Kazmir, Durham Bulls Stop Skid: We're Not Gonna Take It

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DBAP/ DURHAM---Athletes will try almost anything to stop a losing streak. Now and then, though, they need help from above. On Monday night, the Durham Bulls got it, in the form of music.

Go to the DBAP a few times and you will hear the same songs over and over. When Justin Ruggiano steps up to hit, it's the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." Jon Weber usually likes "Blinded By the Light." Ray Sadler's favorite is "Ay Bay Bay" by Hurricane Chris, and Dale Thayer enters from the bullpen to Bad Company's "Rock and Roll Fantasy" (and now has groovy '70s sideburns to go with his porn 'stache---rock and roll fantasy indeed). I can't help giggling a little every time Chris Nowak strides plateward to "Disco Inferno."

After a while, you get so accustomed to the players' specific accompaniments that when you hear something different, it's jarring. And so it was all night at the ballpark, because Matt DeMargel re-routed the flight plan in the cockpit. (My friend Heather says my metaphor is screwy and that I should be calling it Air Traffic Control; you're probably right, Heather, but I've already gone too far with it and I can't turn back now, the landing gear is down and... never mind.) DeMargel's slumpbuster of choice, with the apparent blessing of the players, was 1980s hair-band heavy metal. Motley Crue. Warrant. Poison. Twisted Sister. Quiet Riot. Except when Justin Ruggiano came up to hit. He had requested "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club, which I suppose in its own way was a hair band, too.

Guess what? It worked! The Bulls won, 3-1.

It also helped that the Bulls had some rehabbing pitcher on the mound named Scott Kazmir.

I almost titled this post, "The Circus Comes to Town." Not only was Kazmir making a rehab start on his way back up to Tampa, but his counterpart for the Pawtucket Red Sox was Clay Buchholz, the International League's best pitcher (and leading All-Star vote-getter), who is also trying to work his way back to the majors. Buchholz threw a no-hitter in just his second big-league start, back in 2007, but struggled early in 2008 and was sent back to the minors.

With these two luminaries on the mound last night, the press box was as full as it's been all year; some of the veteran sportswriters said they couldn't remember another night, ever, with so many of us crammed into the room.

Meanwhile, 8,666 fans packed the stands, breaking the second attendance record of the week at the DBAP: Not only was the single-game record smashed on Friday, but with Monday's crowd, the Bulls drew 40,339 for the four-game series, setting a new mark. The team owes a hat-tip to the loyal contingent of Triangle-based Red Sox fans, who came out in big numbers to support their franchise, dotting the left-field side of the stands with BoSox red.

And so it was all set up: big crowd, last game of the homestand, marquee pitching matchup, Bulls desperate for a win to salvage a disastrous week. (That was another record: most consecutive home losses at the DBAP.)

But the matchup fell off the marquee. Well, half of it did. Kazmir held up his end, hurling six excellent innings and allowing just one run (more on that below). But the 24-year-old Buchholz, who looks about 17, struggled. Home plate umpire Brian Reilly's strike zone was small, and Buchholz threw a number of pitches early that were a little off the plate and were called balls. He seemed mildly frustrated, first with Reilly and then with himself as he got into deep counts, walking five Bulls in just 3 2/3 innings as if he had caught Bulls' Balls, the local pitching disease. Buchholz threw first-pitch strikes to just six of 19 batters. His fastball kept sailing out of the zone, and his 79-ish mph changeup---at least, I think that's what it was---looked mushy and lacked fade. He threw it often anyway, mixing in some curveballs here and there; he made Matt Joyce look foolish with the deuce a couple of times before blowing a heater past him for strike three in the third inning.

But Buchholz couldn't maintain any consistency with his control. He ran up to 82 pitches (only 43 strikes) in his short stint, although it was a throwing error---by another young Red Sox blue-chip, Jed Lowrie, on a rehab assignment with Pawtucket---that cost Buchholz the run that lost the game for him. Attempting to turn a 4-6-3 double play in the fourth, with the score tied 1-1, Lowrie launched his relay throw into the Bulls' dugout to plate Jon Weber, who had led off with (of course) a walk.

Kazmir, on the other hand, was quite sharp, showing command of all three of his pitches. He threw 79 all told, 55 for strikes, and produced 11 swings-and-misses. The only run he allowed came on a soft, opposite-field single dumped into right by Angel Chavez. Kazmir's fastball had very good life and sat right around 90-91; his slider dove hard and sharply down toward the back foot of right-handers ("I was able to get a little bit more depth on it," he said); and his changeup had superb fade. When he was hit---he allowed a few drives---it was on fastballs that he left up in the zone (he also sailed a pair of them to the backstop).

Kazmir benefited as well from two other supports: one, the PawSox' ineffectiveness against lefties (like everyone else, really); and two, a pair of strong outfield throws that nailed runners trying to stretch singles into doubles. This was a game in which the Bulls' familiarity with their park, and their opponents' unfamiliarity, made a difference. Jeff Bailey rapped a pair of grounders past Ray Olmedo at third base. The first, leading off the game, went for a double. (Lowrie followed with a flyout to center field.) The second, leading off the third, was played calmly and expertly by Jon Weber, who got a nice kick off of the bullpen railing and threw Bailey out at second. (Lowrie, oddly, flied out to center again.) In the fifth, Gil Velazquez boomed one off of the Blue Monster way out in left-center field about 380 feet away from home plate, and Justin Ruggiano quickly fielded the carom, turned and gunned down Velazquez at second.

As it happened, Ruggiano was listed as the designated hitter on Monday night, but just before gametime a change was announced: Ruggiano would swap with Ray Sadler, who had been scheduled to play center field. I asked Sadler about it after the game. Was he hurt in some way that made him able to hit but not run around the outfield? Nope. Ruggiano had simply asked him to switch; apparently Ruggiano has trouble staying warm when he has to DH. As Sadler pointed out, smiling, the swap worked out famously for everyone. Ruggiano saved a double (and hit one of his own), and Sadler went 2-3 with a double and a walk.

After his outing, Kazmir was upbeat and honest in the clubhouse. He said he feels good physically, although he mentioned that he's got a little more arm strength yet to build (I would think he could still add a little velocity to his fastball). "It's getting more and more comfortable," he said of his rehab work generally. "I feel like I can contribute in the big leagues right now." But "whatever [the Rays] do, I'm behind it."

We journalists waited for a few minutes in the clubhouse corridor before we could interview Kazmir during the bottom of the seventh inning, and we heard the muted roar of the crowd when John Jaso homered to add a run to the Bulls' lead. That run felt very important through the last two innings, as it gave reliever Jason Cromer (who would have started the game had Kazmir not displaced him) a two-run cushion. And although he threw 2 1/3 reasonably effective innings, he walked two batters. When he followed his one-out walk in the ninth by allowing a soft single to right, Charlie Montoyo had seen enough. He called on Dale Thayer for a two-out save, and even that was delayed by an agonizingly slow ground ball that the Bulls couldn't quite turn into a double play.

After the game, Montoyo started his comments by saying, "I was trying to think what I was gonna say to you guys if we lost; I was running out of things to say." That elicited sprays of laughter from all of us---including some from Montoyo, who looked relieved. And although he was indeed relieved to win, finally---he told us he really wanted to get it and snap the losing streak before the Bulls hit the road again for three games in Toledo---Montoyo is not a relieved man these days; he hasn't been for over a year and a half, and it has nothing to do with baseball.

Montoyo doesn't talk about it, but his young son, Alex, has a rare and potentially fatal heart condition called Ebstein's anomaly (you can read a well-written and very sobering article about the Montoyos' struggle with it here). The 20-month-old boy is scheduled for his third heart surgery in about ten days. The anxiety and fear visiting the Montoyo family must be colossal. So are the bills, and although the they have received help from many corners, Charlie is the rare baseball manager whose success is more crucial than its mere impact on the standings: his child's survival depends on Charlie keeping his job.

Montoyo will leave the team after the series in Toledo, fly to his family in Arizona, and then travel to Los Angeles for Alex's surgery. He will miss some games, although there is a three-day break from June 26-28. His return depends on Alex's recovery time. Pitching coach Xavier Hernandez and hitting coach Dave Myers will fill in for Montoyo while he's away.

I've said this before, but it's worth repeating that Charlie Montoyo is one of the good guys in the world of sports, which has more than its fair share of bad seeds. I look forward to talking to him after each game, even after losses during an eight-game slide; Montoyo always finds a way to lighten the mood while always being candid and forthcoming. He is intelligent and prepared, yet affable and unassuming. He has, simply by his natural demeanor, helped ease this rookie sportswriter into his first couple of months on the job. That he has maintained his poise and goodwill during not only a long losing streak but also a time of immense emotional stress---all the while separated, on top of it all, from his family---is remarkable. We at Triangle Offense---and I personally---wish the Montoyos all the health and happiness in the world.

Not only do I enjoy postgame interviews with Montoyo, I enjoy everything about my job covering the Bulls. Through a fluke of the league schedule, however, the team has only five home games between now and July 24; and through a fluke of my schedule, I have to miss all of them. That means I won't be able to see another game at the DBAP for over a month, and I'm not happy about it. I'll get over it, though, and readers should know that Triangle Offense will be at all the games. In fact, my colleague Mike Potter, who knows the Bulls far better than I ever will, will be stepping in for me from July 7-9, when the Bulls host Gwinnett---you'll be getting a real sportswriter's write-ups instead of my desultory ramblings, thank God. And we will certainly find someone to do the honors on July 2-3. Meanwhile, I'll keep you posted on away games as best as I can, and I'll be counting down the days until late July. I hope they go by fast!

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