by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---I thought it was cute that second baseman Henry Mateo was penciled in at first base in this afternoon's season finale, a 4-3, 10-inning loss to Norfolk. Mateo had played there once before, on August 23, although he moved back to his natural position at second base when rehabbing Akinori Iwamura left the game early, as scheduled. It seemed like it was just for kicks that Mateo was playing there again today, like a way for Charlie Montoyo to say thanks for filling the hole for us this season. Mateo was signed out of the independent Atlantic League in May, and he came on like gangbusters, batting well over .300 for more than a month and holding down the fort at second base. He wound up at .277 and looked shakier in the field as the season progressed, but there's no question that Mateo did something for the Bulls that they badly needed: he showed up and played every day.
And so it was fun when the diminutive infielder had to leap for a tall throw from the pitcher in the sixth inning, and funner still when he ended the eighth inning by diving to grab a line drive and then polishing off an unassisted double play after the Tides' Jonathan Tucker broke too far from first base.
Turns out it's not so cute. It was Joe Dillon's day off, and Chris Richard, the guy who you would call the Durham Bulls' first baseman if someone asked you who played that position, was called up to Tampa. In the afternoon opener of a day/night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, Rays' first baseman Carlos Pena had two fingers broken when he was hit by a pitch from C. C. Sabathia. Richard (pictured, top) was headed to the airport shortly afterward---and by shortly, I mean, like, minutes, and he may get into Game Two tonight in the Bronx if he can get there on time. Maybe the NYPD will clear a lane of the Triborough Bridge for him.
This is why major-league clubs employ older players like Richard: so that when there's a catastrophe upstairs, you've got a guy who can immediately fill in and isn't going to be cowed by Yankee Stadium or the fastballs A. J. Burnett throws in it. Now, Carlos Pena is leading the American League in homers, so Richard is certainly a major downgrade. But he's a well-trained left-handed hitter with good power, going to a ballpark famously generous with its right-field homers; and on top of that, Richard is an easy guy to get along with in the clubhouse. He fits right in at first base, where he is a very good defensive player.
He also hasn't played in the major leagues since 2003, and that was only 27 at-bats. So, you know, we'll see.
Richard is 35 years old, the oldest player on the Bulls' roster. Although it's a blow to lose him on the eve of the playoffs, he's a guy you feel good for when he gets a chance like this (admittedly, it's a muted positive, given that it comes as a result of a bad injury to a star player). Charlie Montoyo was so happy for Richard that he wasted no time after the game in telling us about the promotion. We asked him a question about Mitch Talbot, who was in the dugout yesterday, and Montoyo answered it in one word ("yes") before jumping to the news about Richard. "I was really happy to tell Chris Richard he was going up. That guy's been with me for three years now, and he's been one of my leaders."
And now that leader is gone.
Some brief notes follow, before I return tomorrow with more on the upcoming playoff series against Louisville.
Bulls' starter Jason Cromer was limited to 44 pitches in order to keep him rested for his upcoming start on Friday at Louisville, in what will be Game Three of the division series. Every hitter was wearing his hacking jacket, though, and Cromer's 44 pitches got him through four innings. (He said after the game that he had actually expected to go longer.)
Through four innings, the two teams had grounded into four double plays, and the game resembled yesterday's: really fast early on, slightly less fast as the game went on, over quickly despite late-inning activity. There was even the same tie-breaking solo homer by a Bull, this one by Elliot Johnson, and the same falling behind shortly thereafter thanks to poor relief pitching.
At about 9:30 this morning, I was driving on Chapel Hill Street in downtown Durham, and was surprised to see Bulls' reliever Joe Bateman walking by himself down the deserted Labor-Day sidewalk, listening to his iPod. (Should I have offered him a ride?) Ballplayers are usually still asleep at that hour, for one thing, and for another, downtown Durham was pretty much completely closed. I suppose he was walking to the ballpark, but from where?
After I watched him pitch, I decided that Bateman had earlier been preparing for what he was going to do later: walk. In the top of the eighth, he gave up three straight singles to load the bases, then let in a pair of runs with eight straight balls. His overall line: 26 pitches, only 10 strikes, and two runs, which unfortunately pushed his ERA up over 3.00 to end the season (it winds up at 3.02)---which has been, all told, a very good one for this unheralded in-season pickup. Bateman has been one of Charlie Montoyo's iron horses since joining the club a month into the season. Here's hoping he was just getting the ugly performance out of his system.
Montoyo expressed bewilderment that the fans applauded Bateman as he walked off the mound toward the dugout. I noticed it too. Why were they clapping for a guy who had just walked in the tying and go-ahead runs? "'Cause I took him out," Montoyo cracked.
Rashad Eldridge tied the game in the bottom of the eighth with his first homer of the season as a Bull. Extra innings on the last game of the season: no surprise from the heart-attack Bulls, who won 19 games this year in their final at-bat (that's nearly a quarter of their wins).
But two innings later, Joe Nelson got two outs before going homer-single-double to the Tides' 1-2-3 hitters. Still, the Bulls had to make it interesting. Down 4-2 in the bottom of the tenth, Rashad Eldridge delivered again, singling home John Jaso after Jaso's second double of the game. That brought up Sean Rodriguez, who needed only two RBIs for his 100th of the season. It's hard to get 100 RBIs in a minor-league season, because A) it's shorter than a big-league campaign and B) if you keep driving in runs like that, you usually get called up.
Even Charlie Montoyo was trying to get into Rodriguez's century-act, telling Eldridge not to try to steal second base: either Rodriguez would win the game with a homer, or the Bulls would lose. A game-tying single would have been a disaster of a sort, because Montoyo had no other pitchers he felt comfortable using: catcher Craig Albernaz, who would otherwise have come on in the 11th, was reassigned to Montgomery earlier today in order to clear a roster spot for Mitch Talbot.
Rodriguez fouled to first base, though, and that left the Bulls 83-61, tying them for the most wins in a season in team history---a great achievement for a squad that had been gyrating with personnel changes all year long, and just had yet another (major) one on the very last day. Goodbye, Chris Richard. You'll be missed. No go get 'em in Tampa.
Brief notes before I sign off until tomorrow:
* Mitch Talbot was at the ballpark and in uniform today. He will pitch at the DBAP on Thursday in Game Two versus Louisville, restricted to four innings and/or 60 pitches. Jeremy Hellickson, suddenly the staff ace and bearing a huge weight on his 22-year-old right shoulder
, starts Game One. Cromer, as I mentioned, is penned in for Game Three. And what about Game Four, we asked Charlie Montoyo? He only smiled: no answer. When it was suggested to him that it could be Rayner Oliveros, who looked serviceable in his start on Sunday, Montoyo merely conceded that Oliveros was a candidate. I mentioned Paul Phillips, who looked good in five innings a spot starter yesterday, but Montoyo would only acknowledge Phillips's utility and ductility; he'll probably be used in the middle innings.
It's fun to keep on hoping that Wade Davis will return to the Bulls for a playoff outing, but if the Rays send him down he can't be recalled for something like two weeks. Doubtful.
* Chris Richard was the middle tile in the Carlos Pena Domino Effect; the third is Chris Nowak, who was with the Bulls early this season and will now return to provide corner infield help. Actually, he will probably just play third base and DH; Montoyo was quick to say that Joe Dillon will be at first base every day, which probably accounts for why he was rested today and Mateo started there instead. Look also for Rashad Eldridge to see more playing time than was perhaps originally expected.
* The Bulls got a 12th pitcher, and guess what? He's a left-handed reliever (finally)! Mike Wlodarczyk (that's "Whoa-DAR-chick" if you're scoring at home) threw two perfect innings this afternoon, and would have earned a win in his first-ever Triple-A appearance had it not been for that meddling Joe Bateman. The soft-spoken, very polite lefty looked slightly dazed after the game. He was instructed after last night's Montgomery Biscuits' ballgame in Mobile, AL to go pack his things; he was on a 6:00 a.m. flight to RDU this morning, although he confessed that he hadn't slept much on Sunday night for all the excitement/butterflies. He threw mostly an upper-80s, four-seam fastball that had surprisingly good sink (which may, Wlodarczyk pointed out, have had a bit to do with the hard wind blowing from left to right all day today). There's also a low-80s slider and a show-me changeup. Wlodarczyk has allowed only four extra-base hits and three walks to lefty hitters in 98 plate appearances, so look for him in some situational spots.
The Bulls get a day off tomorrow, their first since August 5. The pitchers will be happy to have it, especially the overworked relievers. But Charlie Montoyo would rather play. "That's the worst thing when you're away from your family: a day off. You want to keep winning, you want to keep playing. I don't know what I'm going to do. Go to WalMart? I'm ready to go. Let's go, let's do it."
A couple of minutes later, after talking about his players' use of just one bat for the whole game---it belonged to Jon Weber, and the lineup managed to get through a 10-inning game without breaking it---Montoyo thought of one thing he would do between now and the playoffs on Wednesday. All year long, Montoyo has politely declined to say a single word about the Bulls' record or the post-season chase, preferring to resort to the ol' "one-game-at-a-time" line when pressed. (We got that from him at least twice today.) But just before we ended our interview this afternoon, he picked up a copy of the final league standings lying on his desk. "I'm gonna look at it here for a minute for the first time."
He'll be pleased with what he sees.
Back tomorrow with more.