DBAP/ DURHAM---Henry Mateo's hot hitting earned him a promotion to the leadoff spot in manager Charlie Montoyo's lineup on Tuesday, and he rewarded Montoyo's choice by going 4-5 and raising his average to .360. Mateo was in pole position again on Wednesday afternoon---another heavy, gray, sodden day in Durham---and he led off the bottom of the first inning with a grounder to the right side that Lehigh Valley's burly first baseman, Andy Tracy, couldn't get to. But second baseman J. J. Furmaniak gloved it near the outfield grass and threw to Kyle Kendrick, the pitcher, who hurried over to cover first base. Mateo, hustling all the way, dove into the bag.
It's been widely discussed, but the general consensus is that diving or sliding into first base is a bad idea (here's an inelegant but useful summary of the argument). It looks like a hustle play and you get sexily, mannishly dirty doing it, but it slows you down, for one thing, and it's also a great way to get hurt, for another.
Guess what? Henry Mateo was out at first. Guess what else? He got hurt. Guess what other else? It wasn't even a result of diving head-first into the bag: he pulled his hamstring legging out the play, and the Bulls hottest hitter had to leave the game, which they wound up losing to Lehigh Valley, 4-0 in 11 innings.
When teams are going good they find ways to win, and when they're not they find ways to lose. The Bulls had no business winning on Monday or Tuesday, and they didn't (although through sheer force of will they made like they might win anyway). On Wednesday, however, they should have won, and they had to find, by my count, at least four ways to lose---and they did. Let us count them:
1) Scoreless tie, bottom of the seventh inning. Just before the Bulls came up to hit, I said to my friend Jim, with whom I watched the game: "The Bulls are going to break through here." (Remember, I am psychic.) Sure enough, Rashad Eldridge singled to right, and then Ray Sadler walked, ending IronPigs' (and former Phillies') starter Kyle Kendrick's day. Kendrick threw 98 pitches, and Ray Sadler saw 22 of them. That is absolutely awesome, kids! If Sadler can bring that kind of selectiveness to the plate every time at bat, he's going to be making a lot more money soon.
Lefty sidearmer Jake Woods came in to replace Kendrick and threw a lame, 84-mph fastball to the Bulls' lefty-slugging Rhyne Hughes, who is filling in for Chris Richard, still out with a (natch) hamstring strain. Hughes watched it float by for strike one. Bummer. The next pitch was even slower—a slider, maybe—and Hughes ripped into it. But he was out in front a little, and hit a towering, deep foul ball out of play south of right field. I said to my friend Jim, "Now Woods will throw him another slider, only down and away, out of the strike zone, and Hughes will swing and miss." And that's exactly what happened. One out.
The next batter was Ray Olmedo. Olmedo has really been struggling lately, kicking balls all over the place at various infield positions and throwing them into the ether, and failing to hit much from either side of the plate (he's much better left-handed). So it was nice to see him hit—right-handed—a little 120-foot, opposite-field twizzler over first base that landed just barely fair. I was watching to see if Olmedo would get a helpful backspinning bounce and turn his bloop into a double, and somehow I didn't see Charlie Montoyo, the third base coach (all minor-league managers perform that double-duty), giving Eldridge the hold sign right around the same time that Olmedo, head down, began to dig for second, with Sadler caught somewhere in the middle. I'm going to spare you the sad and intricate details here, but the upshot was that all three baserunners got confused, like migrating geese that suddenly lose magnetic north and start colliding in midair, and Eldridge was eventually caught in a rundown between third and home plate and tagged out; and the Bulls inexcusably failed to score in the inning. It's the obligatory senseless baserunning gaffe of the evening, folks, sort of like the way someone always manages to land on Lose A Turn in each episode of Wheel of Fortune. Still 0-0.
2) With the game still scoreless in the last of the ninth, Justin Ruggiano hit a grounder that caught the edge of the infield grass. skittered weirdly, and eluded IronPigs' third baseman Mike Cervenak for a double. Eldridge then walked. Sadler came up. He squared to bunt. Reid Brignac, in his first game back since his junket to Tampa, had been asked to do the same in the eighth, and popped out bunting foul to the catcher. Sadler's effort was a little better, but pitcher Woods made a fine play, pouncing off the mound and gunning down the lead runner, Ruggiano, at third. I guess I understand Montoyo's thinking, but I don't see why you have a hitter like Sadler bunt with the winning run in scoring position and no one out in the bottom of the ninth inning. Also, except for Olmedo, the Bulls suck at bunting. Once again, they failed to score. Extra innings, still 0-0.
3) Last of the tenth, still 0-0. Craig Albernaz reaches on an infield single, getting the benefit of the doubt on a close call at first base. One out later, Brignac hits a Texas-leaguer to left-center that falls for a hit. (The Bulls got several helpings for good luck in this game.) Two on, one out. But the Bulls' 3-4 hitters, Matt Joyce and Ruggiano, fly out and ground out, respectively. Joyce's day ends 0-5, with a GIDP.
4) Top of the eleventh inning. Dale Thayer is on for his second inning of work, having sawed off the IronPigs with just eight pitches in the tenth. He leaves a full-count pitch up in the zone to Furmaniak, who raps a leadoff single into left field. This time it's Lehigh Valley's turn to try a sacrifice bunt. Michael Spidale lays one down. Thayer ambles off the mound (he might have moved a bit faster) and makes a not-great but catchable throw to first as Spidale bears down on first baseman Rhyne Hughes—who, remember, is only playing first base because he was called up from Montgomery to fill in for Chris Richard (who practically sprinted away from me later in the clubhouse when I asked him how his hamstring was feeling). Hughes has the ball bounce off of his glove: everyone safe. Gifted an extra baserunner and out, Jason Ellison lays down another sac bunt attempt. No one makes any mistakes this time; the runners advance. Mike Cervenak grounds to Ray Olmedo at second, where Henry Mateo would have been playing had he not pulled his hamstring. Olmedo makes a decent throw home, but Furmaniak scores. 1-0, 'Pigs.
Then the wheels fall off. Andy Tracy murders the first pitch he sees from Thayer for a long double over Ruggiano's head in center field. (I thought they should have given an intentional walk to Tracy, who has been lethal in the series.) Two runs score. 3-0, 'Pigs. Thayer walks John Mayberry, Jr., throwing a wild pitch in the process to move Tracy to third, at which point a freight train scrolls by in the distance, sounding a long, funereal horn. David Newhan grounds into a fielder's choice, scoring Tracy, who wouldn't have been on third base but for Thayer's wild pitch. 4-0, IronPigs. The Bulls go meekly in the last of the 11th. Hughes grounds out to second base to end the game.
Afterwards, we managed to ask Montoyo many pointless questions, which he politely brushed aside. What can you say in a time like this, when your team is simply going through one of those inevitable troughs? He gave us "If I would have asked somebody, we're gonna be 10 games over .500 on June 17? I'll take it any time." [unspoken: "Ten games over .500 with half the roster having changed over in two months."] He gave us "Kendrick just got sent down from the big leagues; he's a good pitcher." He gave us "It's a team sport." He gave us "That's just the way baseball is." All true; all unnecessary to say except as deflections of rubber-bullet questions.
In other words, there's nothing to do but keep running out there every day and wait out the recession. One of Montoyo's comments did, however, make me aware that you can't accurately judge your International League opponent by its record. "I check the transactions before we play" any team, Montoyo said; that's how he knows what the Bulls are getting before any given series. You can really only measure a Class-AAA team by its recent track record. Lehigh Valley is a better club than its 26-36 mark suggested. They have seasoned hitters, and they've thrown a pair of highly-regarded starting pitchers at the Bulls so far in this series. On Thursday they start Rodrigo Lopez, who has 65 major-league wins under his belt (all five Bulls starters combined have 10). The Bulls' hitters should have a pregame breakout session with reliever Jorge Julio, who was Lopez's teammate in Baltimore for three or four years. Maybe Julio can help them. Right now, they need all the help they can get.
A few notes before I sign off:
* The Bulls left 10 men on base and went 1-10 with runners in scoring position. The one hit they managed was Olmedo's wasted single in the seventh inning.
* Lost in this dispiriting game was Jason Cromer's outstanding performance, probably the best any Durham starter has given so far this year. Cromer went eight innings and allowed just two hits and two walks, with five strikeouts. He looked totally in command all afternoon. His (small-sample-sized!) ERA is now 0.91; he has allowed just 16 hits in 29 2/3 innings.
I'll say this: When Mitch Talbot comes off of the disabled list (and assuming Carlos Hernandez doesn't go on it), if James Houser stays on the roster instead of Cromer, then someone in Tampa is smoking some very left-field grass. Another explanation might be this one: Houser grew up a Rays fan in Sarasota, FL, and his family once had season tickets behind the Rays' dugout. Those are expensive seats. Perhaps, in return for the Houser family's investment in the franchise, the Rays felt that they ought to give Houser fils extra chances to make the major-league squad by ensconcing him in AAA-ball for a long while to see if he'd pitch his way up to the bigs. That's the best I can come up with: Houser has lately been treated by International-League hitters like 1980s jeans: sandblasted and acid-washed---and why not peg-legged, while we're at it?
Or maybe Houser has pictures of, I don't know, Gerry Hunsicker in flagrante delicto with a house pet? (Sorry; I think I'm getting my Bulls post confused with the review I have to write of this play.)
* Reliever Chad Bradford, on a rehab assignment, made his first appearance for the Bulls on Wednesday. His delivery is so underhanded that he could almost be impersonating a bowler, and his velocity never topped 80 mph. But he threw strikes, survived a deep flyout to center field by Tracy and struck out Mayberry, Jr. in a scoreless ninth inning. It will be nice for Montoyo to have him around for a week or so.
* Norfolk lost at Louisville, so the Bulls remain a game out of first place. For a team on a steep losing skid, they're actually still sitting rather pretty. It may not be the catbird seat, but it's far from the birdbath. Durham still has the league's third-best record.
Matt DeSalvo gets the start tonight. The three major ballpark food groups—hot dogs, french fries and popcorn—are $1 each on Thursdays at the DBAP. Stop drooling and go get tickets. Your Bulls need you!