by Adam Sobsey
Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said that of course "it had to be like that: a one-nothing game with their best hitter at the plate. Man on first, deep fly ball to center, and the guy who got the big hit [caught] the out." And then there was a pause as Montoyo let out a brief but soulful sigh, the exhalation of two weeks of frustration, failure and, probably, freaking out.
A few minutes after that, Bulls General Manager Mike Birling came into the manager's office, which he seldom does—wearing a suit, which is even rarer—and shook Montoyo's hand. It was like they'd just birthed a baby after a difficult, overdue pregnancy—and come to think of it, it did seem like about nine months had passed since the Bulls had borne Durham a win. (For his part, O'Malley, sporting a perhaps slumpbusting mohawk, estimated the subjective length of the losing streak at two months, which is much longer than that in baseball time.) Cesar Ramos, who pitched around a ninth-inning single to earn his first save of the season, "was carrying the whole team—the whole town, actually," Montoyo said, referring to how close his team came to setting the Durham Bulls' all-time record for consecutive losses.
This is some emotional stuff. There's no crying in baseball, but there is a hell of a lot of feeling. When you lose 13 straight games, something as painful as lovesickness sets in: that terrible separation from victory gets more and more distant; the very idea of winning recedes like a lover waving from shore as you drift away on the current of loss. As if to underscore the tenderness, the postgame clubhouse stereo was not playing thumping reggaetón or skull-battering heavy metal, but rather keening country music and then, amazingly, Michael Jackson's "Black or White"—that's the song with Macaulay Culkin in the video—whose U.N. and Rainbow Coalition-approved sentiment jived nicely with Montoyo's on the subject of the necessity of hanging tough as an all-for-one unit in times of crisis, which boiled down to this: "Let's be a team."
That's perfectly sound thinking in terms of psychology, mental attitude, and all that kind of thing. But the fact is that a large percentage of the action of baseball really stems from individual feats, not physical "teamwork."
To that end, Matt Torra.
The Bulls' right-hander had his second straight good start after opening the season with two bad ones. Actually, he was better than good. For 5 1/3 innings, the Pittsfield, Mass. native was in fact perfect, and he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning—less than 24 hours after the Indians no-hit the Bulls on Sunday. Jordy Mercer's infield single, on a ball hit deep in the shortstop hole on which O'Malley had no chance—although he made a valiant effort and a good throw—wound up as the only hit Torra allowed in eight innings of almost breezily economical work.
How did he do it? Simple. He owned the inner half of the plate, pushing his fastball up under the elbows of the Indians early in the count. He used his changeup less than he usually does, and he said after the game that he was over-relying on it in his first two starts. You often hear starting pitchers say that establishing the fastball in is the key to a good outing, and although Torra wasn't quite that emphatic about it, you had only to watch in order to see it in action. Montoyo noted that Torra's fastballs inside made the Indians uncomfortable, which was very important in a situation like this one. Indianapolis had not only won three straight games at Durham; they won the last one with a no-hitter. The team must have been feeling supremely confident and loose—comfortable.
It was not only Torra's location that discomforted the Indians, it was the pace with which he threw them. Not the velocity, mind you—Torra doesn't throw hard and said later that "I'm not a strikeout pitcher" (he struck out just one yesterday: the first batter of the game, looking). I mean the speed with which he worked on the mound. He'd throw a pitch, get the ball back from catcher Craig Albernaz, and immediately look in for the next sign. More than once, a surprised Indian asked the plate umpire for a hasty timeout as he began to dig in and saw Torra almost ready to deliver.
Through five innings, Torra had thrown just 48 pitches, an impressive 36 of them for strikes, and the Indians had swung 26 times, which is a high rate. I recently wrote a longish (and free) think-piece for Baseball Prospectus about the difference between command and control, in which I not only settled on a distinction between the two but also advanced a sort of second-order theory about command. Torra's work yesterday exampled that theory. He was not only putting the ball where he wanted it, but commanding the pace of each at-bat and making hitters swing at his pitches. The contact he induced—and there was a lot of it—was mostly weak, and the hard-hit balls tended to be grounders. His fielders were airtight, and O'Malley particularly made some fine plays at shortstop in support of Torra's effort.
Meanwhile, the Bulls looked miserable again at the plate against yet another Indianapolis left-hander. This time it was Jeff Locke, like Torra a New Englander (he's from New Hampshire) who relies on location and variation rather than pure stuff. He also has an extra-twisty windup that makes him a little hard to pick up as he comes to the plate. The Bulls got their first hits off of him in the third inning—their first safeties in 13 innings going back to Saturday night—but both were infield singles.
The second was O'Malley's little dribbler with one out, putting two men on, but the Bulls didn't score, as Will Rhymes followed by hitting into an inning-ending double play. It was emblematic of the way things have been going for Durham that, despite getting two "hits" in the inning, they were retired on a grand total of five pitches. Even their ostensible threats weren't really threats. A crippling, spitting-into-the-wind debility had overtaken the team, it seemed.
A couple of innings later, with one out, both Stephen Vogt and Juan Miranda hit long fly outs with Feliciano on first base after he got the Bulls' first legit hit of the afternoon, a solid single to center field. Everything about the Bulls was screaming warning-track power. Sure, they had been blown out in some of the games during the 13-game losing streak, but they had chances to win plenty of them. They seemed to keep finding ways to fall just short. As Feliciano put it after the game, even yesterday's no-hit loss to Indianapolis was close till the very end. The Bulls had the tying run on base in the eighth inning on Sunday. And in the ninth, Reid Brignac nearly beat out his check-swing grounder that would have broken up the no-hitter but instead completed it.
There was all kinds of after-the-fact pride from the Bulls about their attitude and intensity during the losing streak. Guys talked about having hit the ball hard but coming up empty. They talked about how they didn't try to do too much. Things like that. But in fact, the Bulls hit almost nothing hard during the no-hitter on Sunday—even Montoyo said so, emphatically—and their deep fly outs today were basically very long cans of corn, not screaming rockets. Moreover, it did indeed look like the Bulls were trying to do too much: The tension that seemed to grip virtually their every swing turned each one into a laborious, fraught event. So frustrated was Will Rhymes after he was called out on a close play at first base, trying to beat out an infield hit, that he carped at the umpire and was ejected.
So when Brandon Boggs went in pursuit of Feliciano's eighth-inning fly to the right-field warning track—yet another not-quite-over-the-hump hit for Durham—the team's fate seemed to hang in the rapidly shrinking distance between Boggs and the ball. There were two outs. Torra was probably done for the day. The Bulls didn't seem likely to manufacture too many more chances. It seemed like now or never.
Boggs dove, missed, and finally the Bulls had caught a break. The ball bounced up over the wall for a ground-rule double and O'Malley, who had an eventful, high-labor afternoon both at the plate and in the field, scored from second base. In fact, it was their second break of the inning. O'Malley had drawn a one-out walk from reliever Daniel Moskos, surviving a borderline pitch on 3-1 that was called a strike before the sixth pitch of the at-bat missed. The first break came during the following at-bat. Moskos bounced a pitch to Reid Brignac, and it squirted just far enough away from Indians' catcher Eric Fryer—which was not all that far, really—for O'Malley to scoot to second base. It was a risky play, perhaps even reckless.
Had O'Malley been thrown out trying to advance, he could have been accused of committing the very "trying to do too much" misdemeanor that Feliciano told us the Bulls weren't guilty of perpetrating. (The things ballplayers say, especially in retrospect, are often plainly untrue—or if they turn out to be true, it's frequently only via the accident of results, not intent.) But as it transpired, O'Malley beat Fryer's throw by a smidgen. That enabled him to score on Feliciano's hit; otherwise, the ground-rule bounce into the stands would have called him back to third base.
The Bulls really had to have this game. Not so much because of the record losing streak, which they would have broken had they lost. Frankly, I doubt that many (if any) of the personnel of the current franchise care very much about being "better" than the 1995 Bulls, who as a Class A affiliate of the Braves lost 13 straight themselves. These are just minor-league numbers, existing in a netherworld of irrelevance.
The Bulls needed this game because, with yesterday's record-tying, no-hit loss at the hands of the Indians—further discolored by the unlucky number 13 that designated it—they had hit rock bottom. Had the Bulls stayed there by losing again, not even a full day after that humiliation, it would have been tantamount to accepting their futile lot. In other words, it's not whether you founder—Montoyo has said a couple of times in this home stand that you're going to crash sometimes—but whether you resurface.
Will the Bulls do that? This was just one win, after all, and in the general elation afterwards it would have been bad faith to whisper that the Bulls had only four hits and two of them were infield singles; that they have now scored a grand total of 10 runs in their last seven games; that they are 10.5 games out of first place and it isn't even May yet; and that Brandon Guyer and Nevin Ashley, their only right-handed hitters with power, are both on the disabled list.
Furthermore, they've lost another starter, although not in the usual way. In order to "help him relax" and "take the pressure off of him," according to Montoyo, Alex Torres has been moved to the bullpen by Tampa Bay's decree. We've wondered aloud before here on Triangle Offense whether that might not be the best thing for Torres, who seems to pitch better, and with more confidence, when the stakes are higher. Oddly, he responds to circumstantial pressure better than the lack of it, which seems to cause him to create his own.
Jim Paduch, the indy-ball veteran who has made two one-off starts for the Bulls over the last two seasons, has been promoted (for the second time this month) from Class AA Montgomery to take Torres' spot in the rotation, which now lacks a left-hander. Marquis Fleming, whose modest fastball and gimmick changeup looked overmatched in Triple-A, was sent back to the Biscuits for further proofing.
The Louisville Bats come into town on Tuesday for their annual four-game set at the DBAP. (Sadly, the gregarious, straight-talking Rick Sweet no longer manages them.) Their scheduled starters tomorrow (7:05 p.m.) and Wednesday (11:05 a.m.—set your alarm!) are Brett Tomko and Jeff Francis, two veterans who have combined for 161 major-league victories. So it doesn't get any easier for the Bulls to dig themselves out of the huge hole they've made for themselves. Francis is yet another southpaw, but Tomko is a righty, and Charlie Montoyo didn't care that he's won 100 games in the major leagues. "It could be Roger Clemens," Montoyo said. "He's a righty, though." For now, that's all this left-handed, left-for-dead baseball club is asking for.