by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM—"No, I've never had back-to-back extra-inning games to open a season," Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said, smirking, as soon as we tossed our voice recorders down in front of him after Gwinnett beat Durham, 3-0, in 11 innings. The night before that, on opening day, Durham won, 4-3, in 12.
Well, so, now he has. That's the thing about baseball: If you stay with it long enough, you'll see almost everything—except, well, no you won't. The endless permutations of baseball, and its glorious complexity, mean that you can watch a lifetime of it and still break off just a tiny fragment of its virtually infinite whole. The game is as hard to fathom and as soul-filling and ultimately as insoluble as love and God. All the patience in the world with baseball will not gain you much in the way of weatherproof wisdom. It will only make you appreciate, a bit more and perhaps more contentedly, how little you will ever know.
Early on here in the 2012 season, patience is what we're learning with the Durham Bulls. A cold front is currently pushing summer back, slowing down our zealous pursuit of sun and balm, and demanding that we assume again a mind of winter, as Wallace Stevens might put it. Twenty-three innings of baseball in two nights, instead of 18, to achieve a pair of outcomes. A lot of zeroes on the scoreboard (nothing that is not there and the nothing that is). Plenteous wasted opportunities. Players who look, truth be told, a bit unready for action as yet.
Give them time. The season reflects the game itself. In its length, its dailiness and its resistance to the clock, it is designed for forbearance, for waiting and for suspension of judgment. And mostly baseball is a game of discipline, which is patience in devout action.
And if you have some patience, read on.
It would be easy to be impatient with Alex Torres, the promising left-hander who has been doing the same act now for most of his career, and certainly all of his Durham Bulls career: electric stuff, lots of strikeouts, lots of walks. Hey, kid, just throw strikes, you want to say. And I'm sure plenty of crotchety old baseball salts have told him just that.
But here is the thing about Alex Torres: If he could "just throw strikes," he wouldn't have the stuff he has—and, moreover, he wouldn't be who he is. Almost everything Torres throws has late movement. His four-seam fastball rises and veers; his two-seamer darts down. His changeup fades beautifully, when he has command of it, and his curveball, while probably his weakest pitch, has notable end-bend.
Torres is short. I'm not sure he really measures the 5-foot-10 at which he's listed. As plenty of folks have noticed, he tends to throw across his body, which to my mind is his instinctive way of generating more power: He gets his whole frame into his mechanics by putting some torque on it. For that very reason, his pitches move. He doesn't go straight, so how could what he throws be any different?
And because everything moves, sometimes it won't be a strike. You have to accept that in order to accept Torres' strengths as a pitcher. He can no more will himself to "just throw strikes" than to be 6-foot-2. His gift comes with its complementary flaw.
Through the first three innings of last night's game, Torres had struck out seven batters, walked none, and allowed two harmless singles. Had you seen nothing but his pitching line, you'd have assumed that he had everything working. In fact, Torres needed 56 pitches to get through those three innings. He threw only three first-pitch strikes to his first 11 batters. He fell behind Joey Terdoslavich 3-0 before bouncing back to strike him out.
After the game, Torres said he had a good feel for his fastball, and that's mostly what he threw, it seemed to me. He could throw it past hitters—all seven of those strikeouts in the first three innings were swinging K's. The 56 pitches included 13 swings-and-misses.
But they also included 23 balls. That's not a terrible rate by any means, but it worsened after the third inning. In the fourth, Torres needed 24 pitches, walking two batters and throwing only 10 strikes. He began to look frustrated at the deterioration of his control, a common sight from last season. Was he going to come unglued? No, he got Jose Yepez to fly out to end the two-on, two-out threat.
In the fifth walked the leadoff man, Josh Wilson, and then fell behind Cory Harrilchak 3-1 before getting him to foul out to left field. That was Torres' 94th pitch, more than he would have been permitted to throw had the previous night's 12-inning game not blown out the bullpen, and it was his last.
Torres was quick to note, after the game, that his mechanics got faulty in the fourth inning. You could see that he wasn't getting full extension on his release point, making his four-seamer sail up out of the strike zone. But it wasn't fatigue that was causing the problem.
"Overthrowing," he said. His catcher, Nevin Ashley, came out to talk to him. Then pitching coach Neil Allen did the same. "Just back off a little bit," Allen told him, according to Torres.
But the thing is, backing off is not what Alex Torres does. "He's got great heart," Montoyo said of him after the game—meaning, I think (from the way Montoyo said it), that there is a sort of high-blood-pressure intensity to Torres' mound presence. It's as if Torres' almost sanguinary style keeps him from pacing himself the way a starter should. For three innings, he keeps it together. Then his system loses patience. He starts to overthrow, because his mind, and his control, have been overthrown by his heart.
Montoyo said last year that Torres needed confidence, and to some degree I agreed with him—I even approached a whole game story from that perspective. But as the season wore on, Torres started developing that confidence, which stemmed largely from his repeated success in pitching out of jams. He seemed to have a knack for fighting his way out of trouble of his own making. With runners on base last season, Torres held batters to a .200 batting average and a punchless .586 OPS.
And then, called up to the majors, Torres got a huge boost from his stellar, game-saving performance for the Tampa Bay Rays last September 24. Rays starter Jeff Niemann lasted only one ineffective inning in a start against the Blue Jays, and Torres rescued him—and, arguably, the Rays' season—with five clutch shutout innings of his own in a game Tampa Bay basically had to win to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. (They rallied and did just that, giving Torres a much-deserved victory.)
Having gained much confidence, which was plainly evident in his postgame comments last night—confidence, not swagger—what Torres needs now is patience: patience with himself, of course. If he can build that part of his arsenal—confidence and patience are every bit as important for a pitcher as a fastball and a changeup—he'll have taken the next crucial step toward a regular major-league job as a starting pitcher. Without that quality, or without enough of it, he'll probably wind up as a reliever: a good one, to be sure, but not more than a lefty-out-of-the-pen type. If that happens, well, a major-league career of any kind is reason enough to feel glad to be alive—it's just that Torres is capable of more than that. And in order to fulfill his potential, he'll have to do it by the counter-intuitive means of trying less hard. He has to get his heart to beat slower, not stronger.
While Torres was overthrowing his way to 4 1/3 shutout innings, his opponent, Gwinnett's Erik Cordier, was tossing 4 2/3 scoreless innings of his own. Neither starter was economical with his pitches, and it took nearly two hours to play the game's first five innings even though no one scored a run. Cordier did a good job his second time through the Durham lineup, using his breaking balls early in the count to keep the Bulls off-balance. Still, he put numerous runners on base: five hits and three walks all told. The Bulls just couldn't push any of them across.
So with both starters done before five innings were played, the night after a 12-inning, 15-pitcher war of attrition, it came down again to which bullpen would blink first. It took a while, although not as long as Dane De La Rosa's 11th-inning meltdown for Durham. In fact, both teams had golden opportunities to score earlier. The Bulls loaded the bases with one out in the ninth inning, but Will Rhymes struck out against Dusty Hughes and Tim Beckham followed with a first-pitch groundout. In the very next half-inning, with one out Beckham muffed the catch at second base on a stolen-base attempt by Josh Wilson, and the ball went into center field, advancing Wilson to third. But Jhonny [sic] Nunez struck out Harrilchak and got Luis Durango to ground out. In other words, the bullpens blinked, but the batters blinked back.
In truth, the game had been quite a dull one until those two near-misses, with a lot of slow mound work by both teams' pitchers and a paucity of hard-hit balls. Neither team had an extra-base hit until the Braves' two doubles in the decisive 11th. It may turn out to be true, as Charlie Montoyo essentially promised after Thursday's opener, that these two teams will engage in their usual tit-for-tat rivalry this season. But if it happens, Gwinnett's pitching will have to be even better than it was last year, when they had not only Julio Teheran cleaning up at the awards banquet and Todd Redmond having his best year, but also Mike Minor, Anthony Varvaro, Arodys Vizcaino et al.
That's because this year's Gwinnett Braves are not going to hit much, I don't think—probably less than they did last year. They've got a lot of untried Double-A risers, they've got some so-so veteran presence, but only three hitters who cause much in the way of opponent heart palpitations. Stefan Gartrell will strike out 120 times and hit 25 homers (he fanned four times last night, and already has six K's for the season), Ernesto Mejia just looks like a menace—the 6-foot-5, 245-pound slugger hit 26 homers with a .906 OPS for Double-A Mississippi last year—and well-regarded prospect Joey Terdoslavich, a switch-hitter, will produce once he gets accustomed to Triple-A pitching. He had the go-ahead hit last night, a ringing double to the right-centerfield gap to score two two-out runs.
(One major concern this season: having to type the names "Harrilchak" and "Terdoslavich" over and over and over again.)
But that's about it, as far as the Braves' lineup goes. The Bulls, on the other hand, although they haven't hit much yet, have more weapons. There are slap hitters in the No. 1 and No. 9 holes (usually Will Rhymes and Kyle Hudson, as it appears so far), but the rest of the order should produce. It's no 2010 juggernaut, but from Beckham and Brandon Guyer down through Matt Mangini and Juan Miranda and Jeff Salazar—whose monstrous home run blast in the bottom of the 11th inning was just foul last night—there are legit bats in the daily lineup. Charlie Montoyo quickly dismissed any thought that his team lacks punch: It's just two games, he said, and it's been cold. Patience.
Patience, too, with Tim Beckham. He helped run the Bulls out of a potential first-inning rally last night—not entirely his fault, Brandon Guyer provoked the confusion—left four runners in scoring position to add to the two he stranded on Thursday, and misplayed Nevin Ashley's solid throw on Wilson's stolen base attempt. But Beckham is showing patience at the plate that will pay off later, if he maintains it. He saw 28 pitches in six at-bats on opening night, and a whopping 21 through his first three trips on Friday (netting a walk and an infield single on a swinging bunt).
It was when Beckham abandoned that patient approach that he struggled. He struck out on three pitches against Buddy Carlyle in the seventh inning (how does Carlyle, who tossed 2 2/3 critical scoreless innings, get anyone out with that stuff?). Then, in the pivotal bottom of the ninth, with the bases loaded and two out, he reached for Dusty Hughes' first pitch, which was away, and hit a soft tapper to first. The groundout pushed the game into extra innings.
Still: it may have been getting late last night, but it's early this season. Beckham is raring to go, and he really wants to succeed. You could see the full measure of his determination in one little moment last night. With the bases loaded in the fifth inning and two outs, Carlyle came on in relief of Cordier. A long, five-pitch at-bat versus Beckham was drawn out by Carlyle's wandering over to the resin bag, and then a visit to the mound from his catcher, Jose Yepez. Finally, with the count 1-2 after Beckham spoiled a couple of pitches with foul balls, he hit a grounder to second. The play was made cleanly, but Beckham raced down the line, lunging almost desperately across the first-base bag—he went into a full-body sprawl on the ground as a result. He was out, but you could see just how badly he wanted to come through, to redeem the moment. Here's betting that, as the season evolves, so will Beckham. The 22-year-old has the presence and the poise to excel in the limelight; he just needs time to adjust his eyes to it at this, the next level. He may never be the superstar shortstop he was thought to be when the Rays drafted him with the first pick in 2008—predictions are pointless, and this isn't one—but there would be no reason to be surprised if he should turn out to be a good player for years to come.
And patience, again, with Dane De La Rosa. He is the Bulls' closer, along with Brandon Gomes, who was strictly off-limits to Montoyo after his work on Thursday (Gomes is still finishing his recovery from a minor injury). De La Rosa should not have had to pitch last night either. In the ninth inning on Thursday he had thrown 17 pitches, the same number Gomes had thrown in the sixth inning (and, coincidentally, both threw nine strikes and allowed one walk and no hits). But there was really no one else to turn to after Ryan Reid, Marquis Fleming and Jhonny Nunez threw 4 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of Torres. (Extra props to Nunez for his two stalwart innings: 28 pitches, one hit, three strikeouts the night after throwing 21 pitches in an inning of work.)
Newcomer John Gaub, claimed off waivers from the Cubs two days ago, arrived at the DBAP just before the game, had to take a physical, and was unready for action. The Bulls rather desperately needed his lefty relief arm once extra innings rolled around, but the fact is that Gaub doesn't always answer our prayers. I'm sorry about that (and that).
So that left De La Rosa as the last savior standing. I'm sure that he, a straight-talking and modest type of guy who has seen some serious lows in his baseball career (here's a very good piece on him by Harold Gutmann of the Durham Herald-Sun), would be the first to tell you that he stunk. Jordan Parraz led off the 11th with a single. De La Rosa then went to a 2-2 count against Drew Sutton, and the fifth pitch of the at-bat was a fastball that was just low.
Sometimes, one little disappointment like that is enough to throw everything into chaos. De La Rosa walked Sutton, and then wild-pitched the runners to second and third base with no one out. Defcon One. (Or is it Five? Well, you know what I mean.)
De La Rosa battled back, striking out Gartrell and Mejia, the Braves' two most dangerous hitters. He was nearly out of the inning. But it was as if the effort required to overcome those two sluggers undid De La Rosa. Terdoslavich, whose name you have to pronounce very carefully, as though stepping over the actual thing whose name you're trying hard not to utter, followed with his two-run double. Yepez added a DBAP special fly-ball double of his own, a 310-foot Blue Monster carom, to plate Terdoslavich.
By that point, clearly out of gas, De La Rosa nearly fell apart completely. He threw another wild pitch on his way to walking Wilson, and to make matters worse it took him nine pitches to walk him. By the time he struck out Harrilchak to end the noise, he had thrown 38 pitches. His last pitch to Harrilchak was an 88-mph fastball, way below his usual 93+ velocity—he dialed it up to 97 once or twice last year—and even noticeably down from the 91 mph where he's been hovering in his first two appearances this year. If there is any justice, De La Rosa won't have to pitch again for at least two days.
The patience required for De La Rosa is different than what Alex Torres needs. They are, of course, starkly different pitchers. Torres is short and sparky, De La Rosa tall but rather mellow. Everything Torres throws moves in unexpected ways; De La Rosa's two pitches are pretty predictable. He relies on upper-register velocity and downward plane, and thus he needs to find those extra mph on his fastball, which is often pretty flat and straight.
As Gutmann's article on De La Rosa recounts, De La Rosa shortened and simplified his pitching motion a few years ago. That helped reduce arm stress (and probably also improved his control), but it came at the cost of under-exploiting De La Rosa's formidable size: He's listed at 6-foot-7, 220 pounds, and with a more pronounced and propulsive delivery to the plate than the one he now uses, that big body could increase reactive pressure on hitters.
I'm not suggesting that De La Rosa go back to his old, long-stride ways; clearly, he made it to the big leagues last year, after long toil in indy-league ball, because of the new mechanics. And it may simply be that De La Rosa is still building up his arm strength after spring training. But I do wonder if De La Rosa needs to be reminded to really use the full force of his frame—or maybe just to tell himself (and by extension the batters he faces): Hey, I'm a big dude, and this is a big fastball coming at you right now—or maybe a big, bendy curve. Epic. Deal.
One last thing. Actually, two. First, perhaps the most surprising thing about last night's game was the between-inning promotion that took place in the middle of the 11th inning, long after the emcee and the diversions have normally been played out. Did Bulls management somehow know the game would go that far, and reserve the little fan contest for extra innings? Are they so patient that they would risk never getting to use a toy in the name of waiting until just the right moment? A little suspicious, if you ask me—even vaguely eerie.
Second, and more to the point: You probably aren't freaking out that your Bulls haven't pounded the Braves into submission so far, but if you're kneejerking these guys back to Double-A or the Dairy Queen or wherever, give them time. Something tells me that this particular bunch of Bulls is going to need some breathing room as the season begins. Just like April, they might take a while to warm up. How hot they'll ultimately get I couldn't begin to guess. A watched pot does eventually boil, of course, but it won't do it any faster just because you're sweating over its calefaction. And there's your word for the day.
Speaking of it's-getting-hot-in-here, tonight is finally the night we get to see Gwinnett's star pitching prospect, Julio Teheran. Actually, not exactly tonight. Game time is at 5:05 p.m. (as it is on Sunday, as well). Making his Durham Bulls debut will be starter Bryan Augenstein. Maybe the game will get done in nine innings for a change. My colleague Sam Stephenson will be there, and I'll see you again Sunday. I hope I can wait that long! I know, I know—patience.