by Adam Sobsey
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="293" caption="The 32-foot-high Blue Monster and its attendant Bull"][/caption]DBAP/ DURHAM---To start with the important stuff, Toledo beat Durham this afternoon, 5-2. Bulls' starter Wade Davis took the loss but struck out 13 Mud Hens in six innings. Eleven of the last 12 outs he recorded were via K's or backwards-K's. He fanned Mike Hessman and Dusty Ryan three times apiece, that is, in all six of their plate appearances against him. Davis set a DBAP single-game record and tied his personal career high. Informed of these feats after the game, the ever succinct Davis replied, "Cool."
Davis also allowed eight hits, including two home runs, a triple and a double. I hasten to point out that one of the home runs, hit by the diminutive but sparky Will "Busta" Rhymes (I made up that nickname, but seriously, what else are you gonna call him?), was an opposite-field fly ball that cleared the so-called "Blue Monster" by the narrowest of margins for his first homer of the year. Three batters later, Don Kelly hit another high fly to left that hit near the top of the wall, about 30 feet off the ground, and ended up a run-scoring double. Both Busta's hit and (R.?) Kelly's would have been caught for outs in most ballparks.
Why is that? The Blue Monster is, as you probably know, an homage to the famed Green Monster of Fenway Park in Boston. The Green Monster is over 30 feet high and is barely over 300 feet from home plate down the left-field line. It's built that way because Fenway backs right up against Lansdowne Street in Brookline, Mass. To keep home run balls from landing in the street, the Sox built a really high wall in 1936. It was painted green 11 years later because Tom Yawkey, the team's owner, wanted to minimize the amount of advertising in the ballpark (minimize advertising? are you f***ing kidding me??). Now into its seventh decade, the cast-iron Green Monster is a thing of legend.
Which is to say that the DBAP's Blue Monster is a thing of kitsch. There's no reason for it to be so close to the plate (plenty of room behind it when it was built), except that it's part of the 1990s vogue for "retro" ballparks. The DBAP was designed by HOK, the outfit responsible for Camden Yards, Jacobs Field, and other old-looking new baseball stadiums. The brick-and-bunting, green-walled, asymmetrically-shaped ballpark aesthetic is nostalgist, a shrewd marketing strategy, all the way down to the factitious re-creation of genuine artifacts like the Green Monster.
To come to the point (finally! dude!), the Blue Monster cost Wade Davis two runs today. Sure, those two XBH's were fairly long fly balls, but they should have been outs. There's a reason that ballpark dimensions conform to a general norm; when they don't, opposite-field pop flies turn into homers for guys who are listed at 5-foot-9 but are probably shorter, and might weigh 175 pounds soaking wet. On the other hand, Marcus Thames's line drive off the Monster in the fifth inning should have been a double---perhaps even a home run---but it hit about 15 feet up the wall, off of which left fielder Jon Weber played the carom expertly and held Thames to a very potent single. The next batter, Kelly, boinked a soft single to left, so perhaps Davis got one of those two runs back. Nonetheless...
Davis struggled to throw strikes in the first inning, going to two three-ball counts and allowing two hits, one of them Thames's no-doubt-about-it homer. (Davis's excellent pickoff move saved a run: he hung Rhymes up between second and third with a superb bluff and then recorded a very rare 1u CS.) After that, he was awesome, and when I asked him after the game if he'd made any adjustments following his early struggles, he said that he'd moved to the first-base side of the pitching rubber---the first time he'd ever done that. Given that the adjustment resulted in a record-setting performance, I hereby suggest that he do it again.
Overall, Davis threw 100 pitches, 69 for strikes, with 16 swings-and-misses. His fastball was sharp, his curveball strong, and his slider an effective complement. He fanned the strikeout-happy Mike Hessman with breaking stuff in Hessman's first two at-bats, got ahead of Hessman with more benders in Hessman's third at-bat, and then finished him off with a hard, glove-side-down fastball---a challenge pitch, to be sure, and Davis won the challenge. He turned to second base and punched his glove with his fist after blowing the heater past Hessman, as animated (which wasn't very) as I've seen Davis this year. He seemed healthily angry on the mound today, pitching vengefully but tactically after his early difficulties with his command and with the Blue Monster. His line will show those eight hits and three runs, and to be sure, he wasn't his best early on---eight hits are eight hits, no matter what color your wall is---but overall it was a (Tom?) terrific performance.
On the other side of things, the Bulls offensive quietude today owed to a simple failure: they went 1-13 with runners in scoring position, after going 2-9 yesterday. Remember what I said about clutchiness? (That's like truthiness, sort of.) No such thing. One day you git-R-done, the next day you don't.
Two pivotal moments in the game for the Bulls' hitters:
In the bottom of the fourth, down 3-0 but with Davis having definitively and irreversibly established his command, Rashad Eldridge led off with a double to right-center. Ray Olmedo then topped a ball off of home plate and down the first base line---essentially a swinging bunt, a de facto sacrifice. Except that Eldridge made the eldritch choice to stay put at second base; perhaps he was worried about breaking the Bulls' streak of doing at least one stupid thing on the basepaths every game. Don't worry, guys, Rashad got it. The next batter, Brandon Chaves, flied to right. Had Eldridge advanced on Olmedo's tapper, he would have tagged up and scored. He wound up stranded on second.
Later, in the last of sixth, the Bulls loaded the bases with no outs against Toledo starter---and former Bull---Ruddy [sic, pronounced "Rudy"] Lugo. Lugo is a somewhat desiccated journeyman reliever who the Tigers are trying to reconstitute in Mud Hen stock as a starter. He threw a wild pitch to score a run, and Olmedo drove in a second run with a groundout. It was now 3-2, Mud Hens. Chaves came up next and was unlucky: he ripped a first-pitch liner right to Hessman at first base for the second out. Light-hitting Craig Albernaz was next up, and Charlie Montoyo could have called on lefty-swinging John Jaso to pinch hit. But Montoyo doesn't do very much in-game personnel maneuvering, and he let Albernaz take his hacks. Albernaz flied out to shallow center field to end the inning, and the Bulls never seriously threatened after that against sidearming lefty reliever Clay Rapada, who threw three hitless innings to record an impressive long-form save.
In the top of the eighth, Bulls' reliever Jason Childers served up a long two-run homer to Dusty Ryan (whose name suits him for a career as either a country star or a high-class stripper), which put the game out of Durham's reach. But you can't help wondering whether things might have different had Eldridge scored that run in the fourth; the game would have been tied by the end of the sixth, and everything might have been different thereafter.
A few notes before signing off:
* Early in the game, a man ascended the stairs in front of the press box with a beer in one hand and a baby strapped to his chest in one of those papoose-style slings. Struggling for balance, he kept sloshing the beer over the edge of the cup and onto the baby's head. When he turned around, the back of his shirt revealed it to be a Red Sox "Pedroia" jersey. No wonder Boston has so many alcoholics.
* When Justin Ruggiano was called out on strikes by umpire Mark Lollo to end the seventh inning, he spread his arms out wide like a man trying to measure a very large number, with decimals, then turned slowly to Lollo and said, rather existentially, "What?"
* Some thoughts about bats in general. This was the fourth game in the last five in which a player swung and missed at a pitch and lost his grip on the bat---sending it helicoptering into the stands. Today, the Bulls' Jon Weber was the launcher for the second time during the homestand. What's going on? And also: I'm just an aging book critic, but it seems to me that many, many more bats are broken nowadays than ever before. And when they break, murderous lanciform projectiles are launched. This change is probably the result of the introduction of maple bats (ash had long been the only wood used) and the well-known danger they present. There have already been injuries to coaches, umpires and fans, and it's only a matter of time before someone is killed. I know baseball is the national pastime, and pastimes are perhaps admirably slow to change (steroids, anyone?), but the maple bat problem needs to be swiftly solved before tragedy strikes.
* Speaking of impressive things you can do with a bat, if you hit a ball over the Hit-Bull-Win-Steak/Hit-Grass-Win-Salad Bull atop the Blue Monster---which has happened twice in the last two days---shouldn't you win a steak and a salad?
* Bulls on the Move: Chris Mason was called up from Montgomery a few days ago to replace the injured Dewon Day, but apparently he was actually promoted, in retrospect, to make a spot start for Mitch Talbot, who has gone on the disabled list with a shoulder problem. Having done the job he was not exactly called upon to do, Mason was sent back to Montgomery, and James Cromer was recalled. Cromer began the year with Durham and made two starts before he was Bisquicked (tm). The tall, 28-year-old lefty has spent most of his professional career in the (Devil) Rays' organization, and he is still trying to put it all together.
* Chris Richard came off the DL yesterday. He's 1-9 with a (broken-bat) single since his return---still finding his stroke, to be sure.
* Carlos Hernandez, coming off of two consecutive excellent starts, is on the mound for the Bulls tomorrow night at the DBAP. The preferred salt-, fat- and sugar-delivery foods are only $1 a pop on Thursdays, so go get on the elliptical after work and then come on over. You've only got two games left in the season's only home matchup of true farm teams: Bulls and Hens.