by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---A long time ago, I studied playwriting. I had a brilliant professor who used to say that the first 20 minutes of a play were "free": the audience would allow almost anything in those first 20 minutes, as long as whatever you gave them in that extended introduction wound up getting "paid back" to them later on; you were sowing seeds that would ripen as the play progressed. Starcrossed lovers, you say? Better do 'em in by the end of the play.
In other words, those 20 minutes weren't really free. You were essentially laying the groundwork for whatever was to come, and as a consequence, the first 20 minutes were the most important part of the script.
My professor was talking about a two-hour play, but baseball games---or at least, Durham Bulls baseball games---last about three hours. So we're really talking about the first half hour of a game. And it was in the first 30 minutes of last night's disheartening 4-3 loss to the last-place Charlotte Knights that the Bulls constructed the dramaturgy for how they would lose.
The Bulls' "starter" last night was Jeff Bennett, a pitcher who is mostly a reliever but who was pressed into frontline duty by Carlos Hernandez, who is basically a sitting (read: injured) duck and isn't likely to start another game this season. Bennett threw 20 of his first 22 pitches for strikes on Friday---an absurdly awesome ratio---16 of his next 29 for balls (a terrible ratio), and then 11 of his last 14 for strikes again. All in all, he allowed two runs on four hits and two walks in four innings, which meant he averaged out to a perfectly OK spot-starter. Still, the weird loss of control in the second and third innings was, well, weird, and it was nearly forgotten when he and two other relievers issued no walks at all for five innings, from the third through the seventh. Bennett wasn't around after the game, but I suspect he was having trouble with his release point, and that prompted the wildness that plagued him midway through his start.
Meanwhile, the Bulls' hitters [ed. note: maybe tonight dele the space between?] had terrible performance anxiety with runners in scoring position last night. To cut to the chase: 12 left on, 2-16 with RISP. That is really, really dreadful. The Bulls had 18 baserunners---nine walks (again! nine!), a hit batter, and eight hits---but scored only three runs. To make such fecklessness possible, they botched a sacrifice bunt, got thrown out at home, grounded into two double plays (both by Jon Weber, who apparently got "doubles" confused with "double plays") and probably turned an inside-the-park home run into a triple. It is actually rather hard to score only three runs when you have 18 baserunners. But Durham did it.
Even when the Bulls scored runs late, and took a 3-2 lead going into the eighth inning, they did so by the most ineffectual means imaginable. With runners on the corners and one out in the sixth inning, Desmond Jennings beat out a double-play grounder to plate the tying run via forceout. An inning later, Joe Dillon did the same thing. It was nice, I suppose, that the Bulls scratched for those runs; but after loading the bases with no outs in the first and failing to score (again!); after Matt Joyce was held at third, with none out, on a second-inning triple that would probably have been the aforementioned inside-the-park homer had Charlie Montoyo not played the percentages and flashed the brake sign, and then was stranded there by three straight batters; after Akinori Iwamura was thrown out at home trying to score from second on Joyce's third-inning single (only a second baseman rehabbing an injured knee would fail to score on this play); after a pair of forceouts where hits should have gone; in short, only after unthinkable, incessant, Charlie-Brown-like futility---only after all that, did the Bulls still find themselves somehow clinging to a 3-2 lead going into the eighth inning.
Jason Childers is a durable reliever. You can run him out there every other day and he'll perform. He never gets hurt, he throws strikes, and he's intelligent on the mound. Problem: he has underwhelming stuff, and he knows it. His fastball tops out at about 87 mph, and his breaking pitches sit between 73-84 mph. He "knows how to pitch," as they say, but if he doesn't have great feel on a given night, he has no room for error: he can't blow anything past anyone, and his mistakes will get pounded.
And last night he had very little feel. He relieved Julio DePaula with a man on second and one out in the seventh. It took him seven pitches to strike out Miguel Negron on a disputed call, and six more to get Keith Ginter to pop out to shortstop. He couldn't throw his fastball for strikes, and he got through the seventh on guile alone---against the team he played for last season, no less, full of hitters who knew what Childers was throwing.
And in the eighth, Childers did that thing that pitchers are really, really not supposed to do: he walked the leadoff man, Josh Kroeger, on five pitches, the last of which, his fourth straight mid-80s fastball, was pretty close to being a strike (you could see Childers ask the umpire, "Outside?"). Suddenly, Jeff Bennett's early wildness returned to my thoughts. Childers struck out Mike Restovich, but he fell behind Josh Fields 2-0 with two more fastballs, and then he hung a changeup. A mistake.
Pow. Fields destroyed it for a two-run homer. 4-3 Knights.
Childers noted that Fields was his third baseman last year, when Childers was a Charlotte Knight. Fields may have been looking for that pitch. Still, it was a bad one. A meatball. A grapefruit. "I babied it in there," Childers said.
Montoyo: "When you're playing close games, you cannot walk the leadoff guy. Most of the time that run's gonna score. We all felt the same way when [Childers] walked that guy."
You want to know something interesting? The Knights walked the Bulls' leadoff guy in four of the game's nine innings. One of them scored. That's 25 percent. The actual average--it isn't "most of time," as Montoyo said—is about 40 percent. Did I mention that the Bulls were walked nine times last night, for the second straight night? Plus had a hit batter? Plus eight hits? And that they had 18 baserunners but scored just three runs? Batted .125 with RISP? Sure, leadoff walks are dangerous, but the Knights hit leadoff doubles in four of their innings last night. Guess how many scored? One. Guess how many of those "should" have scored, according to the percentages? At least two, maybe three (the average is about 64 percent). It's not as if Charlotte tore it up with men on base: they were 3-16 with RISP and left eight men on. Both teams struggled. The Bulls struggled worse.
I suppose you could piece together an argument that says that a leadoff walk puts a man on base without making the other team get a hit, and that therefore they remain just as likely to get a hit in the inning with house-money chips already on the table, and thus it's likelier that they'll do damage; but the only reason this particular leadoff walk (rather than all those leadoff doubles) killed Childers and the Bulls was that the game's poetics set that tragedy in motion.
"He who is doomed to hang shall never drown," goes the old saying. Those early failures to score easy runs, and Bennett's second-inning bout of wildness, were the fatal flaws engraved into the tablature not only of the game but of the Bulls' entire season. That's how this team loses, when it loses. The Bulls have struggled to get hits with men in scoring position all year, and they lead the league in walks allowed.
And after Charlotte took the lead on Fields's homer, the Bulls kept on putting men on base and not scoring. They advanced a runner to second with one out in the eighth and left him there. Down to their final strike in the ninth, they got a last gasp on yet another walk, and Joe Dillon struck out to end the game against right-hander Jon Link while lefty slugger Chris Richard, who leads the team in home runs, sat in the dugout with a sore wrist (he missed his second straight game). To pin the loss on Childers---who was, in all fairness, a big culprit---would be like blaming Romeo and Juliet on Friar Laurence: he's just the guy who gave them the poison; they were dead long before that, way back before they even met. Had the Bulls gotten men home from third with none out in each of the first two innings, they'd have won 5-4 and Fields's home run off of Childers would have been an offstage blunder. Instead, it sent the scenery crashing down.
Montoyo had Dale Thayer warming and ready in the bullpen before Fields hit his game-winning homer. He could have brought Thayer in then, but he likes to let his players work through their own difficulties, even if it means losing: that's the development part of his job. Thayer came in to start the ninth inning instead, just trying to keep the deficit at one run, and promptly gave up a double and a single. He pitched out of the jam he created, but "we're not automatic anymore," Montoyo noted of his bullpen. About two weeks ago, right after Winston Abreu rejoined the Bulls, I wrote that the Bulls had the best bullpen in the league. You know what the bullpen's ERA is since then? 4.94. That would be last in the league if it were the whole staff's ERA. So maybe not the best bullpen. That's why you play the games, as the cliche goes.
By manufacturing this loss right from the get-go---by loading the bases with no outs in the first inning and failing to score; by shying away from an inside-the-park home run, settling for a triple and then leaving the man on third; by getting their 40 millionth walk in the ninth inning and failing yet again to score; by walking opposing hitters when they could least afford it; and by everything they did and didn't do in between---by finding old-reliable ways to lose---the Bulls have now split or lost five straight series. They're 9-11 over their last 20 games. They're lucky that Gwinnett has finally started coming back down to earth and that Syracuse, which trails Durham in the wild-card race by 1.5 games and hosts the Bulls for four games starting today, hasn't caught fire either. They're lucky that Norfolk is kind of sitting there doing not very much, just like the Bulls are sitting (Bulls) doing not very much.
The regular season has 17 games left to play. If the Bulls keep playing at their current pace---i.e. if they go 8-9---they probably won't get to play any longer after that.
And I'll say this, too: the Durham Bulls are better than this. They may not play like it from here on out; they may, in fact, go 8-9 through the end of the year; it happens to good teams all the time; but on a man-by-man basis they're better than this. Are they going to man up and show it? We're about to find out. Way back in Act One---I mean in April of course---the Bulls struggled to score with men in scoring position but had a lock-down bullpen. The groundwork was laid then for whatever Act Five was forthcoming.
It's Act Five. What heroics does this team have in it to validate all it's done for 127 games? Will they let themselves fall short of their curtain call, or will they reach down for one last bravura stretch?
Stay tuned. Bulls at Syracuse for four games starting tonight.