by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM—Before the Bulls beat Buffalo today, 5-2, I had the opportunity to interview Chaim Bloom, the Tampa Bay Rays' Assistant Director of Minor League Operations. Bloom is here on his usual rounds of the Rays' farm teams and training complexes, checking up on the organization's players. He's a young, intelligent Yale alum who told me that he had always wanted to be in baseball operations. He wrote for the esteemed Baseball Prospectus Web site and did internships with a couple of teams before taking one with the Rays, and it didn't take long for him to land a job. I asked him how he pulled it off, and he chalked it up to "persistence and luck." As it happened, the Bulls needed a bit of the former and a lot of the latter to win tonight.
Both teams' pitchers developed an allergy to the strike zone early in the game. From the bottom of the third inning through the top of the sixth, Durham starter James Houser and Buffalo's Kyle Snyder (a former first-round pick out of UNC-Chapel Hill) and Tim McNab handed out 10 free passes. The Bulls exploited two of them for runs as part of a five-run third, and wasted a third walk when Brandon Chaves was thrown about by several feet trying to steal second (he would have scored had he stayed put). As soon as Snyder recovered and started throwing strikes again, the Bulls pounced on them, with Henry Mateo, Justin Ruggiano and Ray Sadler going single-double-single in a six-pitch span. After an error and another walk, Ray Olmedo punched a two-run single to right. It was, all in all, a patient and persistent inning—all five runs scored with two outs—rather than an explosive one. The Bulls didn't score again.
It turned out that they didn't need to, although no one could explain how they managed to win without adding to their lead. Bulls' starter Houser had little to say at all after the game, except that he stuck to his game plan, which was to "get ahead and throw strikes"—a bewildering description of an outing in which he threw first-pitch balls to 16 of 24 hitters and 48% of his pitches were out of the strike zone.
In other words, as Charlie Montoyo said following the game (after a flummoxed pause), "We were lucky." Amen. Houser allowed consecutive leadoff singles in the first, a leadoff single and double in the second, and consecutive one-out singles in the third. He added a walk into that mix, but somehow Buffalo failed to score. And it wasn't as if Houser made great pitches when he got in trouble. In the bottom of the first, Javier Valentin hit a screamer that Ruggiano hauled in at full gallop on the center field warning track. The next batter, Wily Mo Pena, flied to medium-deep left field, right on the foul line. Jesus Feliciano tagged up and headed for home, but Jon Weber threw a 250-foot strike to Craig Albernaz to nail Feliciano at the plate for an inning-ending double play. Two innings later, Alex Cora lined out to right and then Michel Abreu sent Weber to the left-field wall to catch his towering fly. An inning after that, Jonathan Malo ripped a line drive directly at Olmedo at third base. Houser got only four ground balls all day; two went for singles to left; the other two were turned into double plays.
So although Montoyo trotted out "he made some big pitches when he had to" for us as obligatory praise, it was obvious that what Houser had today was airtight fielding behind him and great luck. Sometimes luck—and a little persistence—wins games, simple as that. You don't throw 47 strikes and 45 balls with an 85-mph fastball, allow eight hits and four walks with only one strikeout in five innings, and still win without some help from chance. It's not as if the Bulls hit rockets in their five-run third inning; they just happened to hit balls reasonably well where no one could catch them. Luck.
A short digression on the subject of walks. People who like baseball roll their eyes in resignation when they hear detractors whining the old cliche that "baseball is boring." What's boring to the uninitiated is baseball's slowness and elegance, its resistance to time, its tactical punctilio, its minimalist rhythm and palette. To true believers, though, baseball is almost never boring.
Today's game was boring. How boring was it? It was so boring that two of my fellow press box denizens were talking about proctologists in the eighth inning. Why was it boring? Walks. Walks are the one really boring thing in baseball. Walks are not only oppressively dull but actually painful; apparently, even the thought, voiced, of someone shoving a latex-gloved hand up your a** is preferable. Not only do walks fill the precious minutes with empty psychic calories, they're blandly ugly, stupefying and slovenly. Probably the most demoralizing, dispiriting play in the whole game of baseball is a bases-loaded walk.
Or, as Frankie Frisch used to say, so much more concisely, "Oh, those bases on balls."
Anyway, to get back to Chaim Bloom, one thing I was pleased to hear him say was that the Rays are trying to get every single one of their players—including journeymen like Chris Richard, Ray Sadler and Jon Weber—to the majors. There is no organizational dead weight in the front office's thinking. No, James Houser isn't David Price, but it isn't as if the Rays consider him merely a slot-filler until a bluer chip comes along. They're trying to help him develop major-league skills. Bloom said that they sign players like Julio DePaula because they see potential there, a possible major-league arm, not because they simply need a reliever and DePaula happens to be a reliever. (In DePaula's case, the recommendation of Bulls' pitching coach Xavier Hernandez played an important role in the signing.) Even the emergency inking of Matt DeSalvo out of the independent Atlantic League (to replace David Price) was done after carefully considering what DeSalvo might bring to the major-league table. Meanwhile, the New York Mets have stocked Buffalo with the likes of Wily Mo Pena, who hasn't been interesting since 2006 and has struck out every third plate appearance since his career began.
A few notes before I sign off:
* Rashad Eldridge, who was with the Bulls briefly at playoff time last season, was recalled from Montgomery to replace Matt Joyce (who wasted no time in rewarding the Rays' choice to promote him back to Tampa: he went 2-3 today with a home run). Eldridge played right field and went 0-4.
* Ray Olmedo played third base for a second straight day. John Jaso sat. Sadler DHd.
* Pitcher Chris Mason, who saw time with the Bulls last year, was also brought up from Montgomery to replace the injured Dewon Day. Chances are good that Mason will actually start tomorrow's game, because:
* Mitch Talbot has been scratched with an unspecified arm problem. Montoyo didn't elaborate on what it was. Talbot's unavailability means that Montoyo will concoct another slumgullion of relievers for tomorrow's game (fortunately, Dale Thayer will be back, with or without his mustache), as he did last weekend against Lehigh Valley. That was the last game in which Chris Richard appeared before his tight hamstring sidelined him. Will he be able to return tomorrow in case the luck runs out and more persistence---and power--are needed? (Oh, and hey, Chris: You think you're so great with your two grand slams in one game?)
A note about today's extracurriculars. There was general approval in the press box of the return of the late-inning "Kiss-Cam." I urge the Bulls, however, to replace Faith Hill's "This Kiss" with a song by Kiss instead of one about kissing. I propose "Calling Dr. Love."
Tomorrow's "Education Day" promotion is the second and last one of the season—because school's out for summer, of course. (Could there have been a Kiss without Alice Cooper? But anyway.) That means that the game starts at 11:05 a.m. and the kids start screaming at 11:07, less than 12 hours from now. Set your alarms!