Durham Bulls fall to Charlotte Knights: Time of the Season

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DBAP/ DURHAM—We may know what time of the season it is—the last home game of the Bulls' season is tonight—but what season is it, exactly? Not long ago, a cold front dropped Durham's weather way down into the temperate range (you could wear long sleeves and pants), and it seemed that summer was over early.

Coincidentally, after the weather cooled, the Bulls hit their hottest stretch of 2012, winning a season-high six straight games. But then they left home and were swept at Norfolk, scoring a total of one run in three games; meanwhile, while they were gone, the heat gathered itself again. Yesterday afternoon, about 3:30 p.m., one of the Charlotte Knights was lost near the team hotel; he was trying to get to the DBAP but was going the opposite direction. I happened to be headed out of my house for what would turn out to be a scorching run in the sun, and the ballplayer, whom I had never seen before, flagged me down for directions—you can just tell a ballplayer, even before he reveals himself (so can baseball players tell baseball adepts? is that why he picked me to help him?). I pointed the way for him, a Latino player from a presumably caliente climate, and as we walked across Chapel Hill Street he said, prematurely exhausted, "It's hot."

It's not the Knights, though, but the Bulls who are swooning in the heat. Last night, the Bulls dropped their fourth straight game, losing 7-2 to Charlotte, and the game was over before the home team even came to bat. On his fourth pitch of the game, Durham starter Jim Paduch gave up a solo homer to rehabbing White Sox outfielder Alejandro de Aza, who spent ample time with the Knights in 2010 and 2011. Two pitches after that, Bulls third baseman Cole Figueroa made an uncharacteristic error on an easy grounder by another rehabbing major-leaguer, Orlando Hudson.

Then Paduch started bouncing balls all over the dirt, walking Greg Golson and throwing a couple of wild pitches—one of them a Nuke LaLoosh-style, all-the-way-to-the-backstop airmail express package—and a potential third was courteously ruled a passed ball by the official scorer.

Dan Johnson—who was later removed, after the seventh inning, and called up to the majors (yay!)—singled, and one out later I called for Josh Phegley to hit a double off the Blue Monster. It turned out to be a single off the Blue Monster (what was I thinking with a slow catcher running?) and it was 4-0, Knights.

"Just a bad start. Tough to watch," Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said later, landing really hard on the word "bad." He's had to watch a lot of them this season, and they're why his team never had a chance in 2012. Paduch's start last night encapsulated most of what anyone needs to know. He put the Bulls in an immediate deficit, he didn't throw strikes, when he did they got hit, and he didn't make it to the fifth inning.

What do you expect? There have been a few nice moments for Paduch this year, as when he blanked the Pawtucket Red Sox for six innings and beat Daisuke Matsuzaka. But that was almost four months ago. The league figured Paduch out. He had a 2.35 ERA after beating Pawtucket that day; from there it marched up, up, up, topped 5.00, and wound up (after last night) at 5.65. It's the time of the season when ERAs run high.

Paduch shouldn't even have been on the mound last night. Not long ago, Bulls' broadcaster Patrick Kinas mentioned that the Tampa Bay Rays had originally planned to turn Paduch into the late-inning closer for the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits this season. Pressed into emergency action as a starter in Durham, one level up, he simply didn't have the tools for the job. Not for nothing did he spend four prime developmental years lost to the world in indy-ball. And he only stayed in this year's rotation for the Bulls because, basically, Alex Torres was a total disaster.

And guess who's starting tonight? Alex Torres.

It's the time of the season.

But the miracle of baseball is its clocklessness. It can change on you like that, because it has, essentially, a limitless opportunity to do so in every game. Time of the season? It's the timelessness of the season, and every day in baseball is its own season.

To wit, last night: First, Dan Johnson got called up. I mean, DAN JOHNSON GOT CALLED UP! I'm so happy for him I can barely express it. He was leading the IL in games played. He was imprisoned in Triple-A. He's been freed.

Then, second, Kevin Kiermaier came into the game for the Bulls.

Who?

The Bulls have a player named Kenny Kervmaier? Carny Kevmaier? Now just hold on there, fella.

I will if you will.

If you're departing here but might like to hear what I have to say anyway—and I literally mean "hear"—tune your dial to 620 AM today at noon. I'll be joining Patrick Kinas and Charlie Montoyo on the air during the second half of the Bulls' weekly Saturday radio show.

It's the time of the season not only when love runs high—as it always does, somewhere, for someone—but also when the axis of Triple-A baseball makes the final turn in its slow rotation. All year long, players have toiled here hoping for that September 1 callup, that final validation of their summer's work. The whole churning, grinding machinery of Triple-A gets its meaning from this late-season determination of which of its products get to go up to the big leagues for that last autumnal chance to perform for the big club. In Triple-A, it's not Opening Day that is the time of the season—just ask Jeff Salazar, who was the Rays' choice for the big-league roster and then, on Day One of 2012, unceremoniously dumped on the Durham discard pile (and then released altogether three months later). Nor is it the post-season, by which time all the best Triple-A players have been called up to the majors, gutting the playoff contenders and leaving them to duke it out with underachievers and lifers and Double-A replacements.

No, the time of the season is right now, today, when not only love but hope runs high and, for some, is rewarded. Meanwhile, others wait, held in torturous abeyance, for perhaps a later call; still others simply wait for the season to end, and look, many of them despondently, over their cumulative season stats.

So for four Durham Bulls, yesterday was the best day of the season. Reid Brignac, Chris Gimenez, Cesar Ramos and Rich Thompson were told to pack their passports and fly to Toronto, where the Rays are currently playing. Others, like Chris Archer, Dane De la Rosa, Brandon Gomes and Stephen Vogt, wait to see if they'll be summoned, too. (De La Rosa and Gomes didn't pout, combining to throw three scoreless innings against Charlotte last night, making it look mostly pretty easy.)

And then there are the rest.

And then there is this other class of player, one on few radars, one with no big-league aspirations—not yet, anyway. It's also the time of the season for the one who is called up not from but to Triple-A, and given a chance—even if only for the last four days of the season—to audition for a future job here in Durham and, perhaps, beyond.

You'd expect the natural progression to result in a Double-A player making the one-level jump to Triple-A. But the Rays Double-A affiliate, the Montgomery Biscuits, is headed for the Southern League playoffs. It may seem silly to privilege the lower level over the higher, but minor-league pennant-chasers, no matter the number of As they have at their level, usually get a little extra consideration as long as their players aren't deemed essential in the majors. In fact, auxiliary Bulls catcher Craig Albernaz was sent down to Montgomery to catch for them (Mayobanex Acosta, briefly a Bull this year, is hurt). That marked the sixth straight season in which the stalwart Albernaz—who was honored with the "community spirit" award for the Bulls last night—has played for the Biscuits.

Consider one of the late-season adds for the Bulls in the 2010 season. A 22-year-old kid named Kyle Holloway, just seven weeks into his professional career and during those seven weeks playing for the Rookie-league Princeton (Va.) Rays, suddenly found himself in the Triple-A Durham Bulls' clubhouse, where he was ruthlessly needled by Justin Ruggiano for wearing both horizontal and vertical stripes (seriously; this really happened). The next day, he started at catcher and wound up calling pitches for 41-year-old Brian Shouse, who made his major-league debut when Kyle Holloway was five years old. Holloway also belted a double off of Todd Redmond to start a rally. Two days later, his pinch-hit, leadoff double—it barely missed being a home run, banging high off the Blue Monster—in the ninth inning led to the Bulls tying a game they should have lost (they did, in the 10th).

Holloway played two more games in 2010 for the Bulls, the last two of the regular season. He had eight at-bats in those games and struck out five times. He played in the low minors again in 2011, and in the third week of January of this year he was released and is out of organized baseball.

All of this is a long way of saying that, if there was room for 22-year-old Kyle Holloway in Durham in 2010, then there is room for 22-year-old Kevin Kiermaier in 2012.

Who is Kevin Kiermaier? A 31st-round draft pick out of an Illinois junior college in 2010. Played in Princeton with Kyle Holloway that year, and was good enough to move up to low-A Bowling Green in 2011, stealing 27 bases (although caught 10 times) and continuing to show enough promise to earn a 2012 assignment to high-A Port Charlotte, where his plate discipline improved a lot and his stolen bases declined. (Here are his career stats.)

And who cares, right? What do stats in the Gulf Coast League mean in the Triple-A register? All Charlie Montoyo knew on Friday was that Kiermaier arrived from Florida and, what with all the callups to Tampa Bay from Durham, that Kiermaier was the only bench player Montoyo would have at his disposal. And since Montoyo is, as he often reminds reporters, committed to giving playing time to everyone on his roster, and fast; and since Jesus Feliciano has a dead-man-walking air about him these days (witness his unconscionable failure to even leave the batter's box on his fifth-inning tapper just foul up the third base line); and since all Montoyo knew about Kiermaier was that he was apparently one of the best outfielders in the Tampa Bay organization—well, why not throw the kid out there and see what he could do?

Bottom of the eighth inning. 7-0, Knights. A glum game—the worst one I had seen at the DBAP this year, in fact, as far as the home team was concerned. After Jim Paduch spotted the Knights four first-inning runs, ho-hum Charlotte starter Scott Carroll had tried to help the Bulls back into the game by walking the leadoff man in four of his seven innings of work—in fact, the leadoff man reached for Durham in every inning but one last night, and the Bulls were issued nine walks in all. But three times, the Bulls immediately followed those leadoff walks with double-play grounders, they went hitless with runners in scoring position, and they stranded 10 baserunners. (They failed to score off of Carroll.) A lot of them were like zombies, didn't look like they wanted to be there at the DBAP at all, and neither did anyone who cared about them as a baseball team. Fortunately, most of the big crowd did not care about them as a baseball team and happily munched and waved their way through to the postgame fireworks.

So, game in (or out of) hand, I'm messing around on Twitter, speculating online about whether Dan Johnson's early exit from the ballgame really does mean a promotion to the White Sox, following the Rays' devastating near-miss loss at Toronto and gathering info on their trade for right-handed slugger Ben Francisco.

Into the batter's box steps Kiermaier. He's got on black stirrups instead of white or Bulls blue. All he has with him, maybe? Lefty swinger. Hitting for Feliciano. Facing a lefty, Daniel Moskos, who has swing-and-miss stuff. Welcome to Triple-A, dude.

Whacks the first pitch he sees into center field for a base hit.

A little later, the ball will be sitting on Charlie Montoyo's desk, inscribed: "First AAA hit. Daniel Moskos."

Moskos has swing-and-miss stuff, but he also has miss-the-plate stuff. Winds up walking the bases full, then seems to cross up his catcher, who gets charged with a passed ball as Kiermaier scores. Hey-ho!

A Leslie Anderson sacrifice fly makes it 7-2, and Brooks Conrad walks to put two men on with two outs for Stephen Vogt. But Vogt pops out to end the inning. Still, there's something.

Top of the ninth. Alejandro de Aza wallops Dane De La Rosa's second pitch to deep center field. He's bidding for his second homer of the game. Kiermaier sprints, warning track, leaps—makes the catch!—crashes into the wall!—goes down in a heap. Helluva catch. A big-league catch, forget Triple-A.

Is he okay? Uh, no one else on the bench. Designated hitter Henry Wrigley is going to have play in the field which means that the pitcher will bat. Trainer goes out there. Charlie Montoyo goes out there.

He's okay. A little woozy, but okay. You can see him smiling a little. He's staying in the game. From the infield, Brooks Conrad and Will Rhymes are sending Kiermaier a soldier's raised-arm gesture, a solidarity salute. Somewhere between the Black Panthers and cig-lighter-at-a-rock-concert. Way to go, kid. Welcome to the Triple-A fraternity.

The ball winds up in right fielder Leslie Anderson's hands, but Kiermaier's not going to get this one inscribed. Anderson chucks it triumphantly over the wall.

Bottom of the ninth. On in relief is Knights closer Jhan [sic] Carlos Marinez [sic]. That's how he's announced. Full name: "Jhan Carlos Marinez." Just turned 24 three weeks ago. Still, two years older than Kiermaier, and in his seventh pro season—a veritable old salt compared to Kiermaier.

Cole Figueroa works the count full, singles up the middle. Nevin Ashley grounds out.

Marinez throws 95. Up steps Kiermaier. It would be no surprise if he's never faced a guy who could throw 95, although he probably has. To make things harder for Kiermaier, Marinez isn't really sure where the ball is going to go. Has a slider, too. Is it good? Does that matter if he's throwing it to a 31st-rounder who just drove up from the Gulf Coast League?

Kiermaier takes two balls. Hey! Discipline! Then fouls one off... then... swings and misses. It's 2-2. Oh. Oh well. Marinez throws another ball, slider away I think. Now the count is full. Tries to throw his fastball past Kiermaier, but Kiermaier fouls it off. Tries to throw his slider instead, Kiermaier fouls that off, too. Impressive.

And takes ball four. Three chiermaiers for Kiermaier!

Next batter is Tim Beckham, who has already had three hits. Beckham hits a short opposite-field liner that is almost... delicate. The Knights' first baseman had been Dan Johnson, but the Great Pumpkin is already making a hotel reservation in Detroit, where the White Sox are playing. Now it's Seth Loman, who is two inches taller. I'm myth-making here. It's not the world's easiest play, and Loman has to stretch for it, and I like to think that it would have eluded the slightly-shorter DanJo, but in any case Loman catches it.

Kiermaier had strayed off first, thinking it might be a hit. He's caught. He lunges, dives—just beats Loman back to the bag. Just. Has to lie there a second. Finally picks himself up, dusts himself off. I imagine he's thinking: Triple-A is hard! Jeezus! I just got here!

And so, to me, it's because Kiermaier draws this unlikely walk, raising his slugging percentage to 2.000 for now, and avoids this game-ending line-out double play, that the Bulls will eventually get the tying run into the on-deck circle in the person of leading hitter Leslie Anderson. Oh, Leslie doesn't end up getting to to the plate, but that doesn't matter. With the bases loaded after a Will Rhymes walk, Henry Wrigley gets under a Marinez pitch, just a little, misses a grand slam by a few millimeters. Instead it's a harmless fly-out to left field, and the Bulls lose.

Does it matter that the Bulls lose? The Bulls haven't been a contender since you were doing your taxes in April. That was not the time of the season, this is. It is the callups' time. Here, now, in Durham, it is Kid Kiermaier's time.

I admit I never talked to him. Walked right past him as he came out of the trainer's room, was going to go right to him after I talked to Montoyo. But it is also the time of the season to talk at length with Montoyo, whom I will see for the last time this season later tonight. By the time I got finished talking with Montoyo, a good meaty half hour or so, Kiermaier was out of the clubhouse along with every other Durham Bull save two, who were parked on the couch like bored junior high-schoolers, watching TV and cutting up. I'll catch Kiermaier tonight before he, too, is gone, perhaps forever, along with Kyle Holloway. Or maybe this is just the opener for him, the little phrase that will return as a full composition in 2014, 2015. When is the time of the season? That depends upon which season turns out to be yours.

Sportsfans, I chose today's theme not only because it is indeed the time of the baseball season in these parts. The musical group that brought us that phrase, the legendary Zombies, now in their sixth decade (!) of life, played here a little over a month ago, and I went to hear them at Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill. I was asked to write about it but the piece I submitted got lost in an administrative shuffle, much in the way that some minor-league ballplayers (e.g. Matt Mangini) will be placed on the Temporarily Inactive list and disappear there for a curiously long time. By the time it was found, its time (of the season) had passed, at least on the journalistic calendar, and what befell it was the journalism equivalent of a DFA.

But then I thought it over some more and concluded that, for any band that has been together for over 50 years and recorded one of the most instantly recognizable songs in pop music history—and is once again, in the winter of its life, still playing live, and playing beautifully—the season never passes. The Zombies' story, too, is one of times and seasons: their second album, Odessey [sic] and Oracle, is a minor masterpiece, but no one bought it when it came out, in 1967, and they broke up shortly afterward—only to haunt the airwaves forever when "Time of the Season" was belatedly discovered and justly canonized.

So in the spirit of honoring the Zombies, and of honoring all who have made unlikely successes of themselves where you wouldn't have guessed you'd find them—Kevin Kiermaier, suddenly a Durham Bull; Reid Brignac, called up to Tampa Bay only because his temporary Durham teammate Sean Rodriguez threw a temper tantrum in the DBAP clubhouse and broke his hand; and Dan Johnson, who seemed doomed to finish the year wearing the Knights' Fort Millstone around his neck—I'll leave you with the thousand or so ecstatic words I wrote last month, with pleasured hands, about the Zombies' show at Cat's Cradle. It has a Durham Bulls reference in it, if that helps.

Last home game of the year tonight. You won't want to miss it, even though (or perhaps because) basketcase Alex Torres, back from exile with the team from whence Kevin Kiermaier just arrived, is the home team's starter. He faces Charlie Shirek, making his sixth—and, I guarantee it, final—start of 2012 against the Durham Bulls. He's 4-1 against them so far.

***

Night of the Living Dead: The Zombies rock the Cradle

Here’s why Sunday night’s “Zombies” show—in quotes because only co-founders Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone remain from the original 1960s lineup—was such a bargain at $35. (Thirty-five dollars to get into Cat’s Cradle!?) It isn’t that the quintet can really play and sing, which they can. It isn’t that Odessey and Oracle, their doomed sophomore album of 1967, has a bunch of good songs on it. Which it does.

It’s that the Zombies basically never played these songs live. They recorded them at Abbey Road Studios a couple of months after the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band there. Odessey stiffed, the band broke up a few months later, and its members went their separate ways. Thus the songs grew up as orphans. One of them, the menacing, Doors-like, darkly jazzy, vaguely Humbert-Humbertish “Time of the Season,” became a belated hit. Since then, the song has acquired iconic status and helped make Odessey (that word infamously misspelled by the cover artist) a widely admired but quintessentially cult album, which befits a band called the Zombies—it’s a walking-dead thing, a haunting thing.

After about 40 years, the Zombies began to make themselves undead via occasional halting reunion attempts, starting in the early 1990s. When they inevitably, ghoulishly returned in earnest about eight years ago, Argent and Blunstone finally reclaiming the Zombies moniker, they were fresh: not zombies so much as cryogenically frozen British invaders, ready to resume their long-ago aborted project of taking over the world, one chamber-pop song at a time. They’ve been touring annually for several years now, and it shows. The current lineup is tight.

At the Cradle on Sunday, the Zombies first dispensed, lovingly, with some material from their newish album, Breathe Out, Breathe In (2011); a cover of Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” which Blunstone recorded with Eurythmic Dave Stewart in 1981; and some other stuff that was perfectly fine but far from the point and would frankly have been a waste of $35 had it gone on much longer.

The point was Odessey and Oracle, along with the corollary 1964 Zombies singles “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No." After the non-Zombies warmup songs, Rod Argent gave a quick band-history lesson for the benefit of any crowd members needing a hip check. Odessey and Oracle is Dave Grohl’s fave album, Argent said, and it’s Paul Weller’s. The packed house at the Cradle cheered and hollered—it was their fave, too. Argent accepted the loud love with priestly affirmation, formal gratitude for the required tribute paid in full.

That accomplished, the Zombies then played about half the songs from Odessey and Oracle, an album that does not quite sound as good as its legend—Sgt. Pepper easily beats it, sonically and otherwise—but is nonetheless a pillar of inventive pop music. It is adored by Grohl and Weller and musicians everywhere for its appealingly warm sound and its weird songwriting. There are disconcerting changes of key and dense harmonies and spooky, gaseous lyrics. (The name Zombies was chosen out of last-minute desperation, according to band lore, but it suits them well.)

They played “Care of Cell 44,” a cheerful, bass-driven ditty narrated, it turns out, by a guy waiting for his girl to get out of prison. (“Kiss and make up and it will be so nice”: did she try to off him or something?) They played the wintry piano elegy “A Rose for Emily,” with its titular echo of Faulknerian necrophilia. Sadly, they skipped the World War I dirge “The Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)”—"I can’t stop shaking… Please let me go home"—although you could have heard Joe Pernice play it, as he has been doing for a few years now, at Local 506 back in March. (Pernice has been called “an American version of Colin Blunstone.”) Pernice and recent tour-mates John Wesley Harding and Rick Moody also covered the much sunnier Odessey jingle “Friends of Mine. (“KimandMaggieJuneandDaffyJeanandJimandJimandChristine.”) And did I mention Dave Grohl? Paul Weller?

But come on, now. When are they gonna play “Time of the Season”? That’s what you came here for, right? Yes, oh yes, they played “Time of the Season,” played it a little more than halfway through their set, stretching it out by several delirious minutes via Rod Argent’s extended organ solo. The crowd floated into a keening rapture, a smoke-blue Zombie-trance of deep-cortex happiness: That is the Zombies playing “Time of the Season” in Cat’s Cradle!

Neither Rod Argent nor Colin Blunstone has noticeable gray hair. Somehow the Zombies seem like a mid-career band, a disarmingly swanky duo, two chestnut-maned, pride-leading lions backed, improbably, by three gray-haired session players (including a father-son rhythm section, but even the son has gray hair).

And why should it be otherwise? Colin Blunstone’s inimitable voice has scarcely aged a day since 1967, not least because he already sang like a fading ghost in 1967, when he was 22 years old (like Kevin Kiermaier was yesterday). If you’ll pardon a Durham Bulls reference borrowed from my other beat, the Durham Bulls baseball team, in the movie Bull Durham Crash Davis tells Nuke LaLoosh that “all my limbs put together are worth seven cents a pound” while LaLoosh has “a million-dollar arm.”

Colin Blunstone has a million-dollar voice, and like Nuke LaLoosh, there is something effortless about his delivery (unlike Nuke, he never misfires). Sure, Blunstone reached to hit some impressive falsetto notes on Sunday—his range is surprisingly wide—and he did have a mildly operatic flair on stage. But it was when he seemed scarcely to be trying at all, that almost vatic channeling of the lustful zombie inside him—What’s your name?/Who’s your daddy?/Is he rich like me?—that you were confronted with the reason the Zombies and their music are still adored. The songs are good, and “Time of the Season” is great; but without Blunstone singing them they would be bereft of magic and treasure. They would be worth about seven cents a pound.

The Zombies were apparently confident enough to feel like they didn’t have to close their show with “Time of the Season,” carrying on afterward through several more songs. And indeed they did not have to end there, drawing on the varied music of their long, divergent careers—from Argent’s proto-prog-rock “Hold Your Head Up” to Blunstone’s cameo vocals for the late-prog-rock Alan Parsons Project—and even throwing in a cover of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” They hit the mark on their four-part harmonies, their solos, their high notes. And they hit the crowd, too, right between the ears, all night long.

When it was over, we all walked out of the Cradle in a kind of gobsmacked glee, not quite believing that we had just seen and heard what we saw and heard but raving about it anyway. The Zombies! It was like we had just gotten away with something—or rather, like the Zombies had, and what they had gotten away with was cheating death, once again walking the earth with their music, somehow, long after their burial.

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