by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM—Lost in the general happiness of the Durham Bulls' Sunday doubleheader sweep of the Charlotte Knights was this nagging problem: The Bulls haven't been scoring runs. They came into last night's game against Gwinnett having scored 51 of them over their last 13 games, an average of less than four per game, which is a lower rate than Rochester's league-worst 4.01.
It got lower in last night's 2-1 loss to the Gwinnett Braves. The Bulls' lone run scored on a passed ball. The Braves pulled to within 2 1/2 games of the Bulls for the IL South Division lead with a week left in the regular season.
The evening put a damper on the Bulls' promising three-game winning streak, literally: rain fell from the middle innings through to the end of the game, which not only made it a soggy affair but probably reduced the potential crowd—10,000 strong on Sunday—to just 4,000 or so Monday night.
The rain also reduced the Bulls again, shrinking their production to just six singles. They had no hits, or even a hard-hit out, after the sixth inning, and none with runners in scoring position all night. They stranded 10 baserunners overall.
There was another ambient effect after the game. The media assembled in Durham manager Charlie Montoyo's office, as usual, for the customary five minutes of interview time, and in its midst all the power went out for a few seconds.
Hey, fans: Tonight's game is not only the last one the Bulls will play against arch-rival Gwinnett, it's the LAST HOME GAME OF THE REGULAR SEASON! If you're out-clicking here, before the jump, let that gut-kicking fact serve as an invitation to get yourself and about 10,000 of your friends out to the DBAP. The torpid Toros could use some very loud cheering, straight from the gut.
As has been his wont lately, Charlie Montoyo did a little more situational managing than usual last night. After fielding an exclusively right-handed lineup against left-handed Charlotte starter Doug Davis on Saturday, last night he made sure to get all of his lefties in there against the Braves' Todd Redmond, who was making his seventh start of the season against the Bulls (he faced them a bunch of times in 2009 and 2010, too).
It didn't help much, although left-hander Leslie Anderson went 2-4. He was the only Bull to have multiple hits, however. Redmond is having the best season of his career, which he attributed partially to having arrived in Spring Training in better shape after adjusting his diet. He has pitched well against the Bulls all year, and he overmastered them again last night. Redmond wasn't efficient, needing 111 pitches to last six innings and throwing a lot of first-pitch balls; but he kept the Bulls from squaring up on his pitches, doing a Matt Torra-like mix-and-match of speeds and location but mostly relying on his slider as an out-pitch. He struck out nine batters in six innings. One of the Bulls' half-dozen measly hits off of him was a bunt.
That bunt provided some comedy. Ray Olmedo pushed it between home plate and the mound in the third inning. Redmond and catcher J. C. Boscan converged on it, but Boscan got there faster. It's his play to make, since he's facing first base, and Redmond tried to sidestep his catcher. But he couldn't stop his momentum (I guess he's not in such great shape). He glanced off of the down-reaching Boscan and flipped right over him, derrière-sur-coudes, legs scissoring the air. Olmedo reached first base, and after Tim Beckham's sacrifice bunt, a passed ball scored Anderson, who had led off with the first of his singles.
It was the only comic relief of the night for Durham. The game was wet yet moodily tense, like a fire sparking and hissing in the rain. Bulls starter Alex Torres had a tough, 28-pitch first inning, allowing a run on two hits and a walk, but escaped further damage with a pair of strikeouts. (Three innings later, he broke the Bulls' single-season Triple-A strikeout record. You ask him if he cares.)
Torres was better after that, although he threw first-pitch strikes to just two of the first 10 batters he faced, and only about half of his pitches were strikes through the first three innings. Also, Torres caught a break. With two outs in the third, Stefan Gartrell singled to left field. Mauro Gomez, the reigning IL Player of the Week, continued his tear by lacing a double to the right-center field wall. Gartrell tried to score on the play, and it appeared to everyone in the Press Box that he did, sliding in safely under Robinson Chirinos's tag as the relay throw arrived from second baseman Olmedo. But Gartrell was, typically, called out on a bang-bang play at the plate. Umps will usually make that out-call if it's close enough, and the Braves, well-seasoned in the convention, didn't bother to argue. It seems probable that such plays happen so fast that not even the runner himself knows whether he is safe or out.
The play gave Torres a little lift, it seemed: He breezed through the fourth and fifth innings on just 12 pitches per frame. But few Torres outings are complete without a spell of sustained wildness; sure enough, Torres walked the first two batters of the sixth inning on nine pitches, and it wasn't until the 14th that a Brave swung at one. On the 15th, Gomez, who went 3-3 with an intentional walk, singled to score the go-ahead run.
On Brandon Hicks's ensuing bunt, miscommunication between Torres and third baseman Dan Johnson allowed Hicks to reach, and the bases were loaded with no one out. The Braves were on the verge of putting the game away. Combine the Bulls' hitting woes with the Braves' superb bullpen, and a 3-1 or 4-1 lead would probably have been insurmountable.
But just as Torres always seems to have his control problems, so too does he usually have a bear-down-under-pressure triumph. He got Wilkin Ramirez to fly out to shallow right field, a force out at home on Jeff Fiorentino's grounder to first base, and a groundout to shortstop from Diory Hernandez to keep the score, miraculously, at 2-1.
It made no difference. In the bottom of the inning, Ray Olmedo fouled out to third with two outs and runners on first and second. The Bulls went down in short order against Cory Gearrin in the seventh, baffled by his slider. In the heavy-rain eighth, Gearrin's wet-and-wildness put runners on second and third with two outs, and Braves manager Dave Brundage went to his closer, Jairo Asencio, who is having the best year of his career after missing all of 2010 for legal reasons: It was discovered that he had been using a false name, Luis Valdez, and a doctored birthday. He lost his visa and was placed on the restricted list for a year in order to sort it out. (Asencio/Valdez, I just remembered, features in one of the very first Bulls games I ever covered.)
Name and age restored, Asencio came on for Gearrin and restored order, too: He got Anderson to tap back to him for an easy end to the threat, and then breezed through the ninth to pick up his league-leading 24th save. Although the Bulls had trailed by just one run for the last three innings, they seemed well out of the game the whole time.
"It was a game we had to win," Brundage said afterward. Somehow, after Gomez's go-ahead hit in the sixth inning, the outcome never really seemed in doubt. In the bottom of the ninth inning, the entire Bulls team was up at the dugout railing—something you virtually never see—and the small crowd, taking refuge from the rain, was packed almost entirely under the grandstand. It had the feel of a circling of the wagons in lean or persecuted times, or of a hoping-against-hope gathering around an ill patient.
Montoyo began his post-game remarks by once again touching on the usual points of the Torres trident: he lamented Torres's control problems; offered qualified praise of his "big-league stuff"; and finally found some solace in yet another instance of his young pitcher's canny ability to pitch out of jams. The word Montoyo used was "guts" (after spelling out another one that is all held together by B-S), one I haven't heard Montoyo go to before.
It was sort of a curious word to hear him utter, and it wasn't until later than I began to work out why. Montoyo's last two teams were full of guts. There were soldiers like Jon Weber and Winston Abreu and Chris Richard; stone-faced killers like Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson; indy-ball hired guns like Henry Mateo and Bobby Livingston (it takes stones to throw soft tosses at Triple-A hitters); and Double-A reinforcements like playoff hero Paul Phillips, who won games for the Bulls in the 2009 and 2010 post-seasons. Even Angel Chavez, in his own insouciant way, was kind of a pugilist. The gutsiest of them all might have been Elliot Johnson, who played anywhere in the field, dealt with all kinds of bothersome injuries, squeezed an excellent 2010 out of his modest gifts, and last year attempted baseball's most daring feat, the steal of home.
In other words, Montoyo's teams of 2009 and 2010 were so full of courageous types that he could take the trait for granted. Honestly, I never thought the '09 team had any business winning the Governors' Cup. They were just a bunch of also-rans, wannabes and pluggers, for the most part. Julio DePaula, Jason Childers? Jason Cromer, Calvin Medlock? None of those pitchers is still in affiliated baseball. Nor is outfielder Ray Sadler, who had 350 plate appearances in Durham before he was released because he was a right-handed hitter who couldn't hit lefties. The best position player on the 2009 team was Desmond Jennings, who played in only 32 games. They won the championship on guts.
The 2010 team got to the finals on sheer excess of regular-season talent, laden with bullying power both on the mound and at the plate. And the 2011 squad? Still not really sure, and I can't exactly explain why. They seem to play just well enough to stay slightly ahead of the pack, tending to regress when their lead gets too big. Their pitching staff hardly ever seems to pitch inside on purpose. The bullpen is full of interesting and comic characters, but their on-field results are erratic. The team lacks base stealers. Lately, they fold in clutch hitting situations. The Bulls are 4-6 in their last 10 games, a mediocre run during a time when they could have quieted title to the southern territory of the IL.
Maybe they just haven't really been challenged until now. Maybe in this last week of the season they'll start busting on some people. They could really use a blowout win to get themselves going, and maybe they'll get lucky and face some Class A kid and crush him. (Actually, they just faced one, the Knights' Jimmy Ballinger, who made his Class AAA debut in relief on Sunday and shut the Bulls down for 3 1/3 scoreless innings. SMFT.)
And maybe—here we go again—they haven't appeared to show their fortitude because their mental strength is elsewhere. The September 1 roster expansion date arrives Thursday. The 11 Bulls who are on the Tampa Bay Rays' 40-man roster probably have their sights set on that date, and on the majors. A 12th, Russ Canzler, who is an MVP candidate, isn't on the 40-man and is surely hoping to be added. Dan Johnson, who started the year with the inside track on the Rays' first base job, couldn't hold it and might feel aggrieved that he probably won't get another chance at it.
The guys who have no shot at all—players like Olmedo, Daniel Mayora, Brian Baker—might just want to get the rest of the season over with and go home. The sense I get is that hardly any International League ballplayers are really much interested in winning the Governors' Cup unless they happen to achieve the (somewhat dubious) accomplishment of making it to the post-season. At that point, you'll hear them say—and mean—that if they've gone ahead and gotten that far, they might as well win it all. But do they really want to get that far to begin with? There isn't much incentive. What little prize money the Bulls earn for winning the trophy doesn't go to the players. The rest is those lingering injuries, which linger deeper into September, after the leases have expired and the players have either shipped their things home or abandoned them like insupportable pets.
You might argue that each and every one of these players as something at stake—be it a potential callup to the majors or a job for next season—and thus they are all likely to play hard, to strive to be their best here at the end of the season, when big-league franchises are really starting to take hard looks at 2012. True enough, and it isn't as if many (or indeed any) of the Bulls are actually dogging it. If they all play to the best of their ability, they're quite likely to win the division for their fans and make the Bulls franchise look good.
But individual results aren't really enough. In some ineffable way, even in the not-really-a-team-sport sport of baseball, you have to play as a team to win. It's a total and terrible cliché, and I can barely accept it myself; but even though the Bulls won the Triple-A Championship in 2009 behind the extra-innings relief work of totally detached starting pitcher Mitch Talbot—who probably had scarcely a clue where in the world he was or who his teammates were—in some way or another, that was a team. The 2010 version of the Bulls wasn't, not quite. The 2011 team could be, but they have only a week left to figure that out.
Speaking of clichés, Durham pitcher Dirk Hayhurst has recently been poking holes in them. His latest blog post, which debunks the "for the love of the game" myth, attracted all kinds of national attention, most of it negative. Who knows whether some of that came from the Rays, who released Hayhurst after last night's game. They could have done so at any time since Hayhurst went on the disabled list on July 15, since his mysterious elbow problems persisted for weeks and he didn't seem likely to pitch again this season. It could be that the Rays were just trying to clean house a bit before September 1 rolls around, in anticipation of restocking the Bulls with fresh arms after the probable callup to Tampa of at least a couple of relievers (e.g. Rob Delaney).
Still, it was hard not to notice that the release came right after Hayhurst—whose writing this season has grown increasingly conflicted with regard to his career—essentially announced that his passion to play has fled, if it was ever entirely there. This is just thinking out loud on my part, idle speculation. In truth, these decisions are usually made in the name of money, not morale.
But it's really too bad, in the long view, that Hayhurst's time as a Bull was decimated by injuries. The celebrated, best-selling memoirist had a lot to offer as a potential force in the clubhouse—he showed guts in publishing the tenderly self-revealing Bullpen Gospels in the first place—but no player, regardless of the quality of his character, can have much impact on a minor-league team if he isn't healthy enough to play. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him retire at the end of the year and devote himself to writing and other media-based work. Hayhurst's sequel to The Bullpen Gospels is forthcoming in 2012, and a movie version of the first book is apparently in the works. Here's wishing Hayhurst good luck, no matter where he sets up next, and whether it is on the rubber or with a pen.
And speaking of the Triple-A Championship, check back here later today: The Bulls are holding a press conference at noon to make what the media has been assured is a major announcement, and all signs point to the probability that the AAAlll the Marbles Classic (I just made up that stupid title!) is coming to Durham after a four-year inaugural term in Oklahoma City. I'll be back, probably on the Triangle Offense side of things, to report not only on what the Bulls have to tell us, but also whether the finger food at Tobacco Road Café is any good.
Brian Baker was supposed to start tonight's game against Gwinnett, but was scratched for reasons that were not explained. Is he hurt? Not really sure—or if he is, the exact nature of the ouchie was not disclosed. (It's this sort of tight-lipped personnel change that has reporters narrowing their eyes skeptically at this time of year.) Charlie Montoyo didn't know who would be starting for the Bulls in Baker's place, but it's likeliest to be either Lance Cormier or Jay Buente. From there, it'll be all hands on deck.
For the Braves, it will be Yohan Flande, the swingman who has turned himself into a dependable starter for Dave Brundage's team as prospects like Mike Minor and Julio Teheran have bounced up and down between Gwinnett and Atlanta. Flande handled the Bulls rather easily the last time he faced them, back on July 29, using a newly minted splitter to limit the Bulls to three hits in 6 2/3 scoreless innings. Flande, like Todd Redmond, will be making his seventh appearance of the season against Durham.
What a way to go out—with a bullpen-collective start—against the Braves, who have "guts" connoted by their team's very (and very brave) name. Under these unpromising circumstances, it would be no surprise at all if the Bulls beat them by, say, eight runs—something tells me that these Bulls aren't quite ready to be put out to pasture. But instead of going with gut feelings, it's probably best just to get out to the DBAP at 7:05 p.m. and see for yourself. It could be your last chance until 2012.