by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM—It isn't supposed to start this way. Take last year's home opener in Durham: Alex Cobb led the Durham Bulls to a 4-0 shutout win over Norfolk that took barely more than two hours to play. A brisk and breezy start, kind of like the first day of the semester, when the professor hands out the syllabus, talks for about 15 minutes, and sends you out of class into the unsuspecting morning. It's going to be a long, hard term. You start easy.
Well, last night, even though Alex Cobb started again, the Durham Bulls and Gwinnett Braves made it a difficult beginning, a sort of final exam of a game on day one. Durham won, 4-3. Tied 2-2 in the top of the eighth inning, both teams had chances, some of them golden ones, to win the game in regulation. But neither team could cash in until the top of the 12th inning, when the Braves took a 3-2 lead on a J. C. Boscan home run off of Cesar Ramos, Boscan's first homer since August 10, 2010.
It was a cold, drizzly night in Durham, the temperature having plunged about 35 degrees in less than 24 hours. You could have forgiven the Bulls for packing it in after Boscan's homer. (Like I said, long season; no reason to get too exercised about a 12-inning loss to start it off.) But the eighth-place Bulls' hitter, new catcher Chris Gimenez, leading off an inning for the fourth time, singled up the middle off of Jose Lugo. He moved to second on a sacrifice bunt and then advanced to third on a single to left field by Will Rhymes. ("A single to left field by Will Rhymes" is a phrase will be typing a lot this season.)
With that, Gwinnett manager Dave Brundage brought in his eighth pitcher of the night, Jason Rice (whom I was just mentioning the day before yesterday!).
Tim Beckham, coming up for the third straight time with a runner in scoring position, greeted Rice—the eighth of nine Braves pitchers used last night—with a hot grounder that caromed off of Rice's shin. Rice recovered and threw out Beckham, but Gimenez scored to tie the game. Brundage came out to talk to Rice, who was limping after taking Beckham's grounder off of his shin, but left him in. Rice walked Brandon Guyer, and that was enough: Gwinnett's ninth pitcher, lefty Ben Swaggerty, was summoned, and he got Shawn O'Malley, making his first-ever Triple-A appearance—and that only in the ninth inning, when he pinch-ran—to hit an easy grounder to shortstop.
Groan: we were headed for the 13th inning, tied again. But the baseball gods, still half-asleep on opening day, finally popped awake in time to deliver us: They made Gwinnett shortstop Greg Paiml muff the play. They had him fall victim to the ol' Little League mistake of looking up before you've caught the ball. It went off his glove, and by the time he retrieved it and threw home, Rhymes had scored all the way from second base to end the game, four hours and four minutes after it began.
And that was one of the many instances of backwardness in yesterday's game. Instead of a clean, professional base hit to win it—or Boscan's solo homer, which almost did for Gwinnett—the Bulls, who had left six runners on base in the previous four innings, used a leg-bounce and a fielding error to prevail. Instead of a canny veteran or hot prospect winning it, it was the pinch-running greenhorn. Instead of a brisk two-hour welcome, we got a four-hour, rain-soaked slog.
And instead of vintage Alex Cobb, we got pitching-backward Alex Cobb. There's a well-worn expression among carpenters and builders, "cob-job," which refers to work done roughly, or against manufacturer's instructions, or with improvisation by necessity. That funky little place there where the shower stall meets the wall right where the chair rail is? Build it out a little to get it flush, with some lattice or whatever; slap a piece of molding you got from Lowe's on top of it to make it look vaguely by-design and semi-attractive; caulk the crap out of it, then paint. A cob-job, or "kinda cob." "This is gonna be kinda cob." As in, cobbled together.
Which is how Alex Cobb held the Gwinnett Braves to one run in five innings last night. Right from the get-go, it was clear he had little command of his fastball, which kept sailing up out of the strike zone. But he did discover that his breaking balls were working, so he kept throwing his new spike curve—which does indeed have less rainbow action on it, as he said on Tuesday—and his trusty splitter. Breaking balls are the caulk of a pitcher's supply box: the unsexy but flexible and utilitarian stuff that fills the cracks where fastballs can't always reach.
Cobb quickly noted that the Braves kept chasing those pitches out of the strike zone. They whiffed at eight of Cobb's first 24 first-inning pitches, and he struck out the side. In the second he got three groundouts, mostly on low breaking stuff, allowed three hits and run in the third, escaped a one-out Texas-league single in the fourth—and then, mysteriously, found his four-seam fastball in the fifth, throwing three of them right past Boscan for one strikeout and then catching Luis Durango looking at one for another. Nearing his pitch-count limit, Cobb had a 12-pitch, 1-2-3 inning, finishing with 89 pitches overall (57 strikes).
Kinda cob, but it worked, and worked despite Cobb's pedestrian velocity. He didn't throw a pitch over 90 mph, and his fastball usually came in at 87-88, two or three mph slower than normal. At 88-89, it tended to sail high. (Dane De La Rosa, who pitched the ninth inning, seemed down a bit, too, in the low 90s. I asked the guy in the stands behind me—um, Julio Teheran—who had his own gun, if the DBAP readings were correct, and he said yes, via a translator. Erik Cordier?)
Cobb didn't seem concerned about the drop in velocity. He said that he had had extra days off, which may have had something to do with it. I also suspect that Cobb, who is from Florida, wasn't exactly feeling it in the chilly, damp April air. (Cruelest month, don'cha know.) He was more interested in the movement on the fastball, which was notable in the fifth inning. I'm not sure whether Cobb's stuff will work consistently at the big-league level when his heater registers just 87 mph, but I also imagine he'll pick up some speed as we go. That's another backwards piece: instead of losing mph at the end of the year, when the arm gets tired, Cobb lacks it now.
Still, in the immediate context of results in a given game, you'll take five innings of one-run ball, with seven strikeouts, from your starter, cob or Cobb. When he left the game, he was in line for the win. But three innings later, Stefan Gartrell's RBI double off of Romulo Sanchez tied the game, and it stayed that way until the 12th inning—Rice's shin, Paiml's chagrin, Bulls win.
Some things to think about after watching the first game of the Bulls' 2012 season:
* Durham pitchers struck out 18 batters last night. A rate of 1.5 Ks per inning is absurdly high, and won't continue, but there is every reason to expect the Durham staff to rack up strikeouts this season. In addition to Cobb's sturdy rate (about eight per nine innings), there are Alex Torres and Chris Archer, who average about a strikeout per inning. In the bullpen, Dane De La Rosa, Brandon Gomes and Romulo Sanchez all miss plenty of bats, and last night we didn't even see the bullpen's statistical K-king: Marquis Fleming, who spent last season vexing Double-A Southern League hitters with what Baseball Prospectus calls his "bugs bunny changeup," was the only reliever Montoyo didn't use. Fleming struck out 104 batters in 80 1/3 innings for Montgomery in 2011. He is almost guaranteed to pitch tonight.
* This is a very left-handed roster. Three of four outfielders hit lefty (Jesus Feliciano, Kyle Hudson, Jeff Salazar), as do all three corner infielders. Second baseman Rhymes, ditto, and backup infielder O'Malley is a switch hitter. (He's a natural righty who learned the starboard approach about five years ago.) When Stephen Vogt comes back, as he is almost certain to do once Tampa Bay Rays center fielder B. J. Upton returns from injury, that will add yet another left-hander to the lineup—in fact, because Vogt's positions include catcher, his return to Durham would allow Charlie Montoyo to field an entirely left-handed lineup if he so chooses. That is quite rare, and leads any follower of the Rays' franchise to wonder: is left-handed the new market inefficiency? Probably not, not even close, but you can't help noticing.
* Keep an eye on Romulo Sanchez. His fastball has life and easily touches 93 mph, and he has an absolutely rude slider in the mid-80s. His big frame—6-foot-5, 270 pounds (told you)—gives him an extended release point and good downward plane. Of course, if he was so awesome, he'd be in the major leagues; but relievers are an unpredictable lot, and there's no reason why, after an abbreviated 2011 season in Japan (come to think of it, don't pretty much all one-off Japanese League seasons seem abbreviated for Americans?), Sanchez couldn't find the consistency (or whatever) he's been lacking and make himself a viable bullpen piece for the Rays. Over the last few seasons, the front office has tried all sorts of fastball-slider righty reliever options: Winston Abreu, Julio DePaula, Mike Ekstrom, Dale Thayer, plus others. They come and go, and for all we know Sanchez is just this year's minor-league model. But as often and as quickly as bullpens change, Sanchez is almost a lock to get a callup this season if he performs well in Durham. Think back to last year, when in the span of just a few days, Ekstrom, Rob Delaney and Jay Buente all zipped off to the west coast to pitch for the Rays, and followed one another back to Durham in sequence.
* Speaking of bullpen change, the Rays' closer, Kyle Farnsworth, has begun the season on the disabled list with an elbow strain. The Bulls' Josh Lueke will be summoned to Tampa. No word yet on who replaces him in Durham, but I'm betting it's John Gaub, a lefty reliever just claimed off waivers by the Rays from the Chicago Cubs. As per league rules, he'll be added to the 40-man roster.
* And speaking again of the bullpen, another little thing caught my attention last night. Maybe it's just a fluke. Montoyo used six relief pitchers last night. The four who pitched one inning or less held Gwinnett scoreless. The two who went beyond one inning, Sanchez and Ramos, each gave up a run. Other than Ryan Reid, and maybe Jhonny Nunez, there's not much in the way of long relief on the Bulls roster this season, and long relief is essential in Class AAA, with its strict pitch counts, its often ragtag rotations and its revolving-door rosters. It's especially important to have solid relief early in the year, when starters are rarely permitted to throw more than about 85 pitches. Last year, pitchers like Chris Bootcheck and Jay Buente and Lance Cormier could easily go three innings. This year's bullpen isn't as well stocked with that type of flexible pitcher.
Charlie Montoyo said after last night's game that he has come to expect close games against Gwinnett. In fact, looking over the results of the last two seasons, only about half the games the two teams have played were decided by two runs or fewer. But for whatever reason, the games have the feel of a rivalry, which is all the more surprising given that most of the players, of course, weren't here two years ago and don't have any history at all with Durham or Gwinnett. It's well known that minor-league ballplayers don't have much invested in wins and losses, no matter who they're against. Still, think back to last year's most important game, a tense 4-3 Durham win on August 30 that was decided by a clutch late-game hit (Russ Canzler) and a game-saving diving catch (Matt Carson).
Anyway, to look backwards again—as today's theme recommends—you can't help noticing that Durham and Gwinnett opened last season with a four-game series, just like they're doing this year. Down in Georgia in April 2011, the final scores were 2-1, 5-3 (12 innings), 2-1 again, and 5-4 (11 innings.) About a week later, Gwinnett came to Durham and won, 1-0. The next day, which shall live in infamy, they humiliated Paul Phillips with a 10-run inning on the way to an 18-7 rout. But the day after that, the two teams were back to their old scratch-and-claw ways, with the Bulls prevailing in 11 innings, 4-1.
Even though, by the end of the year, the two teams wound up playing a goodly number of ho-hum, over-early ballgames, the season as a whole had the feel of one long, close contest between the two teams, who never seemed to be more than three games apart in the standings. Once again, the Bulls edged out the Braves for the division title.
Will it be so again this season? What's fun about the first of the annual 144 games in a Triple-A season is to treat it like a little souvenir (or in this case a rather weighty one, at four hours and 12 innings): like a stone, a seashell, a coin. Put in your pocket, file it away, store it wherever is handy; but every now and then, take it out, turn it over in your hand, and see, with the eyes of a future not yet inhabited, whether there's anything you didn't notice when you first picked it up. As the season marches inexorably forwards, look backward and see if, in the unfolding fullness of time, the beginning contains the key to the end.
The Bulls' Alex Torres versus the Braves' Erik Cordier tonight at 7:05 p.m. See you there.