did the losing streak seem so bad?
"It wasn't that we were losing," Stephen Vogt said after the game. "It was how we lost."
Russ Canzler was sitting next to Vogt. "You should use that quote," he said to me. "That's a great quote."
It was, and I did.
The Bulls went a sparkling 7-3 on their last road trip, when they went to Buffalo, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Norfolk from August 12-21. Then they had a day off on August 22, following which they lost four straight ballgames.
It may not have seemed like it, but the Bulls had something like another day off on Saturday, which was scheduled for a day/night doubleheader to accommodate the makeup of a game rained out a the DBAP on July 30. Irene's arrival prompted the postponement of the afternoon makeup game, though, so the Bulls had a little breather restored to them.
And that grace period, it seemed, served as a kind of closing bracket to the opening August 22 off-day, between which the Bulls could not win, or even play well. Irene may not have provided a full 24-hour break, but perhaps she granted the necessary reset for a team that was not just losing, but losing in bad ways, as Stephen Vogt observed. (I agreed.)
Irene didn't do much damage in Durham, but she didn't make a clean exit. Her gales, which were fun to be outside for earlier in the afternoon, had mostly calmed by game time at 7:05 p.m. But a fairly strong, windblown rain fell in the second inning, and drizzle continued intermittently throughout the night.
Those are not ideal circumstances under which to play a game of baseball, yet the lingering precipitation was somehow appropriate. Rather than blast in and blast out, Irene took her time both arriving and departing. Her wide temporal berth here seemed to allow the Bulls to regain themselves slowly, inning by inning, step by step, misting the losing streak away rather than crushing it in a single blow: The game's outcome hung in the balance until its very last pitch. The hurricane's waning after-showers were cooling, almost gentle, even irenic; and they finally abated for good right around the moment when Rob Delaney got Eduardo Escobar to fly out to right field, ending a tense ninth inning, to give the Bulls their first win since last weekend.
It didn't come easy. Nothing has for Durham lately. Chris Archer appeared, early on, to be headed for a start similar to the poor one Andy Sonnanstine turned in on Friday. Like Sonnanstine had done, Archer cruised through a 1-2-3 first inning on just six pitches before running into trouble shortly afterward.
In the bottom of the first, Archer was staked to a 1-0 lead, but it was as much donated to them by Charlotte's pitcher as it was earned by the Bulls. The Knights' starter was not right-hander Justin Cassel, as I had thought (sorry about the mistake), but instead a very different hurler. Soft-tossing lefty Doug Davis is a 35-year-old veteran of 300 major-league games, and has been a durable starter for Texas, Milwaukee and Arizona. Earlier this season, Davis made headlines as a Chicago Cub, when he baffled the visiting New York Yankees juggernaut at Wrigley Field for nearly eight innings and left to a standing ovation, picking up his first win in Chicago.
It was the only one he got. The Cubs released Davis less than two weeks later, after he was pounded for 10 runs in a start against San Francisco. By that time, he had a dismal 1-7 record and a 6.50 ERA. Davis signed a minor-league deal with the crosstown White Sox and was assigned to Charlotte, with whom he had good numbers in seven starts in July and August.
Davis not only doesn't throw fast pitches—his fastball topped out at about 86 mph, complemented by a sub-70-mph curve ball—he doesn't even pitch fast. Literally. Davis's delivery to the plate includes an almost impossibly long pause right at the top of his modest leg lift, and for that moment it's as if the entire world freezes into a tableau.
Davis not only has that hesitation in his windup and those infuriatingly slow pitches, he also mixes them well: fastball, cutter, changeup, curveball. He must be maddening to face, especially for a team like the Bulls, whose generally rather aggressive hitters are in the pressing mode that typifies slumping teams.
In an effort to help them succeed, manager Charlie Montoyo did something he seldom does: He stocked last night's lineup with nine players who all hit from the same side, the right, against the southpaw Davis. "My lefties are kind of struggling against lefties," Montoyo said, referring to Leslie Anderson, Dan Johnson and Stephen Vogt. "So it was a good time to put the righties in the lineup. That was on purpose. I usually just put whoever is supposed to play."
In fact, Montoyo allows struggling hitters to go ahead and face same-handed pitchers frequently. He is not a matchup manager. He usually makes mid-inning pitching changes only when his pitcher is struggling, not merely for lefty-on-lefty or righty-on-righty purposes. He is a play-and-let-play manager. So it was perhaps revealing of the strength of Montoyo's desire to win last night that he went with nine right-handers.
That strict choice meant having to put regular infielder J. J. Furmaniak in left field and Russ Canzler at first base, where he has basically not been allowed to play since May 24—the date, coincidentally, on which the Bulls lost their fifth game in a row on a road trip to Ohio. Since then, they had not lost more than three consecutive games until this past week. Canzler has spent the intervening three months as an outfielder.
But Montoyo, despite the "we had a good year" faux-resignation he'd expressed after the previous night's loss, taking refuge in the upland safety of the past tense, was clearly trying to shake up his team and put them back in the winning present.
At first, it seemed to make no difference: Tim Beckham and Matt Carson struck out to open the first inning. Brandon Guyer worked the count full against Davis with two outs, then hit a bouncer wide of first base. Jim Gallagher fielded it, and for a moment seemed to move toward the base for an unassisted putout. Instead he decided to flip to Davis covering, but Davis had taken a little too long in getting there—he may have slowed down, thinking that Gallagher was going to take care of the play—and in any case Gallagher's underhand toss didn't lead Davis enough. Guyer, hustling all the way as he always does, beat Davis and the throw for an infield single.
It seemed like a harmless enough play, but it was the kind of thing a slumping team needs sometimes to escape the doldrums. And it was the product not only of a favorable break, but also of playing hard, as though Guyer's all-out sprint to first base was rewarded with a hit.
Another break followed: Davis threw a wild pitch, advancing Guyer to second base. Two pitches after that, Canzler grounded a single up the middle to score Guyer.
The following inning was, perhaps, the game's most important. It began to rain rather hard in the top of the second, and after Archer got the first two outs with little trouble, he walked Jordan Danks. He was clearly having trouble gripping the ball, and to make matters worse the rain was blowing sideways, from left field to right. Montoyo said he nearly asked the umpires to halt play, but more than once the rain abated briefly, making it hard to justify a stoppage.
"You can't really prepare for [rain]," Archer said later. "In the off-season, I don't go and dip balls in water and throw."
Andrew Garcia followed the walk to Danks with an opposite-field double off of the Blue Monster. Archer ran a full count on Gookie Dawkins, and then got him to hit a foul tip that would have been strike three but popped out of Nevin Ashley's glove—perhaps also a result of the wet ball. Ashley said later that the rain affected him as well as Archer. He may have been referring to the foul tip without naming it.
On the next pitch, Dawkins walked.
Then Archer, appearing to start "over-pitching," as Ashley called his teammate's tendency later, walked No. 9 hitter Jared Price on four pitches to force home a run and tie the game.
The Dawkins foul tip that Ashley couldn't quite glove had that ominous feel, much like Leslie Anderson's muffing of a double-play ball in the game-deciding third inning of Friday's eventual blowout. With the rain falling, and the lineup now turning over, and the young Archer having thrown nearly 30 pitches in the inning, and the Bulls slumping... well, you get the drift.
But Archer got Justin Greene to fly out to center field to end the inning, and he allowed only one runner to reach second base for the rest of his six-inning, 97-pitch stint (53 strikes, 10 swinging). He did walk two more batters—"We knew he would be wild in the zone," Montoyo said afterward—but few balls were hit hard off of him. And as a little fillip of top-prospect dazzle, Archer struck out big bad Dallas McPherson twice, once with a nifty changeup.
"You owned McPherson," I suggested to Archer after the game. "Well, I wouldn't say owned," he replied, but you could tell he was pleased. It was Archer, after all, who had opened the door on the subject. Asked if he'd faced some of the Knights' hitters when he and they were all in the Class AA Southern League, Archer said that he had ("a handful"), both this season and last, and then added that last night's Charlotte lineup included another "handful of names that have some experience in the big leagues." (There are three: McPherson, Lastings Milledge and Gookie Dawkins, although Dawkins has had just 98 major-league at-bats, the last in 2003.)
I asked Archer about his repertoire the other day when I interviewed him, and he omitted from it the two-seam fastball. He doesn't throw it much—he relies on a four-seamer that reached 95 mph last night but was better located when he threw it in the 92-94 range—but he used it to great effect a few times last night, striking out Danks with it in the sixth inning.
Archer also throws a slider, curve and changeup—it's a pretty big arsenal for a 22-year-old pitcher—but Nevin Ashley said that last night "we didn't use the curve ball as much; we had the slider working real well." It's the pitch that is Archer's calling card, and you can see why: It has good dive on it. (I imagine it was a pitch better suited to a rainy night than the slower curve, although I can't quite put my finger on why—maybe the harder break oon the slider makes it somehow... slipperier?)
As for the over-pitching, it's mainly just a sign of youth. Ashley, who caught Archer a dozen times in Montgomery earlier this season, said that sometimes Archer simply "tries too hard, trying to strike everybody out." He needs to learn to be content with pitching to contact, Ashley added.
"Pitching to contact" is a somewhat loaded phrase. Contact is, of course, potentially worse for a pitcher than no contact. If you could get everyone to strike out, well, you'd be Sidd Finch, which is to say that you can't and you aren't. But the thing about Sidd Finch is that he never seemed to be trying to strike guys out, what with his almost motionless summoning of a mysterious "internal heat" that allowed him to throw 168-mph fastballs; strikeouts were just the natural result of his yogic, indeed irenic, ways.
The zen lesson of Sidd Finch is that strikeouts come when you're not trying for strikeouts. Move the ball around, change speeds, reduce stress: One of the few Archer fastballs that registered 95 mph on the DBAP radar gun last night bounced about two or three feet in front of home plate. He'll probably back off of that overthrowing as he matures, and we're going to get to watch that maturation at the DBAP for the rest of this season and, very likely, much of the next.
But how did the Bulls win the game, you want to know? Two words: Matt Carson. He socked a double off the Blue Monster with one out in the third inning and scored on Brandon Guyer's single to right field, making the score 2-1, Durham. Then, in the fifth, he whacked another double, this one on a misplaced 0-2 fastball from Doug Davis, to score Tim Beckham, who had reached on an infield single.
The Bulls needed that insurance run, because Dallas McFearsome finally got his revenge, homering off of Dane De La Rosa to lead off the eighth inning. A curious one: De La Rosa had McPherson all set up for a slider in the dirt on an 0-2 pitch, but instead he went with another fastball, missed in the sweet spot for lefties—inner part of the plate, down—and the Randleman, N. C. native opened up a can of whup-ass on it for his third homer in two games. 3-2, Durham.
Couple of big moments following McPherson's homer. De La Rosa got the first out of the inning, but then walked Danks. Lefty Andrew Garcia was up next, and Garcia was already 2-2 with a double and a walk. Suddenly, the game looked like it might get away from the Bulls, especially because Danks has good speed and was likely to try to steal second base.
Sure enough, he did, on a high fastball: a perfect pitch for Nevin Ashley to throw out a base-stealer. He made a beauty of a peg—Montoyo later called it the best throw by a Durham Bull this season, and I think he was only about 40% kidding—and Danks was erased. De La Rosa then struck out Garcia looking for the third out. The small but with-it crowd exhaled in unison.
Rob Delaney came on to close out the game, but Gookie Dawkins drilled a leadoff double down the left-field line on a 1-2 pitch. Jared Price sacrificed him to second.
And again—again suddenly—a win that had seemed all but clinched was in peril.
Delaney manned up, brains-first: With the infield in, that most gut-clenching of infield arrangements, he totally outwitted Justin Greene, who watched a slider and then a fastball go right by him for strikes two and three. The infield moved back to normal depth. Eduardo Escobar hit a fly ball that, for a split second, looked scary, but Carson, fittingly, caught it for the final out. Losing streak over.
One little note about Russ Canzler. He has spoken at times this season about improving his plate discipline, mostly by walking the line between aggressiveness and selectiveness. Canzler is leading the league in SLG and is .001 behind the league-leader in OBP. He is tops in OPS and wOBA (another total-package hitting stat, kind of like OPS but better), fifth in walks drawn. Leads in doubles. Etc.
All of that is better than great, and I don't for a second want to downplay the season Canzler is having, which is of MVP caliber. His subpar fielding (and Gwinett's Julio Teheran) will probably keep him from winning the award—but wouldn't you know it, he made a fine diving catch of a bunted foul pop last night, and is the sort of relentlessly hard worker who can become a better fielder. Just the night before, Joe McEwing was praising Dayan Viciedo for learning how to transform himself from a third baseman into what McEwing called a "serviceable right fielder." If Viciedo can do it, there's no doubt that Canz can, too. That's what the minor leagues are for.
The minors are also for fine tuning already well-honed skills, and developing one's gifts. Canzler has a tendency, as I've noted before, to mismanage at-bats. If he doesn't get the pitch he's looking for early in the count, he is prone to an inability to recover from having guessed wrong, and very often winds up striking out. He has fanned 120 times in a little over 500 plate appearances this season, tenth-most in the IL, and I would bet that fewer than a dozen of those Ks were the result of having been overpowered; they came from not walking the line with balance.
Last night was a representative example. Canzler struck out in his last two at-bats, but in totally different ways. In the first of them, he swung at three straight pitches—a fastball, cutter and change, in order, if memory serves. In the second, he saw five pitches and didn't swing at a single one of them—and was called out on strikes, looking.
In other words, Canzler sometimes does not walk the line between aggressiveness and selectivity—he slides all the way to the extreme end of one or the other approach. In order to make it to the majors and stick there, he'll have to keep a close watch on
this heart those at-bats of his. The price of freedom (to swing) is eternal vigilance. To let the hurricane pass, or to march right into its eye?
You have anything to do today? If not—or even if you do—the Bulls are playing two games for the price of one, and it's Matt on Matt in a pair of seven-inning speed rounds. In the first one, Durham's lefty ace Matt Moore pitches against Charlotte's Justin Cassel. In the nightcap, Matt Torra, who since joining the Bulls has turned himself into a dependable starter (if only Charlie Montoyo would depend upon him), faces Jhonny [sic] Nunez. Cassel is just up from Class A, apparently recovering from two seasons' worth of injuries. Nunez isn't really a starter: he's started only four games in 26 appearances for Charlotte this season. Four of those appearances have come against the Bulls, all in relief. The first three were scoreless. In the fourth, the Bulls gored him for six hits and seven runs—basically a third of all the runs Nunez has allowed all season—in just one inning of work.
It all sounds promising, doesn't it?