by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---The final tally would make an ugly football score, and it's an even uglier baseball score, especially when the home team loses. The Bulls have dropped six of seven, including three by scores of 13-5, 8-1, and now 16-8. They have had two three-game losing streaks in those seven games after having zero three-game losing streaks over the first 61 games of the season. I can't retrace for you all of the steps that led to Tuesday's ugly loss---although I'm going to try (and fail, sorry)---for the simple reason that there are many more than 16.
And in case you think there is panic in the Bull City, you should have seen the look that flashed across Charlie Montoyo's face when he was asked by a reporter, "Do you dare use the word 'slump'?" after the loss last night. It was the look of a slightly offended person. "Slump for who?" he shot back, meaning something like a cross between, "Slump? What slump?" and, "Maybe you're the one slumping here." Then: "Call it whatever you want [since you're the one who's the writer]." And then he quickly started talking about tangible details, like the bad pitching of the last few games and the reassuring fact that "we keep fighting back," which the Bulls did again on Tuesday before drowning in their bullpen's sorrows. And when asked whether the endlessly proliferating roster changes were the problem, he demurred, decisively, saying only that it bothers him when he has to leave relief pitchers in game longer than they should be in the game because "we don't have anybody else."
Charlie Montoyo knows his job. The Triple-A roster will change constantly; you play all the guys you have at your disposal, and when it's over you do it again the next day. Every day you can win. And every day you can lose. To the men who play and manage this game, there's no such thing as a slump (and so, by extension, no such thing as momentum either?), despite appearances to the contrary. Would you believe me when I say that the Bulls almost won this game that they wound up losing, badly? It happened, more or less, on one pitch.
I'm running out of synonyms for damp/wet/gloomy/leaden (finding them is getting to be sort of like this), but Tuesday was another one of those days at the DBAP, when you would rather be curled up in bed reading a novel---so let's get over it, shall we, because in baseball you make a daily habit of getting over it (go ahead, say it: "There's no crying in baseball"; there, are you done?) and flash forward to the bottom of the sixth inning. The Bulls have scored four runs to cut a 9-3 deficit to 9-7 and Jon Weber, that most adroit and savvy of situational hitters, steps up with runners on second and third and two out.
This moment is tailor made for Weber, who has a habit of finding the flashpoint of any game. He has an easy but purposeful swing and knows what he needs to do every time he comes up. Sure, he gives away at-bats sometimes, looks bored and lazy up there at least once each game and strikes out or grounds weakly to second base. On Tuesday night he had whiffed in the third and fifth innings of a game that felt out of reach at the time (8-3 Lehigh Valley for 2 1/2 innings). He seemed to be saving his energy for when it was needed.
Now it was needed. He fell behind in the count, 1-2, then looked at ball two. On the fifth pitch, he did exactly what I predicted he would do: serve a pitch into left field and score a run, or perhaps two to tie the game. Except that Weber spanked the 2-2 fastball not quite far enough to the left of third baseman Mike Cervenak, who made a terrific game-saving, diving catch of the liner to end the inning. Score still 9-7.
"That was the game," Montoyo said afterwards.
So it was. Joe Bateman pitched a 1-2-3 seventh, but in the eighth he ran aground on the tight strike zone of home plate umpire Brian Reilly---they had words---succumbed to two walks, his bugbear, pitch-count climbing toward 40, and he left the bases loaded with two outs for Jorge Julio. Julio is an erstwhile major-league closer who doesn't seem to know quite where his pitches are going when he throws them. His first pitch hit John Mayberry, Jr. to force in a run. His third pitch was creamed for a grand slam by David Newhan, who used to be Julio's teammate with the Baltimore Orioles.
Okay, that was the game.
Now, why was Jorge Julio, who had pitched the night before, in the game? Why is this castoff on the team at all? He's on the team because Chad Orvella was released. Orvella missed all of 2008 with an injury and then was recovering from surgery and he wasn't very good this year so the Rays decided not to wait any longer and to see instead if Julio has anything left. (So far, no, he doesn't.) Julio was in this particular game on no rest because Carlos Hernandez had been scratched from his start with back spasms the previous night and the Bulls started Julio DePaula, a reliever, who was out of the game by the third inning, and Jorge Julio came in and couldn't find the strike zone and was out of the game after only 20 pitches and so he was one of the only "fresh"(-ish) relievers Charlie Montoyo had left in his bullpen on Tuesday---and anyway Montoyo's whole bullpen is overused because of pitch counts dictated by the Tampa front office and inefficient starters like James Houser, who is young and needs development and probably shouldn't even be in Class AAA, but he is in Class AAA because of injuries and lack of depth in the system, but even so you have to go back to the beginning of the year, when Houser was promoted in some perplexing swap with Class-AA Montgomeryfor Jason Cromer (Cromer starts Wednesday, about 10 hours from now), and then continue through Mitch Talbot's injury, which forced Cromer to come back up from Class-AA Montgomery and step in for Talbot rather than replace Houser, to understand why Houser is still on the roster even though, despite having had a stretch when he created and then wiggled out of trouble every inning for two weeks and impersonated a decent Triple-A starter, he's been pounded like a veal cutlet in consecutive starts with his mid-80s fastball and would have been out of last night's game earlier than he was had Charlie Montoyo had the luxury of relieving him sooner, and when I asked Montoyo what adjustments Houser needed to make, he quickly and curtly responded, Cheshire-Cat-grinning, "You might want to ask that question to the pitching coach."
Xavier Hernandez, the Bulls' pitching coach, has not spoken to the local media once this season.
And so that is how I found myself explaining to a deeply confused young woman in the stands why Alex Jamieson, the Bulls's third-string catcher---the one who all season long keeps getting "sent down" to "Hudson Valley," which is code for covering his uniform jersey with a sweatshirt, and then getting "called" back "up," which is code for taking it off again---was standing on the mound for the second time this season, throwing 44-mph "knuckleballs" (was that what they were?) and allowing two ninth-inning runs, fewer than Houser and Bateman, the latter of whom owes the ugliest part of his line to Jorge Julio.
The Bulls scored a run in the bottom of the ninth, just to make it (a tiny bit more) interesting. And they also made sure to finally commit their senseless baserunning gaffe of the night when Craig Albernaz---who pinch-hit for Weber in garbage time and hit the ball harder than I've seen him hit one all year, about twenty feet up the Blue Monster for a double---loitered halfway between second and third on Ray Sadler's ground single to left and got thrown out at third after he finally decided to try running there. He would have scored had he advanced to third, and even though that only would have made the final score 16-9, still. Craig. Albie. Naz.
Athletes hate losing. It is 2:30 in the morning, and although I would be willing to bet that most of the Durham Bulls are still awake, it isn't because they can't sleep over this loss. This loss was a link in a chain.
Some things to take away from the game:
* Henry Mateo, whom I was just praising, was moved up into the leadoff spot and went 4-5 with a double. He is now hitting .360 (!). Charlie Montoyo couldn't effuse enough about him after the game. Mateo brings great energy to the team, even in 16-8 losses.
* Justin Ruggiano ended a horrible 3-32 slump (slump? what's a slump?) by flaring an opposite-field, two-run double down the right-field line in the sixth, and then adding a line-drive single in the ninth.
* Rhyne Hughes, who is Chris Richard's replacement for now, homered, doubled and singled in his first three at-bats.
* Reid Brignac was in the clubhouse after the game, but apparently hadn't arrived in time to play.
* This team is still a game out of first place in the International League South Division. As currently configured, the Durham Bulls aren't the best team in the league. They've been heavily parted out to the major-league squad, their hitting is volatile (and their best home-run hitter has been injured for the better part of a month), and their starting pitching has been wobbly and will continue to be so; their bullpen, which was outrageously good for the first couple of months of the season, has sprung leaks that they were bound to spring. But as a unit, they're not going to give up, not ever, not one inch. They weren't as good as they looked a week ago, yet they're much better than they played Tuesday night. Their manager is steady and, it seems, almost impervious to daily anxieties. What's going to be fun from here on out is watching them determine exactly how good (or not so good) they are, with whatever parts they comprise on any given day, installment by installment, for the rest of the season. Who needs summer reading when you've got a new chapter of the Bulls every day?
There, I'm a book critic.