Lehigh Valley is IronPigs, but Bulls have pig 'pen

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DBAP/ DURHAM---You'll often hear baseball folks talk about "getting into the other team's bullpen." The sooner you can drive the opponent's starter from the game, the better your chances of putting up crooked numbers against the relievers: as is often noted, relievers are usually relievers because they aren't good and/or durable enough to be starters. Even great, converted-in-late-career closers like Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz would, I'm sure, rather have spent their whole tenures starting games; they moved to the bullpen out of necessity, i.e. to keep their arms from falling off.

The Bulls made it easy for Lehigh Valley to get into their bullpen in Monday night's 8-5 loss (which wasn't as close as the score suggests): Durham starter Carlos Hernandez had to sit out with back spasms, and so the relief corps was in it from the first pitch to the last. For most of the night, it wasn't pretty.

It was a heavy, lugubrious night at the DBAP. The air was practically groaning with moisture until an oppressive drizzle began in the third inning. The rain fell harder in the fifth for a while before finally tapering off and ceasing, but the whole night felt sluggish and soggy.

As if taking their cue from the weather, a trio of Durham relievers threw sluggishly and soggily for the first seven innings of the game. Charlie Montoyo was quite unhappy with his bullpen's performance: "We spent too much time on the field," he said of his position players. "We threw too many pitches" (181, to be exact). "I was surprised our offense came back to make it 8-5," Montoyo added, reminding me that part of the argument in favor of the existence of momentum in baseball has to do with the sheer amount of boredom fielders have to overcome when they're trying to stay alert during long, sloppy innings; there were seven of those on Monday in a game that lasted over three hours.

Julio DePaula (0-3) needed 65 pitches to throw the first 2 2/3 innings of the evening. He set the tone with the second batter of the game, Jason Ellison, who patiently fouled off pitch after pitch before grounding a double over the third base bag---the first of six two-baggers by the IronPigs. He was stranded there, but DePaula needed 27 pitches to get through the inning, walking Andy Tracy and expending nine pitches to strike out John Mayberry, Jr.

Lehigh Valley's hitters started off the second inning with three straight doubles, and all three of them scored. DePaula allowed another double in the third, and DePaula's wild pitch helped that man score, too. It was the first of a sequence in which the IronPigs scored single runs in five consecutive innings: 1 1 1 1 1. So the numbers were actually straight, not crooked, but there were a lot of them.

Newly acquired Jorge Julio threw two more wild pitches in the fourth to help plate another run, and he seemed to be at odds with catcher John Jaso. Either Jaso was crossed up on Julio's pitches or Julio was simply missing his spots badly, but Jaso stabbed fecklessly at the errant tosses and elicited at least one disapproving glare from his battery-mate. Jaso also had two passed balls of his own; he needs to improve his footwork and get behind pitches way off the plate rather than try to backhand them.

The IronPigs' 22-year-old starter, Carlos Carrasco (we could have had another Carlos-on-Carlos game had Hernandez been able to make his start!), had a bit of trouble to start the second inning; otherwise, he was excellent, complementing a lively, low-90s fastball with what appeared to be a changeup that faded expertly and kept the Bulls' hitters off balance for the rest of his outing. In one stretch, he retired 15 of 16, and it would have been 17 of 18 had second baseman J. J. Furmaniak not misplayed Rashad Eldridge's grounder into an infield hit leading off the bottom of the seventh inning. Carrasco issued his only walk of the evening two batters later, and ceded to (uh-oh) a reliever, Gary Majewski.

Guess what? Majewski allowed both of the runners he inherited from Carrasco to score, and after Henry Mateo (now batting .333!) singled, it was suddenly 8-5. Matt Joyce struck out looking to end the inning, but the Bulls were back in the game.

I've written often this year about the Bulls' resiliency (and Charlie Montoyo commented on it after the game---he's aware that he has an unusually spirited lineup this season). Unfortunately for Montoyo, that resiliency was something close to a problem on Monday night. Dewon Day, just off the disabled list, tossed a 1-2-3 eighth inning---the first of the night by a Durham pitcher. Had the score still been 8-2, Montoyo told me afterward, he would likely have asked backup catcher Craig Albernaz about pitching the ninth inning, essentially conceding the game. Albernaz would have been the third position player to pitch for Montoyo in blowouts this season.

But because the Bulls had crept to within earshot of the lead---and because they have a knack for last-ditch rallies---Montoyo felt obliged to call on Dale Thayer, his only lockdown late-inning arm now that Winston Abreu has been promoted to Tampa. Thayer threw an easy, 12-pitch, 1-2-3 ninth, but he'll probably be available for just one inning on Tuesday. That could be a problem, given that only Joe Bateman and Jason Childers didn't pitch out of the 'pen on Monday (also, DePaula and Calvin Medlock each threw 65 pitches!), and given that James Houser, Tuesday's starter, has lasted more than five innings just twice in ten starts this year. Montoyo would never say so, but it might actually have been better for the team had the Bulls not scored those three seventh-inning runs. It forced him to keep playing a losing hand.

Carlos Hernandez told me after the game that his back spasms started on Wednesday. That was an off day for the Bulls, and Hernandez was doing some running when he felt his back start to complain. ("Three hours later I couldn't even walk.") Hernandez seemed to feel almost personally responsible for Monday's loss: "I put the bullpen in that kind of situation." But he said his back was already improving, and he expects to make his next start.

The only notable drama on this gray, morose night came after the game, and it didn't involve players. Walking down the corridor after conducting my postgame interviews, I heard the Bulls' very vivacious emcee, Jatovi, having a contentious discussion with the guy who plays mascot Wool E. Bull (sorry, Virginia, no, that's not really a Bull; otherwise the field would be spangled with patties). The subject of the disagreement was Wool E.'s apparently unsatisfactory performance during the nightly "sumo" contest, and the scene had the electric, ego-versus-ego, only-in-the-theater intensity of, say, the director Elia Kazan locking horns backstage with John Garfield during the opening weekend of the Group Theater's production of Waiting for Lefty (get well soon, Carlos!) in 1943. Pretty gripping stuff. In the off-season, these two thespians should consider co-founding and helming what I propose they call the Bull Durham Theater Company. I'll totally be there: I used to be a theater critic, you know.

Kidding aside, though, this exchange was a reminder, almost poignant, of how much the people who work at the DBAP care about what they're doing. From Charlie Montoyo and his players all the way down to the mascot, everybody involved is giving just about everything they have all summer long. It's easy to laze around in the stands (or the press box) oblivious and overfed, halfheartedly cheering on the team or the between-inning interludes, without any awareness of how much labor is going toward making it so you don't have to do any yourself. Next time you're at the DBAP, take a moment to look around you. You'll be surprised and, I suspect, impressed, by how much work iyou see getting done---and by how much goodwill it's performed with.

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