Norfolk Tides 17, Durham Bulls 2: Facing Unpleasant Facts

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The Norfolk Tides Nick Green hitting one of his two home runs on Friday night
  • Photo by Al Drago
  • The Norfolk Tides' Nick Green hitting one of his two home runs on Friday night
DBAP/ DURHAM—Facing Unpleasant Facts is the title of the volume of George Orwell essays I brought with me to the ballpark last night. For one of my other jobs, I needed to refresh myself on his great essay "Shooting an Elephant", which Facing Unpleasant Facts contains, so I had the book on hand in case of a rain delay.

Guess what? There were two rain delays. Twenty-seven minutes before we even started, 61 minutes in the bottom of the third. I sat and read Orwell.

Orwell was as good as perhaps any writer in history at turning his gaze squarely on those things no one wants to look at (touch, smell), and writing about them—"facing unpleasant facts," in his own phrase. You may only know him from his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, both justly canonized works of fiction, but Orwell was at his best in his nonfiction prose. His essays are unflinching accounts and assessments of the unflinching life he led and observed, as bracing and purifying as ice water.

Well, a 17-2 loss to Norfolk—or to anyone, for that matter—is an unpleasant fact, to be sure. Brian Baker—Oh, Brian! (When he pitches well, you go, Haut Brion! But he hasn't pitched well very often this season.) He was ripped by Norfolk on June 12 for five runs in just three innings, and should have been done last night with the exact same line—three innings, five runs—because the rain arrived in the bottom of the third inning.

But after the hour-long rain delay, Baker came back out to face more unpleasant facts, or at least Josh Bell, to whom he gave up his second homer in as many outings against Norfolk this one a two-run shot out onto the center-field berm in the fourth that made it 7-0 and effectively ended the game.

Yet Baker still wasn't done: he returned to start the fifth inning. After he reached 103 pitches, with one out and a man on first base, Charlie Montoyo removed him.

The unpleasant fact? After the rain delay, trailing 5-0, Baker was going to throw 100 pitches no matter the outcome. Montoyo was not managing this game to win it. He was managing it to get to the next one. Had Alex Cobb or Alex Torres been the starter, there is no way either would have continued to pitch after the rain delay, just as Norfolk starter Chris Tillman, a viable prospect, did not come back apres le deluge. (Tillman's line for the night: two scoreless innings, two hits, three strikeouts, 34 pitches. Tides manager Gary Allenson lamented afterward that Tillman had had his best stuff of the season—a particularly snappish breaking ball, it seemed to me.)

The unpleasant fact behind the unpleasant 103-pitch, seven-run fact is that Baker is not a prospect. He's a 28-year-old functionary whom Charlie Montoyo has the Rays' permission to subject to whatever punishment is necessary in order to drag his team through the 144-game mire of a Triple-A baseball season. Baker is held in some little contempt by the corporation (Tampa Bay Rays, Inc.) for which he works, for paltry pay, for long hours, under often brutal conditions, with no job security.

Baker said earlier this year that he always seems to be the guy who draws the bad-weather card whenever he starts; let the record show that he drew it again last night. In fact, his pregame bullpen session was awkwardly disrupted by the National Anthem, sung lugubriously and out-of-tune—and, more to the point, when no one was really expecting it, with the tarp hurriedly scraped off the field after someone decided that rain wasn't imminent after all. That rush-job forced Baker to the mound before he was perhaps entirely ready. In the top of the first inning, which started 27 minutes late, he got ahead of Tides leadoff man Matt Angle 0-2, walked him with the next four pitches, threw ball one to Ryan Adams, and was then the recipient of a mound visit from his catcher, Robinson Chirinos.

Needless to say, it didn't help. Nothing helped all night. All one could do was face unpleasant facts.

The worst moment of the night, to these eyes, wasn't provided by Baker, or by the Bulls' lineup, which looked mostly listless and meager against five Norfolk pitchers, or by catcher-turned-pitcher Craig Albernaz, who gave up eight runs—eight!—in an olly-olly-oxen-free ninth inning, helped along by two doofus errors: one by Russ Canzler in right field (dropped fly ball, maybe lost in lights?), the other by J. J. Furmaniak at shortstop (grounder through legs). The errors scored another run and led indirectly to Nick Green's second homer of the night and John Hester's first. (The boys from Major League Baseball called the Press Box phone not long after Green's dinger off of Albernaz, wanting to make sure of getting an interview with Green after the game. I had half a mind to grab the phone and ask them if they were aware that the second homer came off of a 5-foot-6 third-string catcher. Unpleasant fact: the existence of uninformed administrators entrusted to make snap decisions.)

No, the worst moment of the night came when Tides reliever Mark Worrell walked Furmaniak with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. Furmaniak had taken a couple of pitches from Worrell—who has a painful-looking, whiplash sidearm delivery—that were close enough to be called strike three. Just ask Dan Johnson, who was so flabbergasted by a called third strike in the sixth that he flung down his bat, grabbed his helmet with both palms as though to keep his skull from shattering it in disbelief, and argued with the ump for half a minute or so.

But no, Furmaniak walked with two outs in the ninth. Recall that the score at this point was 17-2, Norfolk, and it was getting near 11:30 p.m., thanks to the two rain delays. You might have expected Furmaniak to be called out on strikes on a close pitch just for the sake of expediency, especially after the example of DanJo's sixth-inning borderline punchout. Instead, Furmaniak's walk came one inning after the home plate umpire (I think it was Jon Byrne) got Tides reliever Clay Rapada's stirrups in a knot by calling some of Rapada's close pitches no-cigars. Rapada, forced to give in and throw boldfaced strikes, wound up allowing a two-run double to Johnson, scoring the Bulls' only runs of the game.

Somehow, that walk to Furmaniak, after we stoically endured all the horrors that preceded it, was the totally demoralizing last straw, much in the way that, in Montaigne's essay "On Sadness," Montaigne relates how both the King of Egypt and the Cardinal of Lorraine held their tears at the sight or news of the enslavement and murders of their closest blood relatives, only to break down in wailing sorrow when they saw one of their friends or unloved soldiers subjected to the same evils: "The last calamity alone could find a vent in tears," Montaigne writes, "the two first being quite beyond the power of expression." Or, as Montaigne quotes Seneca, more pithily, "Light cares can speak, but heavy ones are dumb."

Leslie Anderson added to the heavy, dumb cares by following Furmaniak's walk with a single. Mercifully, Daniel Mayora grounded out to end the game and close the vent of tears. The enslavement and death of Brian Baker and Craig Albernaz—and, I guess, even Mike Ekstrom, who also suffered last night—had passed us by in dry-eyed, composed unhappiness, preludes to the anguish of Furmaniak's nugatory base-on-balls.

In 2011, Baker hasn't been able to re-conjure, on a consistent basis, the magic that buoyed him through last season, when at the All-Star break (i.e. the equivalent of right now) he was 7-0 with a 2.48 ERA. This season, he's 6-6, his ERA 5.94. I don't quite know how to pinpoint the difference, except to say that the word "pinpoint" perhaps offers a clue. Baker is a finesse pitcher whose fastball usually arrives at the plate at 87 mph, occasionally reaching 90 (at which speed it usually sails high). He can't afford to miss his spots by much more than the width of the point—or head—of the pin upon which his angels dance. When he does, the results can be devastating. In the first inning last night, Baker threw 30 pitches despite allowing no hits. But he walked two batters, ran the count full on all but one of the five he faced, and gave up a run on a sacrifice fly.

What was more instructive was Baker's second inning, in which he issued his second straight leadoff walk (to Rhyne Hughes, not exactly a Scott Hatteberg of plate discipline). The next two batters swung at the first pitch they saw, and one of them was Nick Green, who hit the first of his two homers. The other was Brendan Harris, who was robbed of a hit by Felipe Lopez (I will probably never type those last seven words ever again). Baker went 3-1 to the next hitter, 2-2 to the next two after that. He threw 24 more pitches in the second inning, after which he trailed 3-0.

Thus it was either that Baker would run deep counts, with savvy hitters laying off pitches out of the strike zone, or that he would run virtually no count at all, with those same savvy hitters jumping all over his meaty fastball. I'm exaggerating a little, but the overall point is true: Baker wasn't fooling anyone, anyhow, with anything. Yes, the Tides swung and missed 15 times at Baker's 103 pitches, but that suggests how much fun they were having swinging at those pitches rather than that they were good ones. The rain that came as the bottom of the third inning began should have ended Baker's evening, mercifully, in a 5-0 hole.

So one could read callousness into Charlie Montoyo's decision to run Baker back out there for the fourth, after the rain delay, over an hour later (he did the same thing with Edgar Gonzalez earlier this season—and Gonzalez wasn't a "prospect" either). Four batters later, Josh Bell hit a first-pitch, two-run homer. Jake Fox followed with what in most ballparks would have been another homer (and would have been, like Bell's, his second off of Baker in as many games against him), but his high liner to left field hit near the top of the Blue Monster, and Fox became another of the Monster's victims, thrown out trying to reach second base—he actually got in safely but then overslid the bag, and Lopez tagged him out.

Mike Ekstrom threw a season-high 51 pitches against Gwinnett on Monday night and was hammered for six runs in 1 2/3 innings, including a grand slam by Brandon Hicks and a pair of doubles by freshly discharged ex-teammate Chris Carter. So Montoyo gave Ekstrom nearly the whole rest of the week off to recover—only to use him, last night, for 45 more pitches. In 2 2/3 innings, Ekstrom allowed five hits and two runs, averting worse damage when Brandon Snyder's long drive to center was hauled in at the warning track by Brandon Guyer (so many Brandons—something going on in the mid-1980s with baby names, I guess), who made a fine running catch to prevent extra bases.

The All-Star break is imminent, and all of the Bulls will get some rest, save Canzler and Brandon Guyer, who will play in the All-Star Game—Desmond Jennings's bruised finger has scratched him. So there's some justification for squeezing every last pitch out of guys like Baker and Ekstrom, who aren't prospects: that Ekstrom was basically sacrificed in a blowout loss tells you how far he has fallen in the Rays' esteem; he started the 2010 season on the big-league roster. But if Baker and Ekstrom can be thrown to the wolves, why not Rob Delaney, too? Delaney needed 25 pitches to labor through a scoreless eighth inning, stranding two runners, but he could have come back out in the ninth for 20 more tosses, matching Ekstrom's workload.

By that time, though, it was a foregone conclusion that Craig Albernaz would be pitching the ninth—even though, barring another inning from Delaney, three outs could probably have been coaxed out of Lance Cormier, who threw two innings on Wednesday night. No dice. The deal was already done: Albernaz had entered the game in the sixth inning as the catcher, giving Chirinos the rest of the night off, an early setup for Albernaz's inevitable move to the mound.

Montoyo has done this sort of thing before, this position-player-pitching thing. It's kind of cute, but only when it goes passably well. Albernaz and Omar Luna have gotten away with it this year, as have Ray Olmedo and (going back a couple of years) Alex Jamieson. Not so last night for Albernaz, who did the following to begin the ninth inning and the Bulls losing, 9-2: Walk, single home run, double. He got Jake Fox to fly out to center field on a pitch Fox just missed hitting out of the park—Albernaz could, I suppose, brag to his fellow pitchers that he was the only one among them who retired Fox last night (3-4, two walks)—but then the luck, such as it was, ran out, and the unpleasant facts resumed.

As Montoyo's punishment for not letting Delaney finish it out or bringing in Cormier or even R. J. Swindle; for riding rain-delay Baker and 45-pitch Ekstrom into the ground; for planting the Albernaz seed in the sixth inning solely so that he could pitch the ninth—as punishment for all of that, both Canzler and Furmaniak followed Fox's fly out with their little-league errors. These not only scored another run but drove Albernaz's pitch count up toward 30, and after that he was basically just throwing batting practice and giving up stat-padding homers to Nick Green and John Hester. The final score of this game should really have been 9-2—make it 10-2 if you don't feel like giving the benefit of the ninth-inning doubt to Delaney, or Cormier, or Swindle, or even the guy in the stands who shouted, "I'm so angry, I'm gonna spend more money!" On what, pal? The beer stands close in the seventh inning.

There's plenty of ammo with which to defend Montoyo, whose job is made fiendishly difficult almost every time one of his starters fails to last five innings, and who continues to field lineups with only 11 position players at his disposal—and right now, three of them are catchers. (edit: sorry, that's wrong—Albernaz's replacement of called-up Brandon Gomes makes it 12 and 12, albeit still with three catchers.) I'm inclined to take the dual position of Orwell in "Shooting an Elephant," who convincingly sympathizes with the Burmese he is supposed to be oppressing and wants to drive a bayonet through the Burmese's stomach. A good way to face an unpleasant fact is to do one's level best to see it from both sides. From this side—the temporal one that occurs after the unpleasantness is over—you can look toward Saturday, when these same two teams play again in Norfolk, and the often-good Dirk Hayhurst pitches for the Bulls against the Tides' Steve Johnson, who was really terrible in his first three Triple-A starts (15.09 ERA) but much, much better in the last three (2.50).

***

I guess last night's unpleasantness made sense. It has been an ugly 24 hours in baseball. On Thursday night in Texas, there was the horrific death of a fan who leaned too far over the railing to catch a ball thrown into the stands by the Rangers' Josh Hamilton, fell, and died; on Friday, there was an appalling and frankly stupid brawl—pointlessly catalyzed by a pair of unlikeable, self-aggrandizing players—between the Tides' parent club, Baltimore, and the Boston Red Sox (Allenson mentioned in his interview that Zach Britton's awful start in that game—he lasted just 2/3 of an inning—would probably mean yet another callup of a Norfolk pitcher); there was the gruesome scene of the Nationals' John Lannan getting hit in the face by a line drive; and there was the glum, bewildering news of the Chicago Cubs' release of the beloved former Bull Fernando Perez—bewildering because Perez's release came right after he had his best month since coming back from the devastating 2009 wrist injury that derailed his career.

There was even National League All-Star Game manager Bruce Bochy's persistent and narrow-minded refusal, despite multiple opportunities, to add Pittsburgh outfielder Andrew McCutchen to his squad, as if Bochy—yet another of those crotchety, costive-looking old skippers who still think that a lineup that leads off with "gritty" Aaron Rowand is a good one—has some sort of grudge against McCutchen, or the Pirates, or dreadlocks. After nights like Friday, you don't even want to interview anyone and partly regret that you did, and it's hard not to think that the rainy, ravaged world is ugly, and overrun by crows and squirrels, and that we all collaborate on making it uglier.

To face facts as unpleasant as these, you need the spirit of George Orwell. For Orwell's great gift—other than his diamond-cut, uncompromising prose—was his ability to keep up his belief in the goodness of things and people even when he put himself in the dim-witted rain of warmongers' bombs, and the squalor of slums. Like a lot of Englishmen, he loved tea. He wrote a wonderful essay about it, insisting that "tea is meant to be bitter," which is why (he argued) it should never be adulterated with sugar—just as life shouldn't. He also wrote lovingly of his favorite London pub, the Moon Under Water, something of a forerunner of the modern gastropub and the model for adult-catering but family-friendly places like Durham's Geer Street Garden. The decor of the Moon Under Water, Orwell wrote in 1946, "has the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century." But:

The great surprise of the Moon Under Water is its garden. You go through a narrow passage leading out of the saloon, and find yourself in a fairly large garden with plane trees, under which there are little green tables with iron chairs round them. Up at one end of the garden there are swings and a chute [slide] for the children ... [who] tend to seep into the pub and even to fetch drinks for their parents. This, I believe, is against the law, but it is a law that deserves to be broken, for it is the puritanical nonsense of excluding children—and therefore, to some extent, women—from pubs that has turned these places into mere boozing-shops instead of the family gathering-places that they ought to be.

"The Moon Under Water is my ideal of what a pub should be," Orwell concludes—but he adds one more detail about the place:

The discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already [that] there is no such place as the Moon Under Water.

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