by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM—Did you feel the earthquake? At a little before 2:00 p.m. yesterday, everything began to shake, or more precisely to roll. Somehow, it seemed obvious that we were having an earthquake, even though I had never previously experienced one.
The uncertainty actually arose afterward: What would happen next? Would another temblor strike? Would there be an aftershock? What exactly was an aftershock? Was my chimney going to come down? Would the earth open and swallow us all? Alien and unsettling minutes, quietly disturbed; tremors of the internal kind. They passed.
About six or so hours later, the Durham Bulls had built themselves a comfy 4-0 lead over the Norfolk Tides for ace lefty starter Matt Moore, scoring all four runs on solo homers by Brandon Guyer, Matt Carson, Tim Beckham and Dan Johnson. The Bulls seemed to be sailing toward their 75th win, pushing their division lead over the Gwinnett Braves back up to 5 1/2 games.
But then disaster struck: A pair of Durham relievers, Jay Buente and Adam Russell, each gave up a two-run homer, one in the seventh inning to former Bull Rhyne Hughes, and one in the eighth to John Hester. Those two long balls tied the game at 4-4. It stayed that way until the 13th inning, when two more Bulls relievers, Joe Bateman and Mike Ekstrom, combined to give up three hits, two walks and, most importantly, two runs. Norfolk won, 6-4.
So the Bulls' lead, a season-high six games two days ago, is now down to 4 1/2. On Sunday, their so-called "magic number" to clinch the division title was nine. Three games later—one for the Bulls, two for Gwinnett (who also played a 13-inning game yesterday, and beat Charlotte)—it's still nine.
Last night's loss picked up the tenor of the day's quake: It was no disaster by any means, but it was unsettling; and it led, like the earthquake did, to a period of uncertainty. Does the loss presage an actual disaster—squandering a healthy late lead and losing the division—or is it just a brief but disturbing rattle before a return to normalcy?
More about the shakes follow. If you're headed for shelter right from here, though, one bit of news to take with you: The Rays have promoted right-handed starting pitcher Chris Archer from Class AA Montgomery to Durham. Archer is a Raleigh, N.C. native and went to Clayton High School. He was the centerpiece of the January deal that sent Matt Garza and Fernando Perez to the Chicago Cubs (Brandon Guyer was the other key prospect acquired).
Archer, who is said to have a legitimate big-league arm, has struggled down in Montgomery: He walked 80 batters in just 134 innings pitched there this season, and sports a middling 4.42 ERA—he's a little like a right-handed Alexander Torres. Here is a fresh example of the sort of season Archer has had so far: Just after he was named the Southern League's Pitcher of the Week yesterday (he threw seven one-hit innings at Birmingham on August 17), he was dreadful that same night against Mississippi, allowing six hits and five walks in four innings and taking the loss.
Nonetheless, the Rays have made their move. It probably means that either Brian Baker or, more likely, Ryan Reid, gets to put on the sweatshirt until September 1, when the Rays will probably call up to Tampa Bay a Durham reliever or two.
But let's get back to the tremors, and leave the forking paths of Chris Archer and roster expansion until later.
Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo inadvertently nailed this one. He was quick, as you would expect, to blame the loss his bullpen. "Delaney, De La Rosa, they've been very good," he said, "but those other guys have to stay consistent, because we're gonna need them." He tried to add that some reliever beside his two Delas had to take charge, but his phrasing got all tangled: He said that someone had to "take the horn by the bull"—rather tentatively, because he knew that wasn't right—before we helped him correct himself.
Well, so, the Bulls were taken by the horns, after all—by the Norfolk Tides. One thing that makes baseball so much fun to watch is how it shifts from day to day. Norfolk is a bad team, and ought to have suffered its 80th loss last night. Yet they surged back from a four-run, seventh-inning deficit that they might easily have accepted as fatal. In doing so, they have now won two of three games from first-place Durham over the last four days. "You just never know in this game," Montoyo likes to say. Last night was an example.
Gary Allenson, the Tides' fiery manager, was happy, or anyway as happy as he gets. "It's a real nice game to win, especially with the guy [the Bulls] had starting. The kid [Matt Moore] has been a phenom in this league—and we got some hits off him, and we actually hit some balls hard for outs. But we persevered."
That doesn't sound like a team that's nearly 30 games under .500 and has just lost its most dangerous power hitter to the majors (the Orioles called up Jake Fox). Nor does it sound like a team that leads the league in extra-inning games played but has the worst record in those games: 7-14 coming into last night; oddly, Durham has played the second-most extra-inning games, and is now 10-8 in them.
Charlie Montoyo, lamenting that the Bulls hadn't capitalized on some early scoring opportunities that could have put the game away, noted that "Gary Allenson is not going to let them die. They're gonna battle, and they're good enough to beat you." It was a reminder that the talent gap from one Class AAA team to another really isn't very large.
The Bulls went 0-11 with runners in scoring position; the Tides were 4-13. The usually dependable Durham bullpen allowed six runs in seven innings; the Tides' allowed zero in seven innings. The Tides' Rhyne Hughes narrowed the lead to 4-2 with his seventh-inning, two-run homer off of Buente, on what appeared to be a badly hung full-count splitter. In the bottom of the inning, the Bulls put runners on second and third with one out, and failed to score. That allowed Norfolk to feel like they were still in it, and in many ways that momentum shift decided the ballgame.
The thing is, looking back, two of Durham's relievers were actually very good. Rob Delaney and Lance Cormier threw 3 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings from the eighth through the 11th. Cormier gave up two hits, both infield singles—one, it should be said, knocked down at third base by a diving J. J. Furmaniak, who had a terrific night in the field, making four fine plays at the hot corner. He was also 1-3 with a walk and a tidy sacrifice bunt. All for nothing.
Bullpens are the wild card of any team, and its fitting that Durham's comprises the liveliest characters in the clubhouses—better to call them jokers, perhaps. They often trump, but will sometimes collapse (like a house of...), and if you must rely on them for seven innings on any game, you're asking for at least one of them to bust. All of Norfolk's happened to hold fast.
Buente and Russell can be rightly blamed: They walked five batters in a combined 1 2/3 innings, plus the two homers. Maybe Bateman and Ekstrom at least get their cards marked. Bateman just can't get lefties out this season: between Sacramento and Durham, they're hitting .364 against him. He shouldn't have had to face some of these guys. Had the Bulls had any left-handed relievers, Montoyo would probably have arranged for more favorable matchups for Bateman. But they don't, and he couldn't.
In the 13th inning, after a dicey 12th in which Bateman pitched out of a two-on, one-out jam, he put the first two batters on base. Carlos Rojas, hitting .203 coming in, got his second dink single of the game to go along with his three (?!) walks. Lefty Kyle Hudson tried to sacrifice Rojas to second, but Bateman walked him four pitches, inexplicably.
At that point, the game was over, because Montoyo had little choice but to remove the struggling Bateman. Unfortunately, his only choice was Ekstrom, whose numbers against Norfolk this year have been so terrifyingly bad that they virtually defy explanation—Montoyo told us later that he was trying not to use him. Ekstrom came into last night's game having allowed 31 runs in 61 1/3 innings pitched this season. Nine of those runs—nearly a third—were surrendered in eight innings against Norfolk in just five appearances. He coughed up a walk and a pair of singles—one of which, Josh Bell's liner back through the box, appeared actually to go through Ekstrom—to plate two runs and give the Tides their long-time-coming 50th win.
After last night, Ekstrom's ERA versus the Tides is an even 9.00. Versus the rest of the International League, it's 3.22.
Now that I check the numbers, I find that only two Bulls relievers have allowed a sub-.300 batting average to left-handed hitters (three if you count Ryan Reid, mostly a spot-starter): De La Rosa and Delaney. If the Bulls make the playoffs, you can bet the Rays will send Charlie Montoyo a left-handed reliever. If they don't, start quaking.
It was easy to forget, by the time the game ended, four hours after it began, that Matt Moore had pitched in it at all. He wasn't really his sharpest, to tell the truth, despite the attractive stat line—"decent results," he called them, unenthusiastically. He didn't seem to have full command of any of his pitches, although his offspeed stuff helped him get ahead of hitters later in his outing. He threw first-pitch balls to 11 of the 23 batters he faced, and you could see he was going to have to labor right from the get-go: Kyle Hudson singled up the middle to open the game, and Moore needed 10 pitches to strike No. 2 hitter Tyler Henson. Brandon Snyder and and Brendan Harris had hard hits off of Moore in the second inning, and four or five balls were hit hard for outs during his outing. Moore also walked Rojas.
Moore's fastball seemed to be cutting a little bit, which is a sign that his mechanics are off. Yet he said that the problem wasn't so much mechanical as mental: He was trying to "force the [fast]ball in there" on the inside part of the plate against right-handed hitters, rather than relaxing and allowing his pitches to do their natural thing. "The last two times [he's pitched] I've been feeling a little uncomfortable," he said, "just trying to figure out rhythms." Are his chakras misaligned? His kundalini twisted? Pitchers. So sensitive.
And yet, there he was, leaving after six scoreless innings, 93 pitches, 62 strikes, six strikeouts. That's how you know Moore's a prospect—or "phenom," as Allenson put it. Moore has allowed four runs in 40 2/3 innings in Class AAA.
Moore, by the way, told me some interesting things about his windup, which he actually changed last season. At the outset of 2010 in high Class A Port Charlotte, Moore struggled badly. After 11 starts, he had a 6.63 ERA, having allowed 58 hits and 34 walks in just 54 1/3 innings.
Moore had customarily brought his hands up about even with the bridge of his nose in his windup, but he felt he might not be consistent with the apex—sometimes it was closer to his neck, sometimes the crown of his head. That made his release point erratic.
So Neil Allen, his pitching coach then—and now again, a season and a half later—suggested that Moore try coming all the way up over his head, in order to get a more regular and repeatable height with his hands so as to stabilize his release point. "Just try it," Allen told him, according to Moore.
The results were dramatic: Over his last 15 starts of 2010, Moore threw 90 1/3 innings, allowed just 51 hits and walked 27, and recorded double-digit strikeouts in nine of his final 13 starts. He led the minor leagues with 208 strikeouts, and is on pace to just about equal that mark this season.
After a not-earthshaking but glum loss for the locals, here's some more protest comedy courtesy of Gary Allenson, albeit nowhere near as epic as his now-legendary meltdown back on July 12. The Bulls' Tim Beckham led off the bottom of the fifth inning last night with a laser drive to left-center field that cleared the wall, bounced off the Triangle Orthopedics sign (it also flashes the radar gun readings) and landed on the field of play.
Beckham stopped at second, thinking he had a double, but the hit was clearly a home run. It only took a moment for the umpires to make the right call, but Beckham was slow in getting it. He removed his shin guard, took a step or two toward first base, and made as if to toss the guard to first base coach Dave Myers. But then he realized he'd been awarded a home run and completed his trip around the bases. To be honest, I don't know whether he got rid of the shin guard or not.
Out came Gary Allenson to argue. Surely he wasn't protesting another home-run call at the DBAP? It was clearly the right one. No, his beef lay elsewhere. I'll let him tell it, in his clipped, drill-sergeant tones. I'm telling you, the guy belongs in an early David Mamet play. He should have played Teach in American Buffalo. Here is what he said:
Beckham stepped on second base, thought it was a double. And, took his little shin guard off and stepped back toward first base to hand it to the first base coach. And found out it was a home run. Say a runner rounds second base and goes past it. I catch the ball, he's got to re-touch the base to go back. Same thing's true of the other direction. He stopped at second base, thought it was a double, took his shin guard off, stepped back toward first base, found out it was a home run—he's got to re-touch the base. Didn't do it. Should have been out. Should have been a single. Would have won it in nine innings, not thirteen. I watch guys touch bases. Little pet peeve of mine. [Q: "So it didn't have anything to do with where the home run ball hit?"] No. I can't believe the kid didn't know it was a home run.
The Tides appealed at second base after Beckham's homer, but to no avail—the call stood. I can't tell from the rulebook which of Allenson's claims is correct, i.e. if Beckham, had he been found not to have re-touched second base, would have been out or limited to a single. I suspect the former, but if it's the latter—as Allenson seemed to resolve—Beckham would have scored anyway on Dan Johnson's homer two outs later, and we would have played those same 13 innings.
I heart Gary Allenson because, right or wrong, there he is: thirty demoralizing games under .500, being Gary Allenson, going up the wall; a spitfire, a pain in the neck, a little earthquake.
In the aftershock of something as rare and arresting as an actual earthquake, let's conclude on a more philosophical note. As I write this, Google has helpfully reminded me that today would have been the 112th birthday of Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer of mind-bending miniatures. For no particular reason, Borges popped into my mind yesterday, a coincidence he'd surely have appreciated. Actually, come to think of it, I've made mention of him before.
I'm partial to Borges' cerebral horror tale, "Funes the Memorious," about a man whose memory is so comprehensive, so exact, so prodigious, and so relentless that he is cursed with the involuntary recall of everything he has ever seen or heard or felt or sensed, e.g. "the southern clouds at dawn on the 30th of April, 1882, and [he] could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had only seen once and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Rio Negro the night before the Quebracho uprising." He could recall the individual hairs on the mane of a leaping horse.
As a defense against the burden of his memory, Funes lives in the dark. To recount from memory a single day of his life would take him an entire day. That conundrum echoes another great Borgesian image, from "On Exactitude on Science," in which he notes dolorously that a truly useful map would simply cover the entire territory it aimed to chart, rendering it useless. Such, sometimes, is what I find it's like to write about a baseball game, and why it usually takes me so long to explain what I need to explain to you.
Borges is most famous, probably, for a story called "The Garden of Forking Paths." You should just read it, because it's great, but if you've got major things to do, I'll go down this particular path: The garden in question is, ultimately, "forking in time, not in space.... Time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures."
There is an alternate version of yesterday's events in which the entire eastern seaboard is in a biblical chaos, taking down with it the global economy, international security, everything; another in which all is calm except for the total destruction of the town of Mineral, Va., or of my house or yours; another in which someone destined to change the world forever perishes at age four; and so on. There is, of course, yesterday's version, in which everything shakes and rolls nauseously for 15 seconds, and then stops, and then the Bulls build a 4-0, seventh-inning lead only to lose to Norfolk in 13 innings.
The tremors, seismic and psychic, of yesterday's quake crack open such Borgesian fissures as these. In most versions of the Durham Bulls, 2011, holding a 4 1/2-game lead over the Gwinnett Braves with 14 left to play, they win the IL South Division, and rather easily at that. There are others that come down, thrillingly, to the Bulls' last game of the season—which happens to be in Norfolk on Labor Day, and you can bet your forking path I'll be there if that happens. And there even some outcomes in which Gwinnett overtakes Durham and improbably wins the division, the Governors' Cup, the Triple-A Championship.
It will be exciting, not to say tremorous, to discover which path we're on. The next step is made tonight at 7:05 p.m. at the DBAP, when the Bulls' Alexander Torres draws the Tides' Mitch Atkins. These two pitchers have each faced their respective opponents this season, but Borges teaches us, among other things, that despite the importance of studying our history, we mustn't trust too much the implications of the past. Each moment is its own, and eternity's, and an earthquake in time. You're better off just to head down to the ballpark and see for yourself.