Bulls Swept: Wayward Sons

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DBAP/ DURHAM---After the Lehigh Valley IronPigs completed a four-game sweep of the Bulls last night---Durham's fifth straight loss---the postgame musical selection was Kansas' "Carry on Wayward Son." The Bulls' Director of Media Relations, Matt DeMargel, assured me that the song was played at random, offering as evidence a computer touch screen of choices available to the sound guy following a loss (e.g. "That's Life"). No "Wayward Son" was on it.

Still, it was an appropriate song to play after a glum 6-2 loss (perhaps our machines are smarter than we are, after all). The Bulls looked lost, incapable, tired: Wayward. They were charged with two errors (one controversial) but misplayed at least three other balls that cost them runs. They walked six batters. They grounded into three double plays and went 2-12 with runners in scoring position. They put the leadoff man on in six of the first seven innings but scored just one run in that stretch. And they made yet another senseless baserunning gaffe.

Remarkably, though, in the first inning it looked for all the world like the Bulls' losing streak was going to be over.

Durham starter Matt DeSalvo walked the first batter he faced, Rich Thompson, on four pitches to start the game. Jason Ellison then hit a grounder to second base, probably a little too slowly to turn a double play. Ray Olmedo wasn't quite sure, though, and he hesitated before deciding to try for the twin killing anyway. That hesitation probably contributed to his poor throw to second, which Reid Brignac couldn't handle. Two on, no one out.

But DeSalvo got Mike Cervenak to hit another grounder to Olmedo---a second-chance, a corrective---and this time Olmedo made good, starting a 4-6-3 double play. DeSalvo struck out the dangerous cleanup hitter Andy Tracy to end the inning.

In the bottom of the first, Olmedo---as if riposting---hit a grounder into the shortstop hole. Miguel Cairo didn't play it well, but Olmedo would have beaten it out and he was credited with an infield single. With Brignac batting, Olmedo broke for second base, and stole it on a very close play, just his second theft of the season in eight tries. Brignac flied out to center, but his fellow Tampa-returnee Matt Joyce singled sharply through the right side. At first, Charlie Montoyo waved Olmedo around third, but then changed his mind as Olmedo was rounding the bag and gaining speed, throwing up his arms in the hold-up position.

Just like the game before, I thought, when Rashad Eldridge and Olmedo both missed Montoyo's hold sign and got into a rally-killing pickle. When it rains, it pours.

Except that Olmedo looked up just in time to put on the brakes as right fielder Thompson's throw went to home plate. First and third now, still one out.

Justin Ruggiano struck out looking at a couple of pitches he didn't think were strikes, and that brought up Jon Weber, hitting fifth for the second straight day (he usually leads off; sometimes he bats ninth if there's a lefty on the mound for the opponent). Two games ago, Weber came up with two on and the Bulls down two, and he tried to slap the ball into left field---but Cervenak made a diving stop at third base to end the inning, and the IronPigs went on to rout the Bulls.

Last night, though, Weber served the ball up over third base and into left field for a run-scoring single. It was 1-0 Bulls. Amazingly, it was the team's first lead in over 38 innings.

Ray Sadler struck out to end the inning, but you got the feeling that fortunes were changing in Durham. The Bulls had just redeemed some second chances that they'd muffed the first time---it was almost eerie how many do-overs the first inning seemed to provide them---and they finally had a lead. The sun was coming out after four straight days of sullen rain and clouds and low, gray, heavy skies; the inklings of a lovely, mottled sunset were beginning to form. The biggest crowd of the week was on hand, happily chomping down $1 concessions. The ballpark had even enjoyed one of its better iterations of the "Star-Spangled Banner." And when DeSalvo set down the IronPigs in order in the top of the second on just 10 pitches, it seemed almost certain that the losing streak was over.

But some kind of iron law (IronPig?) got its cold, hard grip on the Bulls again. Former Bull Paul Hoover (he played for Durham in five different seasons) led off the fifth inning with a 17-hopper that sneaked through the shortstop hole for a single. J. J. Furmaniak followed with a roller down the third-base line that Chris Nowak tried to barehand---I'm not sure he didn't have time to glove the ball and control it before throwing to first---and dropped: infield hit. Michael Spidale hit another ball to Nowak, and it should have been an easy double play. But Nowak bobbled it. He threw out Furmaniak at second base, but there were runners on the corners now with one out. Rich Thompson hit another bleeder, and this one found its way through the right side for an RBI single. After DeSalvo walked Jason Ellison on four pitches, Cervenak hit a sacrifice fly to give Lehigh Valley a lead it would never relinquish. Two innings later, reliever Dewon Day sealed it by allowing the two runners he inherited from DeSalvo to score, and then gave up two more of his own in the eighth. And even though Jorge Julio pitched a scoreless ninth, the IronPigs put two men on without hitting a ball more than 80 feet: everything went their way.

And by the late innings, the Bulls were overswinging while simultaneously underachieving. Brignac led off the bottom of the eighth by lifting Lehigh reliever Josh Anderson's first pitch into left field for a harmless fly out. Brignac carried his bat most of the way down to first base with him before slamming it down in disgust. Matt Joyce batted next, and after getting ahead 2-1 on Anderson, he popped out to shallow right on a pitch he might have driven to the gap with a more level, less impatient swing. Even when the Bulls managed to scrape together a ninth-inning run, John Jaso's well struck ball down the first-base line turned into an RBI groundout rather than the rally-fueling double it seemed destined to become, thanks to a fine play by Andy Tracy.

On the way down to what was, unsurprisingly, a quiet (but disquieted) clubhouse---Dale Thayer was sitting outside in the corridor, murmuring cheerlessly into his cell phone---I was thinking that Thursday's game was the first time during this slump (yes, it's officially a slump; even Montoyo said so afterward) that Bulls looked flat and dismal on the field. Each of the first three losses to Lehigh Valley was marked by smaller victories: good pitching here, tenacious rallies there, some slick glovework. But last night, even the hustle plays and line drives were negated by poor at-bats, worse luck, and lapses in judgment and concentration. The Bulls looked listless and fatigued and snakebit. Worst of all, they looked like they weren't having any fun playing baseball.

Nevertheless, once I reached the bowels of the DBAP I tried to throw Montoyo a rope for his postgame interview, starting him off with "your guys still put something together in the ninth inning." Montoyo wasn't having any of it: "You know, I'm trying to defend my club a lot of the time, but there comes a time when you go, 'Okay man, come on now.'" And he then proceeded to pick apart the Bulls' mistakes and failures like the piece of chicken he was joylessly eating for dinner. Montoyo is a gracious and optimistic man, but even his sportsmanlike acknowledgment that Lehigh Valley outplayed Durham in this series was undercut by his insistence that his team gave away outs, at-bats and bases.

I asked him if he thought his team was pressing, and he answered no, teams only press when you start throwing things around and yelling---but I couldn't help wondering whether Montoyo might entertain the fleeting thought of throwing a good old-fashioned tantrum, a la "Lollygaggers!". But then the better angels of his nature would take over, and he'd choose a more positive way to motivate his men.

What does he need them to do? He needs them to start having fun, most of all. It seemed no coincidence that the Bulls were at their gloomiest in a game that Henry Mateo sat out after tweaking his hamstring the day before. Mateo brings irrepressible elan and brio to the field---and, it should be added, a .360 batting average---and he has quickly made himself indispensable to Montoyo's team as a lifter of spirits and a jolt of positive energy: he's like a walking gel shot (jell-O shot?). Montoyo talked about hitting, or lack thereof, being contagious (so there is momentum?); joy is contagious, too, of course, and Mateo could probably spread some around---along with, perhaps, a little of the mojo that he soaks his bats in. I know hamstring tightness isn't something to trifle with, but as soon as Mateo says the word, I bet he'll be back out at second base. As the great Roy Campanella famously said, "You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too."

"Tomorrow's a new day" was the only chunk of bland institutional managerspeak Montoyo indulged in during his surprisingly candid, pointed remarks. Given the postgame theme song, though, let me suggest "Dust in the Wind" as a more appropriate philosophical cliche. (And here's another, after a somewhat charmed start to the season: The Bulls aren't in Kansas anymore.) "Hopefully we'll get hot pretty soon," he added, and then cracked, a little mordantly: "Just like the weather."

Wade Davis, a Floridian who ought to be comfortable in the heat, starts Friday for Durham. Good riddance, IronPigs---and by the way, before you go, not only is IronPigs an incomprehensibly stupid, ugly name for a baseball team, and not only has your cockamamie, compromised nomenclature forced me to type "Lehigh Valley" dozens of times instead of the much more economical "Allentown"---which is where your team actually plays, after all---but I'm also assigning the blame to you that as a result of this frustration I have not only had sorer fingers but also Billy Joel's song "Allentown" stuck in my head all week. That's an E-LHV on a pop foul, if you're scoring at home.

And a message for the Bulls: Carry on, my wayward sons. Now bring on the PawSox.

***

A more serious addendum/correction: When I got to the Press Box on Thursday evening, I found Bulls' broadcaster Neil Solondz standing by the water cooler, and he and I briefly discussed the Bulls' 4-0 loss of the night before. As we did, I remembered, with Neil's help, that I had made an error in my report of the game. It wasn't Ray Olmedo but first baseman Rhyne Hughes who made the late throw to the plate on the play that gave Lehigh Valley the go-ahead run in the 11th inning. I had speculated that Henry Mateo, who had started at second base before his hamstring pull required Olmedo to take over, might have made that play---and as a consequence, I wound up discrediting Olmedo's skills with false testimony.

As it happened, the player who actually did make the late throw, Hughes, was also covering for a hamstring-hurting player: Chris Richard. Hughes is considered a good fielder at his position, but Richard is superb and almost surely better, if by no other measure than his extra years of experience; and so the theoretical core of my argument remained intact: the regular player at the position might have prevented the run from scoring. But that was just a grace note of luck in my favor. The fact is that I made a mistake.

I bring this up because in my game commentary I hold the Bulls' players to very high standards---often to major-league standards---and I am not shy about calling them out when they fall short. In my attempts to entertain my readers, I can be flip or caustic sometimes, and I occasionally forget that every player on the team is a human being who is going to err now and then (and feel bad about it). Also, it's important to keep in mind that, for every mistake a Bull makes, he does hundreds of things correctly, things we don't even notice. Unfortunately, guys like me---that is, sportswriters---tend to zero in on the few flubs, especially during losing streaks. Nonetheless, I'm sure the Bulls would rather be held to the highest standards rather than get passing grades for inferior work. They're trying to do their jobs as well as the best in the business do theirs. And so am I.

All of that is to say that a) I apologize for the mistake and b) if you see me make another one, please let me know.

And thanks, so much, for reading. See you at the DBAP.

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