by Adam Sobsey
The Bulls are tied for last place in the South Division with the Gwinnett Braves. To borrow from Tolstoy (there, I'm a book critic), all good teams are alike, but each bad team is bad in its own way. The Bulls' method is traditional and expedient: allow sh*t-tons of runs. The Braves, it seems (I don't really know; I only pay attention to them when they play Durham, although I did go to a G-Braves/Tides game down in Georgia recently—and I have proof and more proof), ah, the Braves seem to have the capacity to lose in such weird ways that it is almost wonderful. Their loss to Norfolk last night warrants this little detour down I-85:
Gwinnett took a 3-0 lead into the top of the ninth, having allowed just four hits, only to have the Tides tie it up against the Braves' late-inning B-squad relievers. Manager Dave Brundage had had to burn up the A-list the previous night in order to enable his team to rally and beat Durham in 11 innings. And it was the 11th that would decide the game again for Gwinnett last night. Reliever Ryan Buchter, who had faced five Bulls on Sunday night and walked four of them, came into the game and walked three more batters. He did manage to erase one of them at third base on a sacrifice bunt attempt, but cancelled that out by committing a throwing error on another sacrifice bunt.
After the third walk, Dave Brundage removed Buchter from the game with the bases loaded and the go-ahead run already in for Norfolk. The thing is, Brundage really didn't have anyone to replace Buchter; that's what consecutive 11-inning games will do to your bullpen. So he called on a position player to pitch, but not one on his bench. No, shortstop Josh Wilson walked over to the mound, replaced at his position by Brian Friday. (I guess Wilson pitched rather than Friday because Wilson, 31, is a minor-league soldier type and Friday is 26, still hanging onto prospect status.) Wilson, in Albernazian fashion, was actually making his third pitching appearance of the season. Guess who the second was against? The Durham Bulls, in a 16-8 loss on July 25. Wilson tossed a scoreless ninth inning against the Bulls.
So Wilson trots over the mound from shortstop and promptly allows a two-run single to L. J. Hoes. That makes it 6-3, Norfolk, which will be the final score, but the Braves do add a little more fish to this bicycle: The Tides' Ryan Flaherty follows Hoes' single by popping out to... Brian Friday at shortstop—and I can kind of imagine Wilson standing on the mound and kvetching, enviously, "That's my putout!" And finally, in the fruitless bottom of the 11th, Wilson is the only Brave to reach base when he singles with one out.
Sure, you can make this stuff up, but fortunately you don't have to. You have the Gwinnett Braves and the Durham Bulls, tied for last place, doing it for you by being nice to other teams, allowing 52 hits in three days and putting shortstops on the mound in tense extra-inning games. And you probably know what the vicious and venerable manager Leo Durocher said about nice guys: "Nice guys finish last."
That's why the big cognitive dissonance thing going on at the DBAP these days—other than the sight of a Charlie Montoyo-managed, five-time division champ stumbling around in the late-August basement, of course—is the constant sound of Alice Cooper's "No More Mr. Nice Guy" on the PA system.
I can't count the number of times the DBAP sound designer has played that song so far during this home stand. It seems like the five-second chorus excerpt comes on every single time a Durham pitcher strikes a batter out, which happens often: the Bulls' pitchers, speaking of cognitive dissonance, are tied with Charlotte for the league lead in strikeouts. And I could just swear that yesterday they were playing it any old time something good happened for the Bulls, as though the media folks had bought a huge pallet of five-second "No More Mr. Nice Guy" snippets and, the team having turned out to suck, were just trying to use them all up before the season ended. In any case, the goddamn song (told you I could just swear) has been stuck in my head for 24 hours or so, largely because we only ever hear that five-second title line. Damn.
As it happens, just last month Alice Cooper participated in a survey of rock and pop musicians conducted by Rolling Stone and prefaced by Dan Epstein, whose book, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s, I happen to have reviewed a couple of years ago for the Indy (the very long title is pretty much all you need to know about the very long book). The topic for which Cooper's expertise was invited was in the realm of baseball, and it was: "the return of the pitcher." (And the article ran before Felix Hernandez threw the third perfect game of the season.) Given that the pitchers have basically all departed from the Durham Bulls in this year of pitching grace 2012, it is cognitively even more dissonant to hear Cooper serenading the DBAP crowd.
Actually, it was "Alice Cooper," not Alice Cooper, who participated in Epstein's survey. The singer born Vincent Damon Furnier has merged, for what I presume are legal reasons, with what was originally the name of his band, and it was he whom Rolling Stone solicited for comment. Why Alice/Vincent, rather than, say, Gene Simmons? Dunno (well, I sorta do), but one thing that is awesome in this context about Vincent Furnier is that his parents gave him the middle name of Damon in honor of Damon Runyon (whose first name happens to have been Alfred, which is kinda Alice-like—Damon was his middle name, just like Furnier).
Runyon, as you probably know, is famous for having written Guys and Dolls, but he started out as—yep—a baseball writer. After a failed attempt to start a Colorado minor league—that's according to his Wikipedia page, so take with a grain of Melky Cabrera's web site—he covered the New York Giants for Hearst, for years. In 1967, Runyon was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame.
I know nothing about whether Alice Cooper is a "rock and roll seamhead," as Epstein's preface calls his participants, or if he has any significant connection at all to baseball; but I enjoy believing that the Damon Runyon namesake thing explains why Dan Epstein decide to go ask Alice, along with a bunch of other musicians—including my beloved, beloved Joe Pernice, possibly the best pop songwriter of the last 15 years or so—to respond to these questions related to the return of the pitcher:
Is this just one of those odd statistical clusters that happens from time to time in baseball? Is this a result of players eschewing the use of performance-enhancing drugs because of MLB's testing program? Are batters being scouted more effectively? Are pitchers simply getting better at their craft?
(All these coincidences piling up: Alice Cooper, Dan Epstein, Damon Runyon, Joe Pernice. Is there something in the air, the stars? Or are the gods just trying to distract attention from the games themselves?)
Vincent's take on Epstein's prompts is, delightfully, almost total nonsense:
Well, the ball hasn't changed. I think that any major league pitcher can throw a no-hitter on the right day. But can they do it consistently? The guys throwing the no-hitters aren't necessarily megastars. It might average out in the next two or three years where nobody has a perfect game. I'd be interested in looking at their win/loss and ERA records at the end of the year. Did they just have a few great games, or have they been consistent? In golf, it's possible for a non-pro to make a hole in one, and it's possible for a pro not to. It's just a matter of averages, I think.
Stats like ERA and batting average are helpful auxiliaries, but if you want to get a quick read on a team's quality, look at run differential. In fact, look at MLB's current run differential column on the standings page. The Baltimore Orioles and the St. Louis Cardinals have virtually identical records even though the Orioles (66-56) are at -47 and the Cardinals (65-56) are at +106, which happens to be second-best in all of baseball.
The Orioles and Cardinals are the two glaring exceptions that help prove an otherwise unforgiving rule. The good teams have very positive run differentials, the bad ones are negative nancy-boys. It's that simple. Only two teams in the International League have worse run differentials than the Durham Bulls (-81): awful, terrible Louisville (-130), and... the Gwinnett Braves (-86). The five-run difference between the Bulls and G-Braves is too small to hazard guesses from—do, however, bet on St. Louis to overtake Pittsburgh and possibly even Cincinnati in the National League Central—but you might factor in this stat as well: Gwinnett has allowed more unearned runs than any other team in the IL, and more than twice as many as the Bulls have let in. The Braves' atrocious fielding—they have committed the most errors and passed balls in the league—might help doom them to the cellar of the South Division and spare the Bulls first-to-worst ignominy.
A little commentary about the actual game last night, relegated to the cellar of this story not only because the Bulls are in the cellar, too, but moreover because the bulk of it is about the Charlotte Knights' starting pitcher, Charlie Shirek. He got the win last night—four of his 11 this year have come against the Bulls—despite allowing nine hits and six runs in six innings. Shirek is an amazingly quick worker on the mound, for two related reasons: first, he needed only 64 pitches for his six innings, a Greg Maddux level of economy; second, he takes about five seconds from the time he gets the ball back from his catcher to come set for his next pitch. The latter aids the former: When you give hitters no time to screw around in between pitches, and put pressure on them for the next one, they tend to swing earlier in the count, especially when you establish a first-pitch-strike tendency (17 of 23 at-bats). Shirek had a six-pitch inning, an eight-pitch inning and two 10-pitch innings.
It helps when you throw strikes, which Shirek did. He can get his fastball up to 93 mph, and it has some liveliness to it. He got few swings-and-misses (only four, by my count) and only one strikeout—the Bulls have only one demonstrably patient hitter, Reid Brignac—but in four of his six innings he had the Bulls completely under hypnosis, getting 13 of his 23 outs on the ground.
Shirek had one poor nine-batter sequence last night, much as he had a rough five-batter stretch to start his outing against the Bulls back on April 11. On Monday, three of the first four men to hit in the bottom of the fourth inning homered, all on breaking balls that lacked enough break. Reid Brignac followed this tater-trifecta with a hard line-out, and Jesus Feliciano flied out to the warning track. In the fifth, Rich Thompson led off with his second infield hit of the game—man, is he fast!—and Cole Figueroa followed with yet another home run.
To his credit, Shirek didn't come unglued. Giving up four homers (plus two singles) in a nine-batter span is pretty distressing, but Shirek followed Figueroa's home run by focusing on getting the ball down in the zone again. Each of the next six hitters, the last six Shirek faced, hit the ball on the ground, producing four groundouts, a ground single (Brignac), and a groundball double play. I'm not going to tell you that Shirek had a good night—six runs in six innings will usually hang the loss on a pitcher—but I was impressed that he simply moved on from his flareup and retired his last half-dozen batters on 15 pitches. His secondary pitches need work, but Shirek seems like an intelligent, strike-throwing pitcher with what scouts like to call "pitchability" who, despite a modest arsenal and virtually no prospect status, could wind up working his way into the major leagues.
* More flash from Tim Beckham. The Shirek pitch he hit out of the park last night wasn't terrible: looked like a slider that was moving outside but was a little too far up in the zone—not much, though, as Beckham seems to like the ball down. He went to the other way with it, showing impressive power in taking the ball over the right-center field wall. And in typically showy Beckham fashion, as he rounded first base and the ball cleared the fence, he raised his right arm in triumph. Maybe not the best thing to do when all you've done is cut a deficit from 6-2 to 6-4, but that's how the kid rolls.
* The Bulls allowed three unearned runs. Remember how many they lost by? (Time's up: three.) With two outs in the fourth inning, Figueroa misplayed a grounder at third base and the next batter, Greg Golson, hit a three-run homer off of Ramos, a towering fly ball (as Neil Solondz liked to call them) that barely got over the Blue Monster. It was the only cheap homer among the seven (!) that were hit last night. So maybe the G-Braves' unearned runs problem won't doom them, after all, not if the Bulls take it upon themselves to close the gap.
* Nice show of pugnacity by the Bulls to punch back from a 6-0 deficit and make a game of it: it was 7-6, Braves, after five innings last night. But after the visitors extended the lead back out to three runs, 9-6, in the sixth inning, the Bulls pulled a repeat of Sunday's loss to Gwinnett: the bats totally shut down. Durham had only four baserunners over the last four innings, and just one of them made it to second base. That runner, Rich Thompson, was on third with one out, but he was stranded there by Figueroa (struck out) and Henry Wrigley (flied to right).
* Knights outfielder Jordan Danks ran his ass off around the bases in the third inning and scored all the way from first on Jose Lopez's double to left. For this effort, he was rewarded by being immediately removed from the game and called up to Chicago. Do you care about that?
Before I sign off, I've got an idea! The Bulls need pitching, right? They did a good thing for themselves early this season by plucking Lance Pendleton from the independent Atlantic League's newest team, the Sugar Land Skeeters, probably partly because the Skeeters' manager, Gary Gaetti, used to the be the Bulls' hitting coach. Pendleton hasn't exactly dominated with Durham—his 4.76 ERA almost exactly matches the Bulls' cumulative and, um, league-worst, team mark (4.77)—but someone had to start those 20 games, and mental-mechanical Lance stepped into the breach.
Well, why not get someone else on the Sugar Land express? I'm not talking about Scott Kazmir, the former Tampa Bay Ray All-Star (!) and mayfly Durham Bull. Kazmir is pitching for the Skeeters right now, but he has a horrifying 7.89 ERA, which is bad even by Durham Bulls standards.
No, I'm talking about the Rocket! Roger Clemens, gloating over his escape via a technicality from the jaws of certain jail time, has just signed on with Sugar Land (he lives nearby, in the Houston conurbation) and is set to make his indy-league debut on August 25. That tune-up against the Bridgeport Bluefish would set him up nicely to start for the Bulls on August 30 and then, on three days' rest, heroically, take the hill again on the very last day of the regular season and—who knows?—pitch the Bulls out of last place. After that, he's got a few weeks to pitch in the majors, thereby postponing his Hall of Fame candidacy long enough, he hopes, for all the voters to forget about that whole business with the needle and the damage done.
Until then, the Bulls will have to muck it out on their own. Clemens' almost-teammate Lance Pendleton starts for Durham tonight against Charlotte's Dylan Axelrod, who has started against Durham three times dating back to August 26, 2011. In 17 1/3 total innings in those three starts, he has allowed only two runs.
Wow, I got through a whole game story about the 2012 Charlotte Knights without mentioning Dan Johns—-