by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---"Technically, it's not a doubleheader," someone said in the press box during the first game of what was unquestionably a doubleheader on Saturday. The argument there was that a day-night twinbill is really just two separate games that happen to be played on the same day. In an official minor-league doubleheader, the two games are played consecutively, and are shortened to seven innings each.
Try putting that sophistry over on the Durham Bulls and the Norfolk Tides, who got about two hours of "rest" (i.e., stuffing their faces, checking their Facebook accounts, peeling off their uniforms and putting on new ones) in between games on a steamy 90+degree day at the DBAP. It was a doubleheader, and frankly I'd rather play them back-to-back than try to find something to occupy the awkward time between. However you prefer it, Bulls' manager Charlie Montoyo was visibly exhausted in the clubhouse after the second game ended, about nine hours after the first one began. The first game went to the Bulls, 5-3 (it was the Tides' first loss in a doubleheader game this season; they had been 8-0); the Tides claimed the second, 8-4.
And right around the narrative midpoint of the long day's journey into night, a strange and unexpected thing happened, right before before Game Two. During the National Anthem, which was sung by a man and woman in well-manicured harmony, the microphone malfunctioned. After some on-again-off-again teasing, the device stopped working altogether, and there were a few awkward seconds while we watched the two singers do something that looked very much like lip-syncing, only on mute.
Then the large crowd (almost 10,000) began to sing. At first this was weird, because no one sings "The Star Spangled Banner" anymore. But after a few moments, it actually grew quite affecting: The impromptu rendition had the quiet poise and concord of a peace demonstration, except of course that Francis Scott Key's song is actually a glorification of war and promotes anything but peace. Nonetheless, there we were, filling in the blanks left open by broken technology. It was almost touching.
And it was also appropriate, because the whole day was about filling in blanks.
There were plenty of empty spaces during Game One in the form of seats. The announced attendance, 5,697, was based on advance sales, and I doubt there were even half that many fans there. It was so quiet during the afternoon game that, had you and a few friends gotten into an animated and opinionated discussion (after maybe two beers) about, say, whether the preponderance of books about the Civil War inadvertently glamorizes, through sheer obsessive prolixity, one of the most shameful moments in American history instead of condemning it, you would have probably been distracting the players on the field.
But there were no such distractions, and the small and quiet crowd on hand watched an efficient, five-innings-or-75-pitches Carlos Hernandez and three relievers hold the Norfolk lineup at bay despite allowing them 12 hits. Jason Childers earned his second save in about eighteen hours, and he has taken to the closer's role vacated by Dale Thayer with great confidence (Childers was Charlotte's closer last year and has 71 career saves): Childers has filled the blank, although Charlie Montoyo told us that the closer role will be spread out---but not "by committee," as the unsightly bureaucratic saying goes; rather "by feel," Montoyo said, and I like his phrase much better, especially because we're seeing that feel in practice: Joe Bateman picked up a couple of saves during the road trip, and I wouldn't be surprised to see DePaula, Jorge Julio or John Meloan get a shot until Dale Thayer returns. If Dale Thayer returns at all, that is. Maybe it's David Price who should return. But don't quote me. (You may go ahead and quote me.)
The only buzz in Game One came early but rippled for much of the rest of the day. Bulls' shortstop Reid Brignac left the game after the top of the second inning. Immediately, speculation began that he had been traded; his name had already been bruited about for days on the market floor. But why take him out immediately after the game had started? Was a deal proposed, negotiated and consummated in the mere quarter of an hour since the first pitch?
Not long after Brignac left the game (Henry Mateo replaced him), the press box phone rang. It was the Tampa Tribune, wanting to know why Brignac had been pulled, i.e. was a deal going down and how much did we know about it? Total Cast Operator Dave Levine took the caller's number and relayed the question about Brignac, which eventually made its way to the Bulls' dugout or clubhouse. Meanwhile, rumors were already flying around the internet that a Rays deal was imminent, even when word returned from downstairs that Brignac had simply been benched for failure to hustle down the line when he popped out to third on the first and only pitch he saw in the game. Levine called the Tampa journalist back to repeat this explanation. The online stories changed accordingly, rapidly, virally, and then died, also virally, after sufficient exposure to the compressed air of the internet.
I didn't buy it. Justin Ruggiano lollygags about every fifth play, and I've never seen Charlie Montoyo sit him. I decided that a deal was indeed in the works and that we were being sold a jar of creamed red herring. Sure enough, the answer to our question changed soon afterward: we were now re-educated with the news that Brignac had tweaked his knee swinging at that single pitch in the first and was removed for precautionary reasons. I still didn't buy it, and we journalists tried to piece together what might really be happening. If a trade was on its way, why announce that a player involved in it had hurt himself? On the other hand, why give us two conflicting pieces of information, knowing that doing so would only create confusion and disbelief and the assumption that the truth was being deliberately hidden? We tried to fill in the blanks, and resolved (of course) to ask Montoyo about Brignac after the game.
Montoyo stuck with the tweaked-knee story, and when he told us that Brignac would play in the second game of the doubleheader, I was almost disappointed: no juicy story here. It was certainly odd that Montoyo gave us a vague answer when asked which leg/knee of Brignac's it was that had faltered, but on the other hand Montoyo tends to be very tight-lipped when it comes to injury specificities. I backtracked and connected the dots thus: Brignac had felt discomfort after his swing; the team, knowing that a) he is indeed the subject of trade talks but b) not yet knowing whether the knee discomfort indicated anything serious---and quite aware that the media was prepared to pounce on anything that looked like a meaty bone---decided to fob off misinformation (the bland failure-to-hustle explanation); once Brignac determined that he would be fine for the second game, we got the truth about his knee, a truth which was much less interesting than our conjectures.
Or perhaps the Rays did have a deal nearly done, but then it fell apart, and in the mean time Brignac was pulled from the game in preparation for a move that was never made. After Game One, we couldn't help but notice that he was buried deep in a conversation on his cell phone in the clubhouse the whole time we were down there: the unmistakable message was don't-even-think-about-talking-to-me. So we didn't. He played in Game Two. Oh well.
Montoyo also mentioned Matt DeSalvo's name in his comments after Game One, although we hadn't asked him about DeSalvo's role now that he's been moved to the bullpen. (I had done so the night before and got little response.) "If there's any trouble or something," Montoyo said, "he'll go."
There was trouble or something in Game Two. Starter James Houser, fresh off of his best start of the season, was shelled, and it was depressing to watch---especially given that Houser's new innovation (which Montoyo told us was Houser's idea, not his coaches'), dropping to a three-quarters arm slot at times against lefty hitters, didn't help him much at all. His struggles were the usual kind for him: too many balls hit in the air, too much pitching behind in the count, too little command of his breaking pitches. And his luck was poorer than usual yesterday: there were his customary loud outs, but some bloops fell in safely, with ruinous consequences. Houser faced 21 batters, retired only 10 of them, and consumed 84 pitches in just 3 1/3 innings.
That sort of profligacy with pitches is something that has plagued DeSalvo, who came on in relief. But he filled the big, dark blank of the rest of the game for the Bulls with surprising economy, pitching all of the remaining 5 1/3 innings and needing only 70 pitches to do it, throwing about 70% strikes. Had he not uncorked an astounding four wild pitches (!), he would have kept Norfolk from scoring at all after Houser's departure. As it was, DeSalvo let in two runs (one charged to Houser) with his tosses to the backstop; but he saved the overused bullpen, which was basically down to Jorge Julio and perhaps an inning of Julio DePaula, who was only available for limited duty.
The B*lls' h*tters tried to battle back for Houser and DeSalvo. They cut a pair of five-run deficits to three, but with the score 7-4 in the sixth, runners on second and third and two outs, Elliot Johnson flied out to center. That was pretty much the end of the evening for the Bulls, although Rhyne Hughes exploited it for two more hits. His average jumped 25 points on Saturday to .298.
Another blank to be filled---or actually, not to be filled: Chris Wise at WDBB and Triangle Offense svengali David Fellerath (who was in attendance) both noticed that the grass at the DBAP looks sadly mangy these days. This is not the result of neglect! Indeed, it's the team's careful long-range planning, ironically, that has led to the problem. In the cooler early months of the season, Groundskeeper Scott Strickland plants rye grass. Rye is clumpy and lime-green, and good for temporary lawn cover in cooler weather until the heat-loving Bermuda grass takes over in mid- and late summer. Unfortunately for the DBAP, there hasn't been enough heat this season for the Bermuda to thrive in; meanwhile, the Rye, which is generally short-lived, has died off. The result? An ugly, scurfy infield. Worse, the Bulls will be playing at home so much in August that replanting is probably pointless. We're probably just stuck with the patchy field for the rest of the season, and it's a shame, because the visual evidence unfairly represents how hard Strickland and his crew work to maintain the playing surface. This paragraph concludes with a sentence that contains the word catcher and the word rye so that I can say: There, I'm a book critic.
And more blanks to be filled courtesy of the video board. Last night saw the return of "Fish or No Fish" (speaking of fish, which I did about two hours ago), an occasional between-innings game in which contestants are presented with uncommon and often strange words and then challenged to decide whether each one does or does not refer to a type of fish. On Saturday: "kawakawa," "oleander," "snook." The first and third are fishes. Given that the team is called, you know, the Bulls, I propose that the folks in the flight deck replace "Fish or No Fish" with "Bull or No Bull." I haven't thought it all the way through---although I will for a fair fee!---but I basically conceive of this game as one in which persuasive, compelling but possibly specious arguments, opinions or "facts" are put forth (speaking of sophistry, which I did about two hours ago), and the fan has to call or not call b*llsh*t on them. Examples: the preponderance of books about the Civil War inadvertently glamorizes, through sheer obsessive prolixity, one of the most shameful---(wait, I already used that one); it's not necessary to apologize to a fan in the row ahead of you after your child deliberately sprays Mountain Dew on him as long as you scold the child briefly but meanly, after which you are permitted to act as if the incident never happened while the sprayee tries in vain to dry himself off; "clutch" hitting doesn't really exist and thus worrying about runners in scoring position is a waste of time.
But the best by far was the little interview segment on the video screen in which four Bulls' players tried to identify two songs played for them over headphones. After drawing inarticulate blanks on both songs' titles and artists, Rhyne Hughes finally conceded, "I am terrible at this game." And reliever Joe Bateman added, in re Weezer's "Buddy Holly": "That's a whack song." Perhaps Bateman is right about that, but the thing is, I think Weezer might take that as a compliment. It just goes to show that you have to watch what you fill your blanks with. After all, Reid Brignac is still a Bull. For now.
Jason Cromer is on the mound for the Bulls on Sunday. It's a 5:05 p.m. start. See you there!