by Adam Sobsey
Perhaps there was some subconscious superstition (can something be both sub- and super- at the same time?) that kept me from uttering the baseball version of "break a leg," and apparently I should have. In the first inning of Norfolk's 7-6, 10-inning win over Durham last night—a game that grew rather exciting at the end after seven ho-hum innings, and it was actually unfortunate for any number of reasons that it got interesting—Ramon Ortiz gave up a grand slam to the game's fifth batter, Scott Moore. (Oddly, Ortiz also gave up a first-inning grand slam in his previous start against Norfolk, to Blake Davis—so the Tides have grannies off of him in the last two games they've played against the Bulls.)
The next hitter, Rhyne Hughes, singled on a what seemed like a fastball that arrived at just 85 mph, and suddenly Ortiz was motioning to the dugout for the trainer.
It took just a couple of minutes for Ortiz to come out of the game, and on came Dale Thayer, the first of five Durham relievers Charlie Montoyo was forced to use. All of them except Joe Bateman threw more than 20 pitches. The last man out of the bullpen, Winston Abreu, allowed the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning after the Bulls had rallied with two runs in the eighth and one more in the ninth to tie the game.
This was a disappointment, surely, to the 10,000+ crowd, most of whom had stayed for postgame fireworks and the North Carolina Central University marching band. But it was for the best that the Bulls didn't come back again in the bottom of the 10th, although they had the tying run in scoring position with one out. Had they done so, the next pitcher was probably going to be Angel Chavez, the Durham third baseman, who had actually been warming up in the bullpen during the eighth inning until the Bulls rallied.
Chavez, as you know if you saw yesterday's game, is injured himself. He was hit on the wrist by a pitch on Friday night, but it's only a bruise and it isn't on his throwing hand. So he could have pitched. But what good could that have done? Prolong a game that had already hurt one Bull—Ortiz is probably not going to make his next start, scheduled for Game Two of the playoffs, Montoyo later surmised—and had featured a lineup so depleted by injury (Justin Ruggiano bruised his knee trying to make a leaping catch at the wall on Friday and didn't play) that the designated hitter was pitcher Bobby Livingston?
If you're departing before the jump, here is the uneasy takeaway from last night's game: The Bulls as currently configured have no shot of repeating as International League champions, and not just because of injuries. But since dealing with those injuries is their only recourse, they might as well send an SOS to the Tampa Bay Rays and see what kind of response they get. If it isn't loud, clear, and to the rescue, they're sunk.
The important parts of last night's game have little to do with the outcome. They have to do instead with what the game means for today and beyond. Brian Baker is scheduled to start for Durham today at 5:05 p.m., and he will, but Montoyo told me the other day that Baker's arm is aching; he can pitch, but he's running out of ammunition. Baker is tall but not big or broad, his body not built for heavy workloads. He wasn't supposed to be a starter this season, but was thrust into the role by Carlos Hernandez's multitude of injuries. He is up over 100 innings for the year, and although he threw 121 innings last season, the competition in Triple-A is tougher. These were harder innings; he's tiring. Baker was limited to just 67 pitches in his previous start. It is unreasonable to expect him to go deep into today's game.
So who does that leave? Only two relievers had Saturday night off: Brian Shouse and Darin Downs. Shouse doesn't throw hard and presumably isn't feeling arm strain—that's got to be Montoyo's hope anyway, because Downs threw 52 pitches in relief on Friday, and those were high-stress pitches, some of them: Downs was in trouble for much of his outing. Even if he is available, it certainly won't be for a long stint. Joe Bateman, Montoyo's most-used workhorse, only threw 15 pitches last night; perhaps he's good for an inning if the game is close late and Shouse and Downs are finished. If it isn't, look for Angel Chavez to make his second appearance of the season, and don't be shocked if it's a two-inning gig. That might, in a way, be the best thing for the Bulls.
(It's also possible that the Rays will give Montoyo the green light to use Jake McGee on only one day of rest; he's been getting two between appearance since his callup and transition to the bullpen. If so, that will help, but again McGee won't be out there long; he threw 30 pitches and was wild on Friday, when he gave up his first run since coming to Durham.)
And who will replace Ortiz? Well, someone, but probably not a stud. The Class AA Montgomery Biscuits' season ends on Monday, like the Bulls' does, and the Biscuits didn't make the playoffs. I'm betting on Paul Phillips, who was up recently for a one-game emergency appearance and who, more importantly, was a Bull during the 2009 playoffs. He arrived just before they began and, although he is a career reliever, wound up starting and winning the decisive Game Five of the Bulls' first-round win over the Louisville Bats. It's not out of the question that he could be asked to do precisely the same thing, against precisely the same team, this season. (Both Louisville and Columbus lost yesterday, by the way; the Clippers remain half a game ahead in the West Division.)
The Biscuits do have other pitchers, of course, including a couple of very good starters, the Alexes Cobb and Torres. But both are just 22 years old, both have thrown plenty of innings this season, and the Rays may not want to wear them down any further. There is also Heath Rollins, who has passed bits of time in Durham in each of the last two seasons—but Rollins struggled here early in 2010 and was demoted; he has a 5.22 ERA in Montgomery.
(If you're really feeling like fantasizing, you could dream that the Rays will send Jeremy Hellickson back down to make a start; he struggled in relief for Tampa last night, maybe he needs some more polishing? Yeah, sure, and the UNC football team, speaking of blasted rosters, is going to a bowl game this season.)
And what about the hitters? The Bulls are carrying a thin bench right now, and if Ruggiano or Chavez can't come back, it could get thinner. There are options in Montgomery, but none are all that appealing: Not for nothing did the Biscuits miss the playoffs; they were just an average team. Still, light-hitting catcher Craig Albernaz, who spent much of 2009 as a Bull, is almost sure to be called up; it's highly unlikely that the Rays will really sign off on a Bulls playoff roster whose catchers are Nevin Ashley and Kyle Holloway, who between them have caught a grand total of six Triple-A baseball games. Outfielders Rashad Eldridge and Emeel Salem are likely candidates, too, but they aren't going to make any kind of major impact on the Bulls' run production. When Chris Richard homered in the eighth inning last night, on a lame slider from Tides' lefty Alberto Castillo, it was Durham's first extra-base hit since the fifth inning of Thursday's game. They have only eight extra-base hits in six games during this homestand, half of them by Richard.
The other day, Charlie Montoyo mentioned the need to find a leadoff hitter to replace Desmond Jennings. He tried Fernando Perez there, but Perez's only dependable skill right now is his speed. Both his on-base and slugging percentages are last in the league among qualifiers. It was glaringly revealing that, last night, Perez batted ninth again, behind pitcher Bobby Livingston. J. J. Furmaniak is the current leadoff hitter. He's an improvement, and he'll probably get to keep the job, but he's no Desmond Jennings with the bat or on the basepaths. Elliot Johnson is the ideal choice among the current Bulls, but he's hit in the two-slot almost all season, and Montoyo is loath to move him.
And so, as it stands now, the Bulls have four banjo hitters in their everyday lineup: Perez, Furmaniak, Omar Luna and Nevin Ashley. Furmaniak's on-base average is fourth on the team, but he has no power to speak of; his slugging percentage is lower than his OBA, which is a sure sign of a singles hitter. Luna, who is charming and wonderful in his own way, is also punchless, and has a miserable walk rate: an astoundingly terrible two bases on balls in 141 plate appearances. Last night was a reminder of what kind of hitter he is: He struck out three times against Tides starter Zach Britton—a bit more on this promising young lefty below—and saw only two balls in 15 pitches. His .286 batting average has to be one of the hollowest "good" stats in the league.
As for Ashley, the recent addition to the Bulls is a big, muscular catcher who looks like a power hitter, and he got everyone excited when he homered in his second Triple-A plate appearance at Charlotte. But he has in fact not posted a season OPS higher than .700 since 2007 in low-A Columbus, and he has just 31 homers in about 1600 career at-bats. (He does run very well for a catcher; he beats it down the line in a hurry.) As a Bull, he is 3-19. I have only seen him play a few times, but the initial impression is of a guy who goes up there swinging at first-pitch fastballs—other than the homer, he has two opposite-field singles—and looks uncomfortable with breaking balls.
Albernaz is not much of an improvement, except for the "veteran" presence he offers behind the plate. Ashley is a highly touted backstop, but it was his passed ball in the eighth inning last night that led to a critical Norfolk run, without which Durham might have won the game in nine innings.
So what is to be done? We'll have to wait to hear from Tampa about that. It's quite likely that the Bulls will have to limp through these last two regular season games with what they've got, and hope that Chavez and Ruggiano are back in form by Wednesday. New soldiers, whoever they are, should have been added by then; the question is how much fight and how much ammo they'll be bringing with them. It's September. Everyone's tired. The best players are in the majors by now. Everybody's got nagging, implacable, unpleasant injuries and unremitting soreness. The Bulls have played 26 games in 25 days without a day off. Were I a Bull, the thought of playing some essentially bootless playoff games a 12-hour bus ride away in Ohio wouldn't exactly get my competitive juices flowing (the players don't get a bonus for winning; the Bulls keep the spoils). But then, that's why I'm a writer, and not a Bull.
Some notes from the game, starting with a bright spot for the other guys. Lefty starter Zach Britton has now faced the Bulls three times in less than two weeks, and he has pitched well in all three starts. I don't care who you are or whether your opponent has been depleted: Throwing three good games that close together against the league's best team is hard to do. Britton's fastball touched 95 mph last night, although it usually sat around 91-92. He featured a good slider, and his fastball generally had good sink to it.
His only trouble is wildness—although a better catcher might have blocked his two wild pitches (there was also a passed ball that appeared to go right through Adam Donachie's legs). Just as in his last start at the DBAP, Britton was in hot water in the first inning. Last time it was two walks, followed by a two-run triple by Chris Richard; this time it was well-placed singles. Richard had the big blow, a two-run single, in the first inning, but to call it a big blow is misleading: It was a bleeder that squirted out of shortstop Blake Davis's grasp and into centerfield. A better shortstop makes that play. Norfolk is the worst fielding team, statistically, in the International League. They weren't charged with any errors last night, but they could have been. More to the point, they failed to make plays that ought to have been made, and it cost their pitchers runs.
Although the Bulls only scored once in the second inning, it was in many ways a harder time for Britton. He walked a batter, his pitches were all over the place, and this time he did benefit from good fielding, a fine diving stop by Scott Moore at third base that robbed Fernando Perez of likely extra bases.
Still, Britton had struck out five men through two innings, and then added two more Ks in the third, fooling Richard badly with sliders in Richard's second at-bat—a shrewd adjustment for a young pitcher (he turns 23 in December) with just a dozen Triple-A starts under his belt. His motion looked smooth and repeatable.
Britton had racked up 63 pitches through the first three innings, and seemed headed for a short night. But he started pitching to more contact after that, inducing seven ground balls among his final 10 outs (one was a bunt attempt by Furmaniak). Britton used up only 10 pitches in the fourth, six in the fifth (and that included a three-pitch strikeout of the helpless Luna), and 13 in the sixth, his final inning. He threw 92 pitches, 62 for strikes; I was surprised to discover that he produced only nine swings-and-misses—surely five of them were by Omar Luna—because he seemed to have the Bulls overmatched or outwitted for much of the night. Credit the Bulls, at least, with hanging in there against him on a night when he seemed to have very good stuff. Still, Britton retired the last 10 batters he faced and made it look rather easy; consecutive Bulls attempted bunts in the fifth inning, a sign that Britton had them grasping for any means of run production. And this time, no one tried to steal home against him. Well, hardly anyone got to third base.
Britton should probably have three wins against the Bulls over the last couple of weeks—he's earned them—but low run support cost him one, and the bullpen blew last night's lead. He'll be a pitcher to watch next season when Norfolk visits the DBAP.
Has former Bull Rhyne Hughes given up on the season? He fanned four times in a game at the DBAP in the two-game series in late August, and looked totally flat and listless doing it. Last night, after his single off of the injured Ortiz, he grounded out to shortstop and then struck out twice. After the second strikeout, looking at a Joe Bateman fastball on (or right near) the outside corner, he just stood at the plate, gazing distantly out toward the Tides' bullpen. that was his way of expressing his dislike of the umpire's call. Hughes didn't come out to play the field in the bottom half of the inning. Granted, he isn't much of an outfielder, and it was probably just a defensive substitution, but I couldn't help wondering if he'd been benched for poor attitude. Hughes was a peppy player last season as a Bull before he was traded in the Greg Zaun deal; is the Orioles' organization that un-fun to play in, or has Hughes just contracted some sort of personal abulia?
I guess the deal here is that the other team's third baseman, whoever he is, will be torturing the Bulls in this final homestand. Brent Morel and Dayan Viciedo, who both played that position for Charlotte early this week, did major damage; the devastating effects of Gwinnett's Dan Nelson have been thoroughly explored; and lefty hitter Scott Moore went 3-5 last night for the Tides with five RBI, plus that nice play on Perez's grounder. Moore looked very comfortable taking the ball to the opposite field, too. He didn't really get on my radar until last night, mainly because he didn't do much in the seven-game series the Tides and Bulls played last month. He can't hit lefties (and R. J. Swindle retired him on a groundout last night), but maybe he can offer platoon value somewhere.
Some notes on the Bulls, since that's why you're here:
* The struggling Durham bullpen was a mixed bag last night. R. J. Swindle looked suddenly like the old R. J., spinning his slider over the plate or under bats—it had great crispness to it—and dialing his fastball up to a zippy (for him) 81 mph; he used it to fan Donachie. Swndle threw one of his tumbling curveballs, too, a 49-mph version, and Michael Aubrey struck out on it. Montoyo brought up Swindle's fine work after the game. "We're gonna need him," he said.
* Maybe more than he might hope. Dale Thayer looked bad again. He got a double play to stop Ortiz's bleeding in the first inning, and although he pitched a 1-2-3 second, he fell behind all three hitters, 2-0 to Donachie and 3-1 to Miguel Abreu and Blake Davis. He struck out Paco Figueroa to open the third inning, but then walked Jeff Salazar. Michael Aubrey then just missed a homer, his high, high fly ball landing in Elliot Johnson's glove right at the right-field wall. Thayer then battled Scott Moore while Salazar stole second base—he had a huge jump—and Thayer left the seventh pitch of the at-bat up and out over the plate: Moore lashed a double to left-centerfield to score Salazar. He tried to stretch it to a triple, but was thrown out at third.
* Winston Abreu, too, struggled again. Although he got through the ninth on just nine pitches, four of them were balls—he walked Donachie—and only a double-play ball got him out of the inning. Abreu seemed to lack command of his slider, and come to think of it his fastball, too, which sailed high a couple of times. In the 10th inning, after the Bulls had tied the score on a single that went off Moore's glove (it could have been scored an error; in any case it's a play I think should have been made), Abreu really lost it. He walked Davis to lead off, and then threw two balls to Figueroa even though Figueroa was just trying to sacrifice. After that was accomplished, Salazar stung a grounder down the first base line, but Chris Richard was playing there, guarding against the extra-base hit, and he snagged it and trotted to the bag to retire Salazar. Davis moved to third base.
That brought up Michael Aubrey, and I had visions in my head of a memorable game last season that had a fair amount in common with this one. In both of them, Chris Richard hit an eighth-inning homer that brought the dead-in-the-water Bulls back to within a run; in both games, they tied the score in the ninth. In both games, Winston Abreu pitched the 10th inning.
In last year's game, against Louisville, right after the Bulls dramatically tied the game in the ninth, Abreu gave up a solo homer to a journeyman left-handed slugger named Kevin Barker. The Bulls would eventually win—on Chris Richard's record-tying second grand slam of the night, in the 13th inning—and in this year's version, Abreu was facing another left-handed power hitter, Michael Aubrey. Aubrey has hit 22 homers this season, a big jump up for him. (For what it's worth, he hit three of his eight dingers last season off of the Bulls' Wade Davis.)
I thought, with Abreu looking vulnerable, that Aubrey had a good chance to hit another home run if Abreu tried a fastball over the plate. But he stuck with slider, and got Aubrey to swing at it and miss a couple of times. The thing is, he also threw Aubrey three balls, and the third one was another slider that bounced in the dirt, went to the backstop, and scored Salazar with the go-ahead run. Aubrey reached down and poked the next pitch for a soft single to right, which made Abreu's wild pitch a little less painful, but who knows if he would have thrown that pitch had Salazar still been on third base?
Winston Abreu is 33, and had surgery for an aneurysm in his pitching shoulder last fall. Although he has had another fine year, it's natural to surmise that he is feeling fatigue at this point. He has walked five batters in his last 4 2/3 innings pitched, after walking 16 in the previous 50. Twice recently, Abreu's pitches have had no bite. His struggles on Friday notwithstanding, Jake McGee seems like the better option right now with the game on the line.
What's extra unfortunate about Abreu's 10th inning was that he had to pitch it at all. It was nice to see the Bulls battle back—and totally amazing that the ninth-inning, game-tying rally was started by 22-year-old Rookie-ball emergency callup Kyle Holloway; pinch hitting for Livingston, he boomed the first pitch he saw from Frank Mata off the Blue Monster for a double, just missing a homer. But the rally forced Abreu to burn 21 more pitches, only 10 of which were strikes. He's almost certain not to pitch again until at least Game One of the playoffs (Wednesday), and when he does, there's no guessing how he'll do. Will he be rested or rusty? Are his problems the result of long-term deterioration, simple (and anomalous) deviation, temporary lack of focus, exhaustion?
* Leslie Anderson is 4-18 over his last five games. All four hits were singles, and he has struck out five times with only one walk. He also made a bad play in left field last night that let in a run; it went as a sacrifice fly, but had Anderson lined up Aubrey's medium-depth fly ball better (and remember that medium left field in front of the Blue Monster is actually shallow), and not juggled the ball after he caught it and transferred it to his throwing hand, he had a great shot to throw out Figueroa at home. Even with the poor route to the ball, he had a chance. Anderson also looks a bit uninterested out there right now. His batting average has dropped 21 points with the five-game lull, and at .330 it's at its lowest point since he became a Bull. The Bulls badly need production from him if they're to have any hope of winning the championship; otherwise Elliot Johnson and Chris Richard are the only guys who make you feel confident in their ability to reach base whenever they step to the plate. The sidelined Chavez and Ruggiano have things to offer, but Chavez has a poor on-base percentage (only 32 walks in about 450 plate appearances), and Ruggiano strikes out a lot.
Late-season roster shakeups are an eternal fact of life in Triple-A baseball. The Bulls are certainly not the only team to lose players to the big leagues. It's the recent injuries that really create the problem. The current roster bears a shocking lack of resemblance to the one that got the team to the playoffs, and is quite inferior—on paper, anyway—to the current corporation (in the Hegelian sense) of the Columbus Clippers. Still, now that I have sounded the SOS on the Bulls' behalf for a few hundred words, whatever happens next is starting to feel exciting to me. Who will join the team, and how will they do? Can the reshuffled Bulls find some improbable magic and win another Governors Cup? Will Rashad Eldridge show up just in time to put himself at the heart of the drama again? Will Paul Phillips, for the second straight September, swoop down and rescue the Bulls from the fearsome Louisville Bats? Or will some other unknown ride into town and save the day? For that matter, on the other hand, will the Bulls, all season long the hands-down best team in the league, be swept—abruptly, shockingly—out of the playoffs by Friday? It's kind of like planning a dinner party for months, only to discover at the last minute that the ingredients you had banked on aren't available. You have to make do with whatever Tampa happens to have growing on the farm. It'll be fun to see what gets concocted, when it's all said and done.
Bulls fans might do well to take their cue from the players themselves. In the locker room after last night's loss, with the roster in chaos and Ramon Ortiz hurt and the team now in a tie for the league's best record with their rival, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, you might have expected attitudes of concern, frustration, even anxiety. Instead, while everyone tucked into the postgame meal, some players sat enjoying college football on the TV, while others congregated to plan what the team will do for its annual party following Monday's afternoon season finale. Go to Frankie's? Buy lottery tickets? As long as it's fun, whatever it is, everyone agreed that it doesn't matter all that much. The next week will be fun, too, if you choose to enjoy it for what it is—a sort of understudy version of what was originally scripted as great theater, with a cast of upstarts and unknowns and oldtimers playing on the same stage that just recently boasted the great Hellicksons and Dan Johnsons. Or, to get back to the dinner party comparison above, when your souffle falls, you can always order out for pizza; and pizza is a always a party.
Speaking of dinner, today's 5:05 p.m. start time means you should be home in time to eat it. See you at the DBAP.