Durham Bulls down Gwinnett Braves: Archery

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DBAP/ DURHAM—Finally, after three nail-biters, an easy one. Well, easy enough, anyway. The Braves actually managed to get the tying run to the plate in the top of the ninth inning of the Bulls' 7-4 win. So that's a good measure of just how tight the games between the two teams have been: it's got to be a seesaw affair to qualify as a close one.

This, though, was a 7-1 game from the sixth inning till the ninth, a big lead generated early by a five-run second inning for Durham. Chris Archer threw six strong innings of one-run, two-hit ball, striking out eight batters and walking three. Relievers Ryan Reid and Jhonny [sic] Nunez helped make it interesting, but Dane De La Rosa rebounded from his disastrous inning on Friday night and slammed the door. In hindsight, this game fell squarely into the comfy part of the Buck Showalter Theorem for the Bulls, who are 3-1 to start the season and already showing signs of cohesion and consistency.

They'll need it for their next opponent, the Charlotte Knights. Gwinnett's not all that great. After the game, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo reiterated his usual words about the competitiveness between his team and the Braves, but the fact is that this Braves team is inferior to last season's squad. They have only one ace-level starter, Julio Teheran, but Teheran had a poor spring training and was ineffective against Durham on Saturday night. The bats aren't really there, either.

The Knights, on the other hand, can hit. They have Jordan Danks, Greg Golson, Conor Jackson, Dallas McPherson and, uh, Dan Johnson, whom you may remember. The pitching is a near total mystery to me, having undergone a major overhaul in the offseason, but there are some intriguing arms on the roster. Don't be surprised if Charlotte turns out to be a better team than they have been in past years, even though the White Sox' farm system is desolate.

But that, of course, remains to be seen. What was seen last night was the first appearance of 2012 for Raleigh native (and Garner homeowner) Chris Archer. Read on.

It's endlessly fascinating (to me, anyway) to listen to pitchers talk about how they do what they do. Although hitting requires thought, it's basically a reactive skill: you see the ball, you hit the ball, and you've got about two fifths of a second in which to do it. It's almost all instinct.

Pitching, on the other hand, is generative, not reactive; thoughtful, not instinctive. Every single time a pitcher sets, winds and deals, he is making all sorts of deliberate, conscious choices which set in motion a short but powerful narrative. A pitcher is an author, in other words, and a hitter is a reader.

But how does he write? There are pitchers who speak in almost purely mechanical terms about what they do: arm slots, release points, pitch selection, so on. There are pitchers who color in this sort of dry, occupational talk with bits and pieces of thought about mentality and focus.

And then there is someone like Chris Archer. To be sure, he does sometimes talk about technical stuff, such as "balance over the rubber," which he invoked late last year, just after he was promoted to Durham from Class AA Montgomery. But there's something appealingly human about the general way he talks about his work.

A little look into some of last night's work can help set up Archer's thoughts on the subject. He was out of sync right from the start, running a full count on Luis Durango before getting him to ground out, and then walking Jordan Parraz, all on fastballs (he threw 12 of them in a row to start the game). Catcher Nevin Ashley trotted out to the mound to talk to Archer for a moment.

What was the nature of the chat? Release point? Shoulder flying out too soon?

Nope. You've got good stuff, Ashley told him, according to Archer. Trust it. That rather jedi-like advice led to a pair of strikeouts to end the inning.

In the top of the second, Archer got ahead of Ernesto Mejia, 0-2, and then hung a slider. Pow. Mejia socked it over the right-centerfield wall for a solo home run—the second time in as many at-bats, by the way, that Mejia went deep against Archer. (He homered off of Archer last August 22, when Mejia was a Double-A Mississippi Brave and Archer was a Montgomery Biscuit. Archer was promoted to Durham the very next day.)

Archer then walked Joey Terdoslavich on four pitches, and this time Ashley didn't make a trip to the mound. Christian Marrero got good wood on a fastball, but hit it right near Brandon Guyer in left field for the first out. Archer froze Josh Wilson with a 94-mph fastball for strike three, and then got J. C. Boscan to ground out, ending the inning.

The Bulls, who had scored a run in the first inning on an RBI double by Matt Mangini, then tagged journeyman Braves starter Eric Junge for five runs in the bottom of the second, helped along by a pair of bloop singles (Nevin Ashley, Jesus Feliciano) that eluded fielders in the shallow outfield.

That five-spot allowed Archer to relax and throw. He retired the next six hitters in order, three by strikeout—including Mejia on three pitches. There was another wobble in the fifth inning—a Marrero single and a walk to Boscan, plus Durango's hard lineout to center field to end the inning. But Archer set the Braves down in order again in the sixth, and his last at-bat was a fulfilling one. He got ahead of Gartrell, 1-2, but then missed twice to run the count full. With the payoff pitch, rather than resort to another fastball—which was probably what Gartrell was looking for—Archer went to his slider, which is his best pitch. It was a good one, and Gartrell swung over it for strike three. Archer bounced off the mound, clearly pleased with the result. It almost seemed as though he had planned not only the pitch itself but also the outcome—imagined it before throwing it—and was then affirmed by the result. Yes, trust my stuff, and trust the outcome.

It may be overstating the case a bit to attribute this much cerebration to Archer's moundwork, but it may also be appropriate to approach it that way. Asked what adjustments he had made early in the game, Archer said it was nothing mechanical. He simply needed to "stay consistent with my thoughts."

I don't think that's the same as saying that his mind sometimes wanders, or that he gets down on himself. Rather, this still-young pitcher is still growing into the mechanics of his mind. "I tend to over-analyze things," he told an mlb.com reporter after the game. A pitcher's thought process has to be doggedly constant and unwavering—like an archer's. It isn't simply that you're trying to hit a bulls-eye. It's that you have to keep doing this difficult, hypersensitive thing over and over again and not mind when what you unleash goes astray, as it will many times in a game unless you're Greg Maddux. You have to master thinking very clearly and thoroughly about what you're doing—and also, at the same time, about absolutely nothing else. It is really hard to ask the mind to work very hard, get its gears going fully, while keeping it from expanding its process beyond the thing right in front of it: batter, catcher. A pitcher must make his mind work very complexly, but with simple, immediate goals.

Jeremy Hellickson excelled for Durham for parts of two seasons before rising permanently to the majors, where he was named American League Rookie of the Year in 2011. Yesterday afternoon, on his 25th birthday, Hellickson came one out away from a complete-game shutout of the New York Yankees. (Fernando Rodney closed it out.) One thing that set Hellickson apart from his peers in Durham was his sheer, impervious mental constancy. No matter the score or the count, a strikeout or a home run, he maintained a monkish evenness of mind.

Archer has better raw stuff than Hellickson does—a faster fastball, a devilish slider—but Hellickson has better raw consciousness: he is naturally given not to overthink. Hellickson seldom overthrows, as Archer sometimes does. He shows no enthusiasm after a big strikeout, as Archer did after fanning Gartrell in the sixth. (And as he did in after a very similar, final-batter strikeout in a game against Charlotte late last year.)

None of this is necessarily to suggest that Archer needs to be a less demonstrative pitcher. One's natural demeanor is always the best one, if it gets good results. But along with what I imagine is Archer's history of inconsistent thoughts (why would he be talking about consistency of thought otherwise?) is, not surprisingly, an inconsistency of results. Last year in Montgomery, he tended to follow really good outings with poor ones, his results spiking up and down on the graph of effectiveness. His middling ERA in Class AA was an average of extremes, not a description of his quality as a pitcher.

Steady mind, steady hand. I have to think that a season living in his hometown, in a home he owns, with his "support group," as he called it (family, close friends, mentor, etc.), in the stands for his DBAP starts, will help Archer immeasurably. He feels comfortable, supported, steadied. And as an added bonus, now he has his old roommate back: After the game, newly acquired reliever John Gaub told me that he and Archer were roomies way back when both were youngsters in the Cleveland organization, four or five years ago. (Oddly, they both went to the Cubs, then to the Rays.)

***

Quick transaction note: Catcher Chris Gimenez was placed on the 7-day disabled list with what is officially being termed a "groin strain." Balls bounce, catchers squat, and I'll let you do the rest of that math. Familiar face Craig Albernaz, who has played for the Bulls in parts of the last four seasons, was summoned from Double-A Montgomery. His stay in Durham is probably quite temporary. He is, however, a superb backstop.

Shawn O'Malley started at shortstop last night, giving Tim Beckham a scheduled day off. He handled a grand total of two chances, a pair of groundouts. His night at the plate was more eventful. In the Bulls' five-run second inning, he notched his first Triple-A RBI with a sacrifice fly. In the following inning, he tried to bunt for a base hit: a good one, but third baseman Joey Terdoslavich, who made three good plays at the hot corner, played it well and nipped O'Malley for the third out.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, O'Malley got his first hit as a Durham Bull, and he made it count: He belted a long, high homer over the Blue Monster, way back on the Tobacco Road Cafe terrace, off of reliever Jose Lugo. Needless to say, he was quite elated after the game, although he did his level best to be cool about it. In fact, he tried to be cool about it as he rounded the bases. He knew when it left the bat that it was gone, but he diligently sprinted to first base. Then he looked up, heard the crowd, and actually kept looking up at the spot where the ball landed as he rounded second base—as though he was trying to imprint the moment on his memory. The best part of O'Malley's homer occurred when he returned to the dugout, where his teammates pulled the old silent-treatment trick, sitting stone-faced and still on the bench for a few seconds before jumping up as one and mobbing the kid. I'm hoping we can start calling him Alley Cat pretty soon.

Nice to see Dane De La Rosa bounce back from his unfortunate, game-losing 11th inning on Friday night. With the Bulls leading, 7-3, in the top of the ninth (Christian Marrero had hit a two-run homer off of Ryan Reid in the seventh), Jhonny Nunez came on and allowed three consecutive doubles. Brandon Guyer laid out and almost caught the third of them—it popped out of his glove—and the lead runner advanced only one base.

With runners on second and third and the tying run coming, improbably, to the plate, Charlie Montoyo had seen enough. De La Rosa had started warming in the bullpen after Marrero doubled, and he was ready. Boscan, who had hit a long home run off of Cesar Ramos in the first game of the series, was due up, and De La Rosa struck him out. He got Durango to ground out to end the game.

Last May, in a game at Indianapolis, De La Rosa was ejected for hitting the Indians' hated Andrew Lambo with a pitch, in apparent retaliation for an earlier plunking of the Bulls' Chris Carter by Indianapolis pitcher Rudy Owens following a Brandon Guyer home run (Owens had been ejected, too). Five days later, after serving a suspension, De La Rosa was bombed by those same Indians at the old Durham Athletic Park, starting with a game-tying two-run homer by, you guessed it, Lambo. During De La Rosa's meltdown against the Indians, Charlie Montoyo came out to the mound and gave De La Rosa an animated, hortatory talking-to, and then left him the game—to no avail. De La Rosa made things worse with an errant pickoff throw three batters later.

De La Rosa struggled badly over his next few outings, allowing a total of 13 runs—half of his his eventual season total—in just 7 1/3 innings. He recovered and became a very valuable piece of the bullpen puzzle, leading the team in appearances and relief innings pitched. De La Rosa had a very good 2011, but it would have been great had it not been marred by that bad stretch in May, which befell him after the ejection and subsequent suspension.

There was no ejection this time, and no mound visit in the Gwinnett game last week; still, you couldn't help having the momentary worry that De La Rosa might fall into a similar hole after he fell apart on Friday. His next few outings will complete the narrative, of course, pitchers being the authors that they are. But if the theme of last night's pitching was consistency of thought, then it seems that—if last year's slump was part mental—De La Rosa has hung onto his equilibrium.

***

At the DBAP tonight at 7:05 p.m., the Bulls' Matt Torra takes the mound for the first time this season against the Charlotte Knights. We think the Knights are sending Boston College grad John Doyle to the mound for the first Triple-A start of his career. That's only guesswork, though. Better come out to the ballpark and find out for yourself.

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