[caption id="" align="alignright" width="285" caption="The Brussels Chamber Orchestra played "The Star Spangled Banner" at the DBAP."][/caption]DBAP/ DURHAM---Last night at the DBAP, the Brussels Chamber Orchestra played the National Anthem---from sheet music, no less---before the Bulls' 3-2 victory, their season-high seventh straight. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the BCO's elegant, classically European performance of the anthem brought down the packed house of 10,652. I had never seen that happen at a baseball game. The heartfelt, sustained ovation was deserved: the BCO's rendition was the ballpark's best of the season so far. It took an international, Europe-based collective to do the American tune full justice---and it was superbly miked, I might add. I can't think of any reason not to tell you to go catch one of their upcoming concerts in the area. The BCO's performance set the tone for the evening, and the game that followed matched it: streamlined, clean, with discrete segments and tones. It was something close to Continental baseball.
Nearly everything about Cromer's Durham stint has been a big improvement on his work in Double-A Montgomery. In eight games (seven starts) and 44 innings for Durham, he has compiled a 1.43 ERA. His WHIP is under 1.00 and he's allowed just three home runs and a .187 batting average to opposing hitters. His K/9, BB/9, and K/BB rates are nothing special, he's no groundball machine, and he doesn't throw hard at all, especially for a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder; for all we know, he's just getting exceedingly lucky for now---but it doesn't seem that way. Indeed, one of the two runs he allowed last night came via a pair of soft singles.
Cromer is 28 years old and nothing like a prospect anymore; this is his second go-round in the Rays' organization. But anyone who can put up these numbers merits some attention, especially if he does it left-handed. The starting rotation is already overcrowded and will get denser when Mitch Talbot returns, but Cromer is making it hard to seriously consider moving him out. I was only sorry that he wasn't around to talk to after the game; as it was, I had to settle for acting-manager Dave Myers's complimentary assessment of Cromer's performance, and to note once again that attacking the lower half of the strike zone is a really, really good idea. Cromer's performance was classical in that way: composed, motivated, traditional and uncluttered.
Speaking of clutter, it was nice to see Jason Childers come on and tidy up the only mess Cromer made last night, especially because Childers's family, including his adorable twin daughters, were at the game. With no one out and men on first and second in the top of the seventh, a run already in and the Bulls' lead shaved to 3-2, Childers relieved Cromer. Miguel Negron botched a pair of sacrifice bunt attempts (another demerit for Small Ball: not enough players are able to execute it) and then Childers froze him with an unreachable curveball. "I probably got a little help on that strike-three call," Childers admitted after the game. He's the most candid and responsive interview in the Bulls' clubhouse.
After securing that first out, Childers was looking for a double-play grounder from the next hitter, and he almost got it. But Norris Hopper's topper (me write poetry!) down the third-base line was too slow to do much of anything with. Childers told us after the game that he nearly yelled at third baseman Ray Olmedo to let it roll foul. Except that it was almost certainly going to stay fair, and catcher John Jaso shouted at Olmedo to field it. Olmedo hesitated, which often presages an error, then decided to barehand the ball, which he did deftly. His strong throw to first just barely beat Hopper. It was another critical, game-changing play: had Olmedo not made it, the bases would have been loaded with one out, and Josh Kroeger's ensuing flyout to right field might have scored the game-tying run. Instead, it ended the inning and, essentially, the game.
Unlike position players and starters, relief pitchers can't maintain much of a routine; they can't predict how often they'll play, in what situation, or for how long. They have to be ever-ready for action, but not too ready or they might overthrow and miss the strike zone. Yet they're often called in, like hit-men or forensic cops, to deal with dangerous, sensitive situations; their energy has to equal that of the crisis they've been summoned to resolve. It's easy to forget sometimes why relievers are so called, but the name is appropriate: they come in to relieve either pain or pressure.
It was the latter last night. Childers entered the game in a tight, explosive situation and defused it calmly, coolly---a European response, I dare say, to a potential crisis. It was Childers's fifth straight scoreless outing, and it further dropped his ERA---which was up near six just a couple of weeks ago---to 4.78.
With all of the shuffling of Durham's relief pitchers this season, there is pressure on them not just in game situations but in the overall seasonal picture: two relievers (Dewon Day and Chad Orvella) have already been released so far, and another one may very well meet the same fate in order to make room for John Meloan, who arrived yesterday from Columbus. It's got to be an anxious feeling to know that, as a relief pitcher, you're the most expendable part of a baseball team, especially in the minors, where the bullpen is essentially a revolving door of often indistinguishable workmen. A poor stretch of outings can mean the axe. "There is some doubt," Childers confessed, speaking of that who's-next paranoia. "There is some wondering: could it be you?" Naturally, a reliever's best defense is to keep putting up zeroes. Childers, who leads the Bulls in appearances, is doing that these days.
And to answer a question I know you've been biting your tongue on for weeks, yes, he sent the Bulls-logo permanent-marker artwork he applied to Randy Choate's card table to Choate in Tampa. "We sent him a Triple-A table to a big-league clubhouse," Childers said, laughing. "He took it out of the clubhouse as soon as he could, to his apartment."
Joe Bateman and Dale Thayer each followed Childers's 1-2-3 act with one of their own, combining for three strikeouts of six batters---it was Bateman's first walk-free outing in his last nine appearances (!).
All of this strong pitching was supported by a streamlined evening of hitting, and how: all three Durham runs came on a pair of homers by Reid Brignac. The first one capped an unusual sequence in the third inning. With two outs, Henry Mateo smacked a line drive up the middle that struck what appeared to be the pitching arm of Charlotte starting pitcher Jack Egbert. The ball caromed right to Josh Kroeger at first base; he merely had to pick it up and step on the bag to retire Mateo. Instead, perhaps flustered by the ricochet, Kroeger somehow mishandled the easy catch: it popped out of his mitt and Mateo was safe. Egbert, grimacing in pain, immediately left the game.
Adam Russell relieved, got ahead of Brignac 0-2, and then missed with his next pitch. Brignac isn't a power hitter, but he drove the mistake pitch right off the barrel of the bat and over the right-field wall for a two-run homer. Baseball outcomes rarely seem dependent on single incidents like that one: an injury, a quick substitution, a game-determining result. It was another precise, decisive moment in an evening that proceeded with metronomic consistency: each third of the game took right around 50 minutes to play.
In the fifth inning, Brignac cracked his second homer of the night off of Charlotte's sidearming right-hander, Ehren Wassermann, whose neck-snapping, torso-torquing delivery resembles a mime portraying an anxious man injuring himself trying to start a lawn mower. Nice way to confirm the rightness of your selection to the All-Star team, Reid. He increased his season home run total by 50% last night in consecutive at-bats.
After the game, I asked Dave Myers whether Brignac had been encouraged to swing more for the fences, which could perhaps make him more attractive at the big-league level. "No no no no," Myers replied (there might have been a fifth "no"; there was a lot of noise around us). In fact, Myers added, Brignac sometimes gets too homer-happy, which can cause his swing to fly open and too many lazy flyouts. But the two long balls Brignac hit last night were on good, honest cuts with excellent technical integrity. Those were the kind of home runs Myers wants to see Brignac hitting. "He was just trying to hit the ball hard."
The minor leagues often produce compromised, messy baseball. That's the inevitable residue of the farm, where winning is secondary to training, personnel constantly changes and clubhouse chemistry is always unstable, and uneven talent takes the field each day. The minors are a melting pot. But last night's classically played game was a cleansing exception to the rule---as was the unseasonably cool, airy weather---and it was also an eye-clearing way to head into the bathos-prone, fire- and smoke-shot, propaganda-drenched birthday of the country. We needed Europe to give that to us last night.
Speaking of clean breaks, sort of, I'll miss next week's series with Gwinnett. You'll be in good hands with my colleague Mike Potter, who will cover the games. See you at the DBAP in three weeks!