Durham Bulls' late rally sandbags Norfolk Tides: Rain go away

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Bulls outfielder Brandon Guyer went 4-4 with two doubles last night.
  • photo: Al Drago
  • Bulls outfielder Brandon Guyer went 4-4 with two doubles last night.
DBAP/ DURHAM—Apparently, the Durham Bulls were just waiting to find out whether it was going to really rain or not. From the first inning through the seventh-inning stretch, they left seven runners on base and spotted the Norfolk Tides a 5-3 lead. Three of the Tides' runs came just four batters into the game. In the top of the first, just-acquired Bulls starter Matt Torra gave up a double to Matt Angle, got a flyout, then allowed an RBI single to Josh Bell, and then Jake Fox crushed a homer onto the Tobacco Road Cafe terrace roof.

The Bulls wound up tying the game, 3-3, thanks mostly to Brandon Guyer, who doubled twice and scored both times (he went 4-4 with a walk and a stolen base, and is clearly the Bulls' first-half MVP). Robinson Chirinos added a solo homer in the bottom of the fourth.

By the time Guyer scored his second run, knotting the score in the last of the fifth—precisely when the game became "official"—the sky had grown ominous. This is really nothing new. The Bulls have had about a quarter of their games delayed, postponed or canceled by rain this season.

It began to drizzle in the sixth, around the time when Lance Cormier, on in relief of Torra, gave up a solo home run to former Bull Rhyne Hughes, untying the score at 4-3. A raindance ensued. Tides pitching coach Mike Griffin made a visit to the mound in the last of the sixth; later, manager Gary Allenson made a mid-inning pitching change. Sure, Norfolk starter Chris George was showing signs of tiring, having put two men on base, but in fact George put at least two men on in all but one of the six innings he pitched. You couldn't help but think that these mound visits were at least partially tactical, a way of inviting the rains to come and abort the game early in the Tides' favor.

Reliever Nick Bierbrodt—with a name like that, he ought to be in the Milwaukee organization—quelled the Bulls' threat, and when the Tides extended their lead to 5-3 in the top of the seventh, thanks to a pair of errors by recently mustered third baseman Daniel Mayora, and the rain began to fall harder, it seemed like Allenson might get his wish, without having to sweat over it too much. The sky on both sides of the ballpark looked apocalyptic: purple-gray, roiling, malevolent.

But to go back to that beer-brat thing: You know how, when you put a sausage in the pan without piercing it, its own mounting pressure makes it explode? Well, in the last of the seventh, the left-hander Bierbrodt walked Desmond Jennings. Then he walked Mayora on four pitches. That was, basically, the sausage filling its own casing with pressure. Guyer singled in a run to make it 5-4, Norfolk. Dan Johnson popped out, but Bierbrodt fell behind Felipe Lopez 2-0, and it was then decided to walk Lopez intentionally, loading the bases.

Allenson made another pitching change, bringing in right-hander Jeremy Accardo to face the right-hander Russ Canzler—and Accardo walked Canzler on four pitches to force in a run and tie the score, 5-5.

And then the storm, which just minutes earlier had appeared imminent, mysteriously left us.

And then, depending on how you want to define the term, the Bulls either quit sandbagging or started to: they scored six straight runs over the next 1 1/3 innings to win, 11-5. Durham bashed out 17 hits, seven in its last two at-bats. The Bulls remain tied with the Gwinnett Braves atop the IL South Division.

Well, it's that time of year when a thunderstorm is always a distinct possibility. We'd had a brief but strong one earlier in the day. As last night's weather approached, you could sort of feel the anxiety building in the ballpark, mostly among the Bulls: We've got to get this in before a) rain delay strikes and keeps us here until after midnight, and b) we lose, anyway.

Meanwhile, the Norfolk Tides were in no hurry at all, trying to salt away a rain-shortened victory—although if the band of storms was thin enough, the game might very well have resumed after the delay that didn't, after all, come about. It was as if the rain's failure to appear was some sort of punishment of the Tides for what seemed like stall-tactics, although they might not have been. That mid-inning pitching change, suspicious as it seemed, came after Chris George's 99th pitch. George has only topped 100 pitches twice this season.

The left-handed George was a supplemental (beer-brat?) "sandwich" pick in the first round of the 1998 draft, taken 31st overall by the Kansas City Royals, and is in his 14th season of professional baseball. He was a youngster when drafted, though, and is still only 31. No spring chicken sandwich, to be sure, but by no means dry toast, either. Hard to know what to make of curious George, who last night induced only four swings-and-misses, allowed 10 hits and two walks in 5 2/3 innings, and was whacked around earlier this by the Bulls. Yet when he left last night's game, he was in line for the win.

I mention George's draft history because, as it happens, his opposite number, Bulls' starter Matt Torra, was also the 31st overall pick, in the supplemental first round of the draft, seven years later, in 2005. Torra, like George, doesn't throw hard—he hit 90 mph a handful of times but generally sat in the mid- to upper 80s. After the first four batters of the game had tagged him for three runs, there was cause to be pessimistic about Torra, especially given his poor numbers with Class AAA Reno in the Diamondbacks organization, from which he was just acquired to fill the hole left when Chris Bootcheck exercised the July 1 opt-out clause in his contract and was granted his release.

(Bootcheck, by the way, according to Durham Bulls officials, plans to sign with the Lotte Giants in the Korean Baseball League, although there's no word of that online anywhere.)

Yet Torra settled down after his rocky first inning, retiring 14 of his final 17 batters, one of whom reached on a bunt single. He didn't walk anyone, and he got the Tides to swing at his pitches (39 of 73, as compared with George's 42 of 99). Torra has been a workhorse over the last few seasons, throwing around 160-180 innings in all of them. The numbers have been wobbly—he allowed 343 hits, including 36 home runs, in 264 Triple-A innings—but perhaps it's worth giving him the benefit of the doubt with regard to Reno, where he pitched. Those desert ballparks can sully a pitcher's numbers. Torra has excellent control, averaging about 1.5 walks per nine innings pitched since 2008. Perhaps a move to the east coast will help him limit the hits.

Too bad Torra wasn't around to talk to after the game. He seems like an unusual story. He is a University of Massachusetts grad—not a lot of those in pro sports—and he grew up in Pittsfield, Mass., which isn't exactly a wellspring of major-league baseball talent but happens to have produced another former Bull, reliever Joe Bateman. I doubt Torra knows Bateman, who is four years older.

By the way, and for what it's worth, as evidence of the damage that desert baseball can do to pitchers' stats, vide Bateman's move to the Pacific Coast League. He signed with Oakland in the offseason and was assigned to Class AAA Sacramento, where he struggled so badly—he posted a 5.40 ERA and a dreadful 1.82 WHIP in 43 1/3 innings over 26 appearances—that he was just demoted to Class AA Midland, Tex., Bateman's first action in Double-A since 2008. It's hard not to feel for the guy.

And it's hard not to feel for Tides manager Gary Allenson, who has suffered through 58 transactions involving his pitchers this season. (The Bulls, by comparison, have had just over half that many, and have had only 57 total roster changes versus Norfolk's 88.) Norfolk has allowed the most hits and the second-most runs in the International League this season, and there's little a coaching staff can do to develop its players when the players aren't there for very long. Bulls fans who lament the ups-and-downs of their team's pitching staff might feel a little more sanguine about it by comparison; the turnover has actually been fairly minimal for Triple-A, and might have been even lighter were it not for opt-outs exercised by two relievers, Bootcheck and Cory Wade. (A third Durham pitcher has a July 15 opt-out approaching; we'll see what he decides to do with it.)

***

A few notes, rather haphazard ones—last night was my first at the ballpark in a week and a half, and I'm playing catch-up.

* Daniel Mayora made two errors last night—on consecutive plays. He has limited experience at third base, having played mainly in the middle infield, although the Rays seem to have deemed him a third baseman (he played pretty much only there with Montgomery). In fact, his career fielding stats are rather shaky everywhere he has played. Yet Mayora looks like he'll make the Bulls, well, mayora, and not only because he fits right in with its error-prone fielders. He atoned for his two miscues—one on a very hot grounder that he couldn't glove—by drawing an important walk, his second of the game, in the Bulls' decisive seventh-inning rally, and then cranked his first Triple-A home run well over the Blue Monster in the eighth, padding the lead to 9-5. He was affable in the clubhouse, giving a lively and candid interview with Ray Olmedo translating for his fellow Venezuelan. The biggest difference between Double-A and Triple-A, according to Mayora? Class AAA pitchers are "more aggressive," Mayora said. Credit is due him for not overreacting to that aggressiveness by getting himself into bad counts and, as a result, outs. Mayora has reached base in 15 of 36 plate appearances so far as a Bull. In close-and-late situations, Charlie Montoyo could always replace Mayora in the field with J. J. Furmaniak, who is a superior gloveman.

* There's been plenty of noise from the Free Desmond Jennings claque this year, and to be sure he's having a good season so far. Thing is, Brandon Guyer is having a better one. Should the Rays promote him (again) instead? More to the point, though, perhaps, is the question of whether either Guyer or Jennings would be an upgrade over incumbent B. J. Upton, who takes plenty of flak from Rays fans but is actually having a fairly decent year, with a .722 OPS (that's around league-average, I think), 13 homers and 20 stolen bases. He's also a very good outfielder. Can Guyer or Jennings, as rookies, be expected to top that? Upton's salary is about $4.8 million this season, which I'm guessing is under-value for his production. The cost-conscious Rays surely know this. They could instead supplant either Sam Fuld or Justin Ruggiano with one of the two Durham players, but Fuld and Ruggiano are contributing as role players, and the Rays want Guyer and Jennings to enjoy regular playing time. The upshot of all of this is that both players could spend nearly the whole season here, a boon for Bulls fans.

* Jake McGee was iffy again last night, fastball ranging from 92-95 (with good life), the new 74-mph curve ball nowhere in evidence—it was back to the old mid-80s slider. McGee fell behind his first batter, Brandon Snyder, 3-0, before breaking back and striking Snyder out. Then he fell behind Rhyne Hughes, 2-0, before doing the same. Brendan Harris lined out to right field to end the eighth inning. In the ninth—after McGee sat in the dugout a very long time, as the Bulls sent nine men to the plate (for the second consecutive inning) and scored four runs—McGee faltered. Nick Green singled, and then McGee walked No. 9 hitter Carlos Rojas, just called up from Double-A and hitting .143 coming into the game. He struck out Matt Angle and got Ryan Adams to pop out, but he wasn't throwing many strikes, and he then walked Josh Bell on four not-very-close pitches. Suddenly, the bases were loaded for (uh-oh) Jake Fox, who has been homering regularly, it seems, at the DBAP.

That was enough--35 pitches--for Charlie Montoyo, who called on Dane De La Rosa to rescue McGee. De La Rosa had a very poor five-game stretch in May, allowing 13 runs in 8 1/3 innings. Since then, he's been arguably the most valuable reliever in the Durham bullpen, having allowed just four runs in 17 1/3 innings over 14 appearances. The difference between May-Dane and summer-Dane? Simple: his breaking ball. "I just got to the point in the season where I didn't feel like I had the control I wanted of my curve ball, so I scrapped that and just started throwing a hard slider." De La Rosa had never thrown a slider in his career, always a curve (although he did "mess with a cutter a little bit," he said, but without success; "I just didn't have a feel for it"). But the Rays, he said, "kind of had it in mind for me to throw something harder." He said the slider feels very comfortable for him.

The results evince the claim. De la Rosa started Fox off with a slider, which Fox took for a strike. He then busted a fastball inside, moving Fox off the plate. Then he threw Fox five straight sliders, all in the 80-81 range (it's usually faster than that, but he said he deliberately "backed off" the velocity in order to make sure he threw it for strikes). "I was totally messing with him," De La Rosa joked--but in fact, he was being quite serious up there on the mound in his approach. He knows how dangerous Fox is: "I'm not going to give him anything to hit" in that situation, even with the bases loaded. The count eventually ran full, and on the at-bat's seventh pitch, another slider, Fox mistimed it and hit an easy fly ball to center field that Jennings caught to end the game.

De La Rosa is on the Rays 40-man roster, and although he probably isn't the next reliever in line for a callup--McGee, Brandon Gomes, possibly even Double-A righty Matt Bush are ahead of him--he's someone to keep an eye on now that he seems to have gotten a better sense of his breaking pitch. If he can develop a changeup, so much the better, but that may be a project for 2012. De La Rosa has a rather jocular demeanor. but talking to him for the first time this season I found him quite mature, and very serious about his work. He's working with innately forceful tools: a big 6-foot-7, 250-pound frame that generates good leverage on the mound. All he has to do is master what he has. Although he is a relative newcomer to the Rays organization, De La Rosa is 28 years old--high time to get it all together. He seems to be striving to do just that.

* With the addition of Daniel Mayora, he Bulls have five Venezuelan players on their roster. I'm not about to compare that >20% rate to other clubs—I'm not that compulsive—but it's pretty interesting to see the rise of Venezuela in the clubhouse, pushing the Dominican dominance to the side. I can't help wondering if it's something the Rays are actively doing (Carlos Hernandez comes to mind), although it could certainly be nothing more than a coincidence. Robinson Chirinos, by the way, one of those five Venezuelans, was a pleasant guy to talk to last night. He ascribed his early-season funk at the plate to poor discipline, swinging at bad pitches—and then, I would hazard, succumbing to the pressing that accompanies a prolonged slump. Now he's just hammering the ball. He had just missed a homer against George, driving a long ball foul, before hitting one on the fourth inning. He also smacked a line-out to second base, and was rewarded for that with a cheap bloop single to left to plate a run in the seventh. He finished 3-4 with a walk, and is sitting on a season-high batting average, OBP and SLG. Watch out.

***

Tonight, Bulls staff ace Alex Cobb faces Norfolk's Rick Vandenhurk. Cobb allowed a season-high seven hits to the Tides when he last faced them, although that was back on April 24 in Norfolk. His last start, against Gwinnett, pinned his first loss of the season on him (at any level, by the way; he was 2-0 with Tampa Bay), although he wasn't really all that bad, victimized by a fielding error by... Daniel Mayora, which led to two unearned runs. Vandenhurk has made three starts versus the Bulls already this year, and has pitched generally pretty well, allowing six earned runs in 17 1/3 innings. Oddly, he has a 5.11 ERA against the rest of the league. Game time is 7:05 p.m. Who knows when, or if, the rain will come? Seeya there.

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