by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/DURHAM—The first thing you should know about this report on yesterday's game is that it contains literary references. I'm also a book critic, sorry about that.
The second thing you need to know is that I had to leave with the score tied after nine innings, and go to my other job (the one where I make money so I can cover the Bulls). I wasn't there when Adam Kennedy homered in the 13th inning to give the Bulls a 5-3 win and their longest undefeated streak ever to open a Triple-A season.
As it happens, my forced early departure and the state of suspension and incompleteness in which it left me seemed to fit the tone of the day at the DBAP. It was one of those sleepy, sunless afternoons, neither cold nor warm, and the game took its tone from the dun sky and indifferent weather and fans. The Gwinnett Braves' starter, Kris Medlen, was an emergency fill-in: Atlanta had called up the slated pitcher, Jo-Jo Reyes, after learning that Hall of Fame-bound Tom Glavine suffered a setback on his rehab assignment and would postpone his return to Atlanta (in fact, he may have to consider retiring).
Medlen's career has so far been marked by transformations. He started out as a shortstop but was converted to a relief pitcher before seeing professional action. He did well in that role, but last year it was re-imagined again, and he made about half of his appearances as a starter—the Braves apparently like his versatility and durability.
He performed admirably yesterday. Medlen doesn't throw very hard, but he worked quickly and aggressively and kept the Bulls' hitters off-balance by relying on a canny mixture of breaking balls and offspeed stuff. He struck out six in five efficient innings, needing just 55 pitches (38 strikes) and facing the minimum: The two baserunners he allowed were erased on a double play and a pickoff, respectively.
Meanwhile, Medlen's counterpart, the Bulls' Mitch Talbot, needed more than 80 pitches to make it through his five innings. He allowed eight hits but held the Braves to three runs. Talbot often seemed to be on the verge of running into major trouble (someone in the press box observed that Talbot, who is beginning his third season in Durham, is always prone to imploding). Because of his labored start, the game failed to take on the crisp, thrumming energy of a classic pitchers' duel.
Games like this one are really what a long baseball season is built on: unexciting, humdrum card-punchers where players hunker down and try to keep their focus on a gray Wednesday afternoon before a nondescript crowd of 3,700. In his intimate memoir The Best Day The Worst Day, the poet Donald Hall speculates on what he and his wife Jane Kenyon would have answered had they been asked which of their 23 years together was the best one: "The one we remember least." In other words—pace Marcel Proust—under the dull sky of habit and routine, the perduring pieces of a life are woven and stitched together, almost unwittingly: It's what you have forgotten you did that winds up defining you. By that same token, forgettable 3-0 losses on sullen April afternoons are the true fabric of a baseball season.
Yet the Bulls were pursuing a singular statistical oddity yesterday. Through seven innings, they had sent the minimum number of batters to the plate, thanks to Medlen's pickoff and two double plays (both grounded into by Reid Brignac). With six more uninterrupted outs, the Bulls would join a very small number of teams (I don't have the sedulousness to determine just how small this number is: it's small, trust me) to send the minimum 27 men to the plate in a nine-inning game—a quantity even smaller and more rarefied when you factor out perfect games, because in order to accomplish the feat by first putting men on base, you have just a handful of means to put them out, and some of those are difficult and rather unusual themselves (e.g. pickoffs); so a large helping of chance and luck has to be added to good pitching in order to hew to the minimum.
And it didn't happen. With one out in the eighth inning, Chris Richard was hit by a pitch. Adam Kennedy ended the Braves' bid for a—let's call it a pluperfect game—by doubling off of reliever Boone Logan, who had fallen behind in the count 3-1. That put runners at second and third.
Although the Bulls had two men on, the game at this point still felt somewhat out of reach (that feeling benefited in the press box from the majority interest in seeing a quick 2 1/2-hour game). Braves' Manager Dave Brundage did the right thing after Logan gave up Kennedy's double, replacing him with Luis Valdez for a righty-on-righty matchup against Ray Sadler.
Apologies in advance for the tasteless pun to follow (unhappy 20th anniversary): Valdez had a catastrophic oil spill—he gave up a game-tying, three-run homer to Sadler, who to that point had notched just two hits for the season, both singles. It's 400 feet to straightaway centerfield where Sadler hit his dinger; it went perhaps 404 feet, but that was far enough, of course.
And with Sadler's homer went the whole gathering story of the afternoon—poof, gone was Medlen's fine outing (and his credit for a victory) in place of the called-up Reyes; gone was Talbot's uneven start for the Bulls; and gone, too, was the shutout and the pluperfect game. Baseball is peculiar among sports in this way: it isn't a momentum-building game, and its entire tenor can be changed, its entire story erased and rewritten in a split second. It is, as has often been pointed out, totally unruled by linear time.
"Life changes in the instant," wrote Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking. "The ordinary instant." Just when all of your assumptions have settled into a tidy narrative and your vigilance has retired for the day, your husband dies in his favorite chair, you forget to turn off the dryer, the most beautiful face you've ever seen walks into a room.
So this was not, after all, going to be one of those days we would remember least. Indeed, those who stayed at the DBAP till game's end would have to stretch the length and capacity of their memorial bridge for five more innings, until Kennedy's game-ending home run in the last of the thirteenth. We're unlikely to come down from the sugar-high of yesterday's win until at least midway through tonight's game: David Price returns to the mound for Durham, along with all the hype and buzz that attends him. I'll be there for the duration this time.
A Didionesque echo later on last night: At the job where I go to pay my bills, we'd settled into a somnolent, rainy evening, looking for ways to keep ourselves entertained by the few customers we had. Then, not long before we closed, this guy came in.