Mud Hens Douse Bulls, but Don't Blame It on the Rain

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DBAP/ DURHAM---They'll never say so, because of the codes of sportsmanliness that dictate their opinions, but ballplayers hate hate hate playing in the rain. The ball is wet and can't be gripped properly; mud cakes into your cleats and your shoes get heavy and you can't gain traction. The resin bag gets soaked through, so it's useless. Droplets run off the visor of your helmet and you can't see the pitch coming at you. Your batting gloves get wet and you can't grasp the lumber properly. Grounders skitter off the infield grass and cause misplays in the field. Also, you're soaking wet.

After the Bulls lost to Toledo, 4-3, I asked two Bulls whether the rain favors the pitcher or the hitter. Guess what? The pitcher I talked to, Jason Childers, said it favored the hitter, and he gave me persuasive arguments to back up his position. Guess what else? The hitter, Chris Nowak, offered airtight reasoning that convinced me that it's harder for hitters. The Bulls' manager, Charlie Montoyo, after allowing that "it was a brutal day to play," took the middle, politic position: "They had to play on the same field that we did."

So they did, and tonight the Mud Hens made fewer mistakes on it.

For the first six innings of the game, the two pitchers didn't seem to be having any trouble at all with the rain. Both starters, Toledo's Lucas French and the Bulls' Carlos Hernandez---who has gone from April showers to May and June flowers (his 3.30 ERA is best on the starting staff)---took no-hitters into the fifth inning. Between them, they struck out 17 hitters in 13 1/3 innings. The two lefties showed similar stuff, throwing upper-80s fastballs in and out, and keeping hitters off-balance with excellent breaking pitches. Hernandez's changeup was especially strong tonight, fading beautifully. He produced a dozen swings and misses in his 106 pitches (66 strikes). That isn't power-pitcher bat-missing, but for Hernandez it's a lot.

But both starters were left in the game one batter too long by their respective managers. With two outs in the top of the seventh, Jeff Frazier lined Hernandez's 2-2 pitch into center field to score the game's first run. He was replaced by Julio DePaula, who stanched further bleeding. In the bottom of the inning, French had men on first and second with two outs. He got John Jaso to hit a soft, one-hop liner up the middle. Shortstop Brent Dlugach had a fairly easy play on it, but it squirted out of his hands an into center field for an error, and Ray Olmedo scampered home to tie the game. Was Dlugach's miscue rain-induced? It's easy to think so.

French was replaced by Fu-Te Ni---a rare Chinese pitcher; when there's a conference on the mound, the Mud Hens' pitching coach is accompanied by a Mary Lou Retton-sized translator. Ni walked Brandon Chaves, and then Jon Weber delivered another clutch hit, lining a two-run single to right to give the Bulls a 3-1 lead.

Game over.

Check that.

In the top of the eighth, DePaula, who seemed to have trouble gripping the ball---a couple of his pitches sailed high and inside to righties---allowed a double and a walk. The normally reliable Dale Thayer came on. He loaded the bases with another walk, and then got Dlugach to hit a grounder to Ray Olmedo at third base. Olmedo bobbled it briefly, scotching his chance at a 5-4-3 double play, which would have ended the inning, and took the out at first base. A run scored. 3-2 Bulls. The next batter, Brent Clevlen, smacked a 2-1 fastball from Thayer up the middle for a two-run single. 4-3, Toledo. Olmedo grounded into an inning-ending double play in the bottom of the eighth, quelling the last threat the Bulls mounted.

It was Thayer's first blown save of the season. I didn't get to talk to him after the game; he was quietly absorbed in his laptop on the clubhouse couch, and I didn't want to bother him. Also, I doubt he was in the mood to talk.

But there was yet another goat for the Bulls last night, and he couldn't blame his caper on the rain. In the bottom of the seventh, Chris Richard, who still looks out of rhythm at the plate since returning from his hamstring injury (Ray Sadler hinted that Richard isn't entirely better yet), led off with a walk. Remember, it was still 1-0 Toledo at this point. Matt Hall came in to pinch run for Richard. Chris Nowak offered to bunt at French's first pitch and missed it. I swear that Toledo catcher Dusty Ryan stood up, actually took a moment to look down to first, pausing as if he couldn't believe how far off the bag Hall had strayed---and then threw him out trying to dive back. Had Hall avoided this awful blunder, he would have scored on Dlugach's subsequent fielding error, the score would have been 4-4 after 7 1/2 innings, and we might still be playing baseball in the rain. (On second thought...)

Getting picked off as a pinch runner is pretty much completely inexcusable, but perhaps Hall just wanted to make sure that someone took care of making Durham's stupid baserunning mistake of the night (it's getting kind of ridiculous). Conscientiously, as if to guarantee that no one else would feel obliged to do something dumb out there, Hall made another bad move during the following inning. He led off the bottom of the eighth with a walk. Nowak looped a ball to shallow right field that was very obviously going to fall in for a hit, but Hall decided to hang around between first and second and make sure, and he only advanced to second base---he should unquestionably have been at third. Olmedo then hit into his inning-ending double play, but still. Matt. Matthew.

A few notes:

* Ray Sadler missed his second straight game since running into the bullpen railing on Tuesday while chasing (and catching) a foul ball. He told me that he had mildly hyperextended his knee and strained his hamstring a little as well. He hopes to play Friday---weather permitting, of course.

* Jason Childers is training for a second career should he get bored of baseball. In the clubhouse last night, I spotted a wooden card table with a shiny Durham Bulls decal on it, right next to Childers's locker. Moving closer, I discovered that it wasn't a decal: the logo was hand-inked with multi-colored permanent markers, and signed by Childers in a flourishing script. Pretty impressive work; I was fooled from four feet away. "I'm gonna send it to Choate," Childers told me, referring to reliever Randy Choate, who lockered next to Childers before he was promoted to Tampa about two weeks ago. Why Choate? "It's his table."

* The clubhouse mood last night reminded me again about how long the baseball season is. This was an ugly loss, unpleasant to play in, sloppy, full of mistakes, and the Bulls squandered a late lead over one of the worst teams in the league. Yet although the mood certainly wasn't jubilant, no one was tearing out his hair or punching dents in his locker. For every Paul O'Neill and Kevin Youkilis, who act like the world is coming to an end every time they strike out, there are dozens if not hundreds of Dale Thayers, calmly surfing the internet after blowing his save opportunity, and Julio DePaulas, eating a little dinner after making the mess that Thayer couldn't clean up. You can't lose your cool on one loss in a 144-game season; evenness, self-discipline, even a bit of levity are needed on soggy, disappointing nights like this one. Baseball is a game for patient, equable souls---which is why, I suppose, so many writers are fond of it. The summer is long and rain will come sometimes, but you can't blame it. You go home, hope it clears up, and do it again the next day. I had half a mind to stick around the clubhouse a little longer and talk to a few more players about the weather, but it was getting late. After a while I went out and left the clubhouse and walked back to my apartment in the rain.

There, I'm a book critic.

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