Durham Bulls roll back Norfolk Tides, 5-4: Pick-me-up

Posted by Adam Sobsey on Fri, Jul 8, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Russ Canzler rounding the bases after his first-inning home run last night
  • photo: Al Drago
  • Russ Canzler rounding the bases after his first-inning home run last night
DBAP/ DURHAM—I needed a pick-me-up this afternoon, sportsfans. At 5:00, I was dragging. I went out for coffee but the queue was long and slow and I abandoned the errand, sweating and heavy-limbed in the sticky midsummer heat. I arrived at the ballpark in a lethargic state, dazed, out of it.

Turned out I didn't need my pick-me-up, though, because the Bulls kept serving them up all night long.

On Wednesday night, the Bulls trailed 3-0 four batters into the game. On Thursday, they trailed 3-0 after three. Durham starter Alex Cobb hit Matt Angle to lead off, with a pitch that came inside and just grazed Angle. Then Cobb walked Ryan Adams on four pitches. He started off Josh Bell with a sixth straight ball out of the strike zone. He then managed a strike, threw another one—it looked like a hanging splitter to me—and Bell blasted it over the left-center field wall for a three-run homer. So okay, then.

It could have gotten worse. After Cobb got Jake Fox to ground out, Brandon Snyder singled to right and Rhyne Hughes followed with a resounding double off the Blue Monster, moving Snyder to third. But Cobb worked out of the jam, getting Brendan Harris to ground out to third, holding the runners, and striking out Nick Green.

The Bulls answered right back. Desmond Jennings led off the bottom of the first with a home run off of Ye Olde Snorting Bull above the Blue Monster, nailing the thing right in the porterhouse and earning himself an assuredly lesser cut from the kitchen of the downtown Marriott. It was Jennings's third leadoff dinger of the season.

That was enough to stem the Tides a little, but the Bulls weren't done. Four batters later, with Brandon Guyer on first base, Russ Canzler lifted a homer of his own over the Blue Monster. That made it 3-3 after one inning, with all three Durham runs scored, fittingly, by the team's three All-Stars.

"I got off to a rough start," Cobb said, despite having had what he called a good pregame bullpen session, "but the team was picking me up left and right tonight. That settled me down a ton."

From left to right, then, or really left to left: In the top of the fourth, Cobb missed with a fastball to Green (a former Bull, but don't get too excited about that: Green, a utility player, appeared in 10 games with Durham in 2006; since then he has played with 12 other minor- and major-league teams). Green blasted a homer onto the farthest section of the tin roof over the Tobacco Road Cafe terrace.

So naturally, Robinson Chirinos hit a solo homer of his own, to almost exactly the same spot, in the bottom of the same inning—it was Chirinos's second fourth-inning solo homer in as many nights. The score was tied again, 4-4, and Cobb had again been picked up by his teammates. He responded by retiring six of his last seven batters faced (one walk) to end his night after six erratic but often strong innings.

One of those omens, those little devil-thoughts that your mind starts entertaining now and then: Tides starter Rick Vandenhurk sat in the dugout for a long time during the top of the seventh inning, while two Bulls pitchers loaded the bases with walks but managed to keep Norfolk from scoring—Jay Buente picked up R. J. Swindle by stranding the two guys Swindle had put on base, plus one of his own. Vandenhurk had thrown only 83 pitches to that point, but after the long top of the inning, one couldn't help thinking that the time was propitious to take him out, especially with Daniel Mayora leading off: back in the fourth inning, Mayora had hit an opposite-field drive that sent Rhyne Hughes to the wall to catch it.

But he came back out for the bottom of the seventh, and sure enough Mayora again went the other way, drilling a liner deep down the right-field line for extra bases. Hughes isn't a great outfielder, had a bit of an adventure running it down, and Mayora dug hard for a triple. The Norfolk infield came in, and it paid off: the next two batters, Chirinos and Ray Olmedo, hit groundouts at them. Mayora was still stuck on third. The Bulls were an out away from wasting their big chance to go ahead.

But J. J. Furmaniak picked hup his club. He got ahead of Vandenhurk, 3-1, and then blooped a single into short right field to score Mayora and make it 5-4. Dane De La Rosa pitched a relatively easy ninth, and the Bulls had their third straight win. Charlotte beat Gwinnett, giving Durham sole possession of first place in the IL South Division.

Because baseball is a predominantly individual sport masquerading as a team game, the concept of "teamwork" and its corollaries ("playing as a team," "unselfishness," &c.) is a bit hard to define in baseball terms. Yes, there is the double-play combo, the pitcher-catcher battery, hitting the cutoff man, and other dyadic things like those; but it is hard to read a baseball team as a complete unit, the way you naturally read teams in basketball, football, hockey and others.

Where teamwork inheres in baseball, it seems, is in the pick-me-up aspect of the game. A guy gets on base? You drive him in. Your shortstop throws away an easy grounder? You get the next guy to hit into a double-play. And in the case of Cobb's Thirsty Thursday night at the DBAP, when your usually dominant ace starter struggles, you try to give him some runs as payback for all the runs he's kept you from having to score in the other games he's started. It must have felt good for Canzler and Chirinos to pull the Bulls back even with the Tides after the Tides got ahead against Cobb. Likewise, it must have felt good for Furmaniak to deliver Mayora from third with the game-winning run in the seventh inning, after Chirinos (who had already had his big hit) and Olmedo (whose slap-grounder in the hole was snared by Norfolk second baseman Ryan Adams) came up short in their efforts.

And it was also nice to see Furmaniak get that hit for his own sake: he has had a tough go of it this season—his batting average has been submerged below the Mendoza Line for nearly the whole year—but he plays hard and he plays anywhere. When Desmond Jennings had to leave the game with a finger bruise in the sixth inning (he got hit trying to bunt, and later joked that his bruise was a good argument for never having to bunt again), Furmaniak moved from second base to left field—another pick-me-up for a fallen teammate.

There are quality infielders all over the Rays' farm system, jeopardizing Furmaniak's job security—not only has Mayora made the jump from Class AA, but former first-round pick Tim Beckham seems to have started showing his blue-chip promise there, as well; and youngster Hak-Ju Lee is looking like a coming star at shortstop down in Class A Port Charlotte. So you have to admire Furmaniak for sticking to what he does, doing it professionally and doggedly, and getting rewarded for it with a game-winning hit, even if it happened to be a bloop.

***

Credit Norfolk with some pick-me-up of its own. Up 5-4 going into the bottom of the eighth inning, the Bulls loaded the bases with no outs against Tides reliever Cole McCurry, recently called up from Class AA Bowie. With Durham on the verge of breaking the game wide open, Norfolk manager Gary Allenson replaced McCurry with Josh Rupe, a 28-year-old veteran with 81 major-league games on his resume. Rupe was brilliant, striking out Canzler with a 2-2 curve ball and then getting Mayora to hit into a 5-2-3 double-play to hold the score at 5-4.

Rupe's work didn't win the game for the Tides, of course, but it did make the ninth inning a much more fraught affair than it would otherwise have been. It also gave Dane De La Rosa a chance to pick up his hitters after their failure to convert the F.O.B., nobody-out chance in the top of the inning—and it also gave De La Rosa another duel with (The Fantastic Mr.) Jake Fox for the second straight night with the damage potential high. (By the way, if you haven't seen The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson's grownup-friendly animated film, it's highly recommended for the rigorous beauty of its handmade animation alone. It's also very funny, in the Andersonian way, of course.)

Fox came to the plate with one out in the ninth inning and the tying run on first base after Josh Bell's single to center field off of De La Rosa. The previous night, De La Rosa had thrown Fox six sliders in seven pitches, finally getting Fox to fly out to center to end the game. Last night, De La Rosa went right back to the slider: 81 mph, swing-and-miss; 84, outside and low; 81, dropped over the inside corner for called strike two; 83, Fox swung and missed at a fourth slider, this one way outside and in the dirt, and well blocked by Chirinos. Brandon Snyder popped out to to second base to end the game. Do as De La does.

De La Rosa's save was the final pick-me-up for Cobb, who had a poor first inning for the second straight start. Why was that, he was asked? "The last two games have been like that," he said, rather quizzically. "Horrible. I gotta figure out a way to come out with a little bit more aggressiveness. These last couple days, I've kind of felt lethargic out there, kind of throwing the ball instead of executing my pitches, going 100% at it. I'm not 100% committed to each pitch, or something."

Why? "I can't figure it out, I don't know," Cobb answered. I asked him if it had to do with the distracting news that Tampa Bay Rays starter Wade Davis had just gone on the disabled list, almost surely requiring Cobb to go pitch in the majors again soon. He laughed. "No, it wasn't that. If anything, that should have made me concentrate more."

More persuasive, perhaps, is the evidence of Cobb's recent bout with some virus or other unpleasant invader that laid him up in bed for the better part of two days and left him feeling weak and dehydrated. Given how hot and humid it has been around here since then, which was right after Cobb's return to Durham from his second big-league stint with Tampa, one wonders if his body has adequately recovered. In any case, he won't pitch again for at least another week, which spans the rest-up period of the All-Star break.

There were, despite the ugly first inning, some very encouraging things to take away from Cobb's performance last night. Despite Cobb's less-than-perfect control, especially with his fastball (which had a tendency to sail; he threw 62 of 101 pitches for strikes), there were nine strikeouts in just six innings, all of them swinging. Cobb generated an eye-opening 22 swings-and-misses with his 101 pitches, and his splitter, once he got through the first inning, was excellent, a knife falling off of a table. The Tides, an aggressive lineup of hitters, kept whiffing at it.

***

A note about Desmond Jennings: the pitch he hit for his first-inning homer probably wasn't a strike: it looked to be both high and inside, a 93-mph fastball from Vandenhurk. When a hitter can turn on a pitch like that and drive it out of the park, it tells you something not only about his quickness but also his strength. Jennings had little to say on the subject—"I'm just feeling good," was about the extent of it—but it's clear that, while his skills haven't quite convinced the Rays that they're major-league-ready, Jennings's fitness is all the way there (despite his odd susceptibility to annoying little injuries to fingers and wrists and such). Bear in mind that none of that really matters that much at present. To repeat yesterday's assessment, B. J. Upton is holding his job down right now, and Jennings is the challenger. He'll have to keep at it, and even improve on it, until the Rays simply have no choice but to make him a big-leaguer. Is he close? Yes, absolutely—as close as you can get, it seems to me—but it's a long, long way, in every way, from Triple-A to the majors: that's one of the steepest pick-me-ups there is. Ask any Class AAA postulant who has been there and failed to stick.

***

One of the rewarding things about covering baseball is the opportunity to learn things from the inside that you'd be unlikely to hit on if you just let your mind wander. Talking to Alex Cobb after last night's game, I asked him about the difference between pitching to Jose Lobaton, who caught most (or maybe all) of Cobb's starts early in the season, and pitching to Robinson Chirinos, as he did last night. Cobb told me that he likes pitching to both catchers, and quickly mentioned that the two have "the same body build. It's kind of like throwing to almost the same guy."

That was a pick-me-up for this reporter, because I hadn't ever really thought much about catchers' differing physiques. It matters quite a bit, though, because (as Cobb described it) throwing to a big body makes the plate seem closer to the pitcher than a small catcher does. "You can really reach out" toward a bigger catcher Cobb said, and feel like your arm is already closer to the plate as you release your pitch.

Also, Cobb talked about Chirinos's and Lobaton's shared ability to "stick" low and/or sinking pitches, of which Cobb throws plenty; that is, they get the thumb of their gloves underneath the ball and keep the arm moving up as they catch it, framing the pitch within the strike zone. This has something to do with pure arm strength—imagine catching a 91-mph two-seam fastball without the downward force of the pitch knocking your arm down—but also with technique: They actually practice this. Over and over, I'm reminded of the small but essential skills players must master in order to do their jobs at the major-league (or even minor-league) level. Ask a question, and you get an answer so much more interesting, so much more intricate, than the one you expected. You also get a surprising example of how baseball is more of team sport than you might think—of how hard a catcher works to pick up his pitcher, almost literally, on every pitch.

Despite his preference for a big-target catcher, Cobb was quick to praise Craig Albernaz, the Bulls' diminutive third-string backstop who has in fact spent most of the year wearin' the Hudson Valley sweatshirt. Cobb called him "one of the best defensive catchers in the world; I wouldn't mind throwing to him back there either," as Cobb did last year in Double-A Montgomery. With Brandon Gomes's callup to Tampa (as compensation for Wade Davis's injury), Albernaz has been reattached to the Bulls' roster, at least for a few days, and here's betting that he gets to catch a game before the All-Star break, thanks to Charlie Montoyo's commitment to getting all 24 of his players into games. It won't be Cobb's, but Albernaz has earned the opportunity: all season long, he has gamely played the role of bullpen catcher, team-first guy—he has the clear respect and affection of his teammates—and, early in the year, spot-start catcher and once, even, garbage-time pitcher.

Albernaz has played for Durham for parts of four seasons—if I recall correctly, he was promoted from Double-A in time for the 2008 playoffs (somebody help me out here)—and has never played even as many as 60 games in any single season at any level. He broke in with the Rays as a non-drafted free agent in 2006, a 23-year-old out of Eckerd College, Fla. It's his attitude, his smarts and his diligence—plus an arm that throws lightning bolts in the pathways of would-be base-stealers, and a savvy game-calling sense—that have kept him in professional baseball this long. He isn't major-league material (he apparently isn't really even Triple-A material) but he's an essential provider of continuity and steadiness in a work environment that is defined by saboteurs of both: mercurial change, haphazardness and unpredictability. And he also provides that killer Fall River, Mass. accent, much thicker than Brandon Gomes's. ("And when she saw what she had done / She gave her father forty-one.") He'll make a really good manager someday.

***

Brian Baker starts for the Bulls tonight against the Tides' Chris Tillman, a rematch of the now-infamous game in which Norfolk manager Gary Allenson went up the wall in protest of a reversed call. Russ Canzler hit a three-run homer off of Tillman in the first inning of that game, but Jake Fox and Josh Bell blasted their own long-balls off of Baker. The difference was that Tillman settled down and Baker didn't, and in the ninth inning Mike Ekstrom collapsed, allowing five runs to turn a close game into a blowout.

We'll see what happens tonight, the Bulls' last game at home before the All-Star break. Indeed, it's their last DBAP dip until July 22: they go to Norfolk for two games this weekend, All-Stargaze for three days, and then hit the northern road for Pawtucket, R.I. (right near Albernaz's bairro, and my alma mater) and Rochester, N.Y. By the time they come back, the word "August" will no longer just be an adjective, and summer will have lowered its heaviest, hardest weight on us, a weight out from under which there is no pick-me-up until the equinox. Get out to the DBAP. Presumably, Gary Allenson—whom I have managed to miss for an interview each of the last two nights (closed-door meeting, shower)—will not wind up on the berm beyond the center field wall. But you never know. A guy can dream, can't he?

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