by Adam Sobsey
It was the evidence of things seen—the pitches, the man throwing them, his diffidence and erratic kinetics—and not the grid of simplified numbers, which are anathema to faith, that contained the truth that was to come. After that first start in April, Alex Torres was bad for pretty much the entire of the rest of the season; so bad that, when you compared him to the guy we mostly saw in 2011, you realized that, in fact, we wound up not seeing Alex Torres all year, even when he was pitching before our very eyes.
And then we really didn't see him. On August 4, after what I bet was the worst start of his professional career—he gave up six runs and didn't get out of the first inning on July 29—he was placed on the disabled list. The "injury," he acknowledged last night, did not exist, a thing unseen in which to have no faith.
And like an apostate, like a sinner (because bases on balls are sinful, and he committed an awful lot of them), he went down to the low, low minors and found, if not quite salvation, at least a way back toward it.
And then the prodigy returned to Durham as a prodigal son and was, at least for one night, reborn. He gave the best pitching performance of his two years in Triple-A, Brooks Conrad hit a two-run homer, and the Bulls shut out the Charlotte Knights, 2-0, on the last night of the home season.
"Who was wearing Alex Torres' uniform tonight?" That was my first question for Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo after the game, and Montoyo's response told the story indirectly: "Alex Torres started the game, and we played it in two hours and eight minutes." It was the third-shortest game of the season at the DBAP, fittingly on its last night here, but you would never have predicted that Torres could author so short a story.
In the first inning last night, it didn't look like it would go down that way. Torres missed high with his pitches to start the game, never a good sign, and walked the second batter he faced, Drew Garcia. Then he wild-pitched Garcia to second base. Torres struck out Greg Golson, not really that hard to do (23 per cent whiff rate), but then Seth Loman singled to right field with two outs.
Knights manager Joel Skinner waved Garcia home from second base. Jesus Feliciano doesn't have much of an arm, and he bounced his throw to the plate—boing, boing—and Garcia beat it. Nevin Ashley whipped a sort of pray-for-it behind-the-back swipe tag on Garcia. Evidently, this rather debonair move convinced home plate umpire Mark Lollo to give Ashley enough style points to make up for Garcia having almost certainly been, you know, safe—and Lollo called Garcia out.
And that was all it took: a gift from the gods, or anyway the ump. Torres needs early fuel for his confidence. He got it, and then it all clicked for him after that. Torres was, at the moment of Loman's single to center, two batters into what would become a streak, by the fifth inning, of first-pitch strikes to 14 straight batters. In a stretch covering parts of four innings, he threw 17 consecutive strikes (!). After the first-inning walk to Garcia, Torres did not reach another three-ball count until the final batter he faced: it was Garcia again, and Torres struck him out. Overall, he struck out 10 batters, five of them on three pitches each. In 5 2/3 innings, he threw 69 pitches, 50 for strikes.
Yes, Lollo's strike zone was a little generous. No, the Knights no longer have Dan Johnson, who led the league in walks drawn. But none of that mattered last night. Torres was burying his fastball when he wanted to, elevating it when he wanted to, throwing it 92-95 mph. His changeup, which is his best pitch, was working (as it always has, the one thing that has never deserted him). Sometimes he threw the changeup hard enough that it was like a sinking two-seam fastball, other times he slowed it down to fade it away from swinging Knights (who swung and missed a dozen times at Torres' 69 pitches).
He didn't throw a curve ball all night, and do you know why? He isn't throwing one anymore, he said after the game. He's embraced the slider instead, and for one reason: it gets his release point out in front, which is the thing that aligns all the rest of his mechanics. He's pitching to an endpoint. Torres made the change this past month in Florida. He also learned to lose the strange, unbalancing head-tilt that was part of his delivery. This, too, helped him straighten himself out.
We think of faith as unwavering belief, but it has this other side, too: When the mechanics of faith don't work, you mustn't be rigid in how you enact your belief, and you must change your motion toward it.
It helps to out your trust in a respected agent of change, and here is the revelation of the night: It was no accident or punitive move on the Rays' part to send Torres to what is basically the lowest level of the minors, the Gulf Coast League. The pitching coach there is longtime Tampa Bay svengali Marty DeMerritt, who happens to have been Charlie Montoyo's pitching coach when Montoyo managed the Bakersfield Blaze about a decade ago.
DeMerritt also happens to live in Alex Torres' homeland of Venezuela in the offseason, and Torres has known him since his teens, when he signed his first pro contract (with, wouldn't you know it, the Angels). You've got to have a padre to shepherd you. Suddenly it all made sense: the phantom injury, the bizarre demotion, the simplified delivery, the unseen evidence of the defunct curve ball.
They had Torres on a 70-pitch limit last night—the last time he threw that many was in July. so he wasn't "stretched out," as they say—and so, even though he was having perhaps the best start of his life, Charlie Montoyo came to take him out of the ballgame with two outs in the sixth inning. They had a little conversation on the mound, a good one for a change, and Torres walked toward the dugout to long, loud applause from the big congregation of almost 10,000 people. As he did so, he removed his cap, not so much to tip it as to raise it—and I don't think there's anything wrong with saying that he was raising it up to God, in thanks; he looked up into the cap, as though shielding his eyes from a bright light.
And it was probably the only time I will ever see a pitcher, after a dominating, ace-level performance, react to it not with a show of belief but with relief. You could practically hear Torres' long breath of gratitude. With a single pitching performance in his very last chance of the season, Torres found redemption—for himself and, to a degree, for his teammates, who had stood behind him, literally and figuratively, all season long as he tried to find himself and the strike zone.
If you're a Bulls fan, Torres' night ought to give you all the faith you need in your team. Alex Torres went astray. He lost himself, and he lost games. He frustrated you. He disappointed you. He was banished from the kingdom, yet returned with new life. I'm not going to go to born again, because only Torres' future work can bear that out and because it's too narrowly religious. Still, last night, the entire Bulls' season was regained after a paradise of playoff runs was lost.
There is a lot of work involved in faith. I found out last night that 22-year-old Tim Beckham, with his demeanor, his six-million-dollar insouciance that might lead you to presume that everything comes easy to him, is in fact the first guy at the ballpark every day to take grounders and get in the cage. I listened to 32-year-old Brooks Conrad (he looks older), whose sixth-inning two-run homer accounted for the game's only runs, talk amiably, acceptingly, credulously about the patently unjust vagaries and vagabondage of the Triple-A life: the callups, the demotions, the DFA's, the wife and family following him around the country as he traveled, a baseball pilgrim, from Milwaukee to Nashville to Tampa Bay to Durham—in just five months—and now back home to Arizona. Conrad had a towel-and-Ace-bandage ice contraption rigged up around the back of his neck. He explained that he had strained his neck craning it to watch a TV placed sideways to his bed (why?) in the team's most recent hotel. "When you get to be my age and you lay in the bed wrong, you get a sore neck," he said. Faith: a pain the neck, but one you endure.
We watched Dane De La Rosa get his 20th save, striking out the side in the ninth inning. He has done everything he can to leverage a callup to the majors, but last night the Rays chose Brandon Gomes instead, even though De La Rosa has comparable numbers and better durability. Part of the choice of Gomes over De La Rosa is mere luck, which is the opposite of faith. Gomes is fresh and could pitch today in Toronto, where Tampa Bay plays. De La Rosa isn't and can't. He has to keep the faith that he might get to go up on Tuesday, when the Bulls are done for the year. Even if he isn't called up, even if he just goes home, he has to have faith in the season he had, regardless of results in the front office. De La Rosa is getting married before the year is out—now that's a test of faith.
And so it goes, for Leslie Anderson, Chris Archer, Stephen Vogt. It goes for Will Rhymes, who was playing in the majors for Tampa Bay not so long ago and was, surprisingly, designated for assignment yesterday. He'll latch on somewhere. He has to believe in that. It even goes for Robby Price and Geoff Rowan, two low-minors players—Rowan, a catcher, was just drafted in June and has a grand total of 15 professional at-bats—promoted to Durham yesterday simply to give Charlie Montoyo a bench, any bench to speak of. They're going to play, today or tomorrow, and they'd better believe in themselves, believe that they belong. (This report doesn't believe in Rowan.) They went unseen in Durham yet are Durham Bulls. You could look it up in a good book, and you might as well: Rowan and Price may never make it back here.
And neither will any of the rest of the Bulls, not this year. In the clubhouse last night, these three songs in a row played loudly on the stereo: "Life in the Fast Lane," "Baby, You Can Drive My Car" and "Rocket Man." You get the idea, even without "Ramblin' Man": hit the road, burn rubber, up up and away. Outta here.
But first, the Bulls are down, down and away, heading to Charlotte. The season-ending two-game series there, today and tomorrow, means nothing whatsoever to either team. There is no reward in them. Belief alone ratifies their existence—they will be things unseen by us. Know as you read this that the Durham Bulls are still, losing games and all, playing baseball for two more days, just as their covenant with their life demands, though we may be free now to forget about them.
After "Rocket Man" was over, you know what song came on? "Hallelujah." Not Leonard Cohen's more austere original but the definitive, tearier Jeff Buckley version. On May 26, 1997, Jeff Buckley jumped in Wolf River Harbor in Memphis and drowned. He was 30 years old, the same age that Leslie Anderson is today. Buckley had jumped in that same, unsafe harbor before. If he hadn't drowned that night, if he'd barely survived and found himself sitting by the water again tonight, 15 years later, he'd probably jump into it again. That's faith, the kind the Bulls have. They drowned all season long, but they kept jumping into the water and tried to swim.
The Bulls played a shorter than usual game last night, and in that spirit I, too, will keep it shorter than usual. Two articles of faith remain. One is that, although the Bulls are done with baseball for the year, the DBAP is not. The Triple-A Championship will be played there on September 18, and you should go. (You'll find my coverage of the game right here.) You'll get to see proof of a really unseen thing in these parts: a Triple-A team from the Pacific Coast League, the sister circuit of the International League, which often seems like some imaginary, mirror-opposite of the league we know, a far-off Western land where fanciful creatures like RiverCats and Storm Chasers roam, and invisible forces like Isotopes and Zephyrs and Sounds shimmy and wave unseen in the very air. The game is a bit of a curio, and the stakes are hard to grasp, but this may be the only time the game is ever played here. And if you believe in Triple-A, you simply can't not go. It's against your religion. Don't forget that it was Bull Durham's own Annie Savoy who called it the Church of Baseball.
And one other item of faith in the evidence of things not seen. I'm aware that readership for long-form minor-league baseball columns is limited at best. I'm often convinced that the only person who actually reads these things is my wife, and I'm on the record declaring that she's the audience of one for whom I write them. But I do know that there others of you out there who read regularly—not many of you, to be sure, but enough, and it's enough because I'd rather write for a few people who really care than a lot of people who don't. I've never met most of you; I know you as Twitter handles and commenter aliases and the like. Thank you, each and every one of you, for reading, because that's what gives me the faith to keep writing. This 2012 season, especially, affirmed that faith, because I was away from Durham for about half of it and much of what happened at the DBAP went unseen by me. I can testify that my belief in the Bulls, in Triple-A, in baseball, is stronger than ever, not despite the losses but because of them. But mostly because of you.
Enjoy the off-season, and keep the faith till spring training. Don't watch football.