by Adam Sobsey
In one chapter of Word Freak, Stefan Fatsis's absorbing account of his foray deep into the world of competitive Scrabble, Fatsis narrates the history of the game and its painstaking design by an obsessive tinkerer named Alfred Butts. Butts spent years fussing with the board layout, the premium-square arrangement, and the calibration and distribution of points and tiles. Fatsis concludes:
Perfection isn't arrived at overnight, and the more I play, the more Alfred's game seems perfect. I think he was like Alexander Cartwright's Knickerbocker Base Ball Club laying the bases ninety feet apart or James Naismith setting the height of his peach baskets at ten feet.
I thought of Fatsis's praise of Butts's exacting design for Scrabble while listening to bits and pieces of yesterday's doubleheader between the Durham Bulls and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees (the teams split, 6-2 Durham in Game One, 8-2 Scranton in Game Two). When the two games are played consecutively in a minor-league twinbill, as they were Thursday when the Bulls and Yankees made up Wednesday's rainout, they are shortened by rule to seven regulation-innings each. That truncation may not sound like much of a big deal, but there are a couple of problems with it. First off, it treats the players like they're not fully mature and can't handle a major-league twinbill. I'd be willing to wager that most minor leaguers can probably handle a pair of nine-inning games better than many big-league veterans.
Second, baseball games are supposed to be nine innings long. The reasons are ineffable, but there's something wrong with a ballgame that only goes seven innings. You don't get enough development, enough structure. The team that jumps out to an early lead seems almost sure to win; the game never evolves properly, rewarding sprinters over marathoners---and if there's one thing that sets baseball apart from most other sports, it's in the patience and endurance that must accompany not only each game but the whole season, which unfolds day by day for almost half the year. In a seven-inning game, if you're losing after two turns of the order, it's already getting almost too late. A baseball game needs nine innings in order to play itself out fully. Seven innings is just too short.
Things other than length were also wrong with Thursday's doubleheader.
The Bulls' official game story after Wednesday's rainout suggested that Jeremy Hellickson and Carlos Hernandez would pitch for Durham on Thursday. Hellickson started and won the first game, but Matt DeSalvo took the ball for Game Two. (I assume that the thinking had to do with giving an extra day of rest to Hernandez's shoulder, which the Rays are planning to handle like a ripe tomato until the end of the season.) DeSalvo had pitched outstandingly on Saturday night (also the second game of a doubleheader, albeit a split day/night affair) in relief of Houser, who was knocked out of the game early against Norfolk. Perhaps DeSalvo's strong 5 2/3 innings in that game convinced Charlie Montoyo to flip the two pitchers; or perhaps Montoyo figured that DeSalvo might have some luck facing his old teammates---DeSalvo was a Yankees farmhand from 2003-07.
Either way, the reasoning was faulty. DeSalvo may have risen to the occasion on Saturday, but that performance was an exception to the rule: he just hasn't been very good since the Rays signed him. And while a pitcher might have some advantage facing hitters he knows (although I'd actually say that repetition might favor the hitter), I doubt that more than two or three of the current Scranton/Wilkes-Barre players were minor-league Yankees when DeSalvo was in the organization. The point is that DeSalvo got tagged again, this time for five runs on four hits and three walks in just three innings---by which time, in a seven-inning game, the Bulls were pretty much finished. Both of the games in Thursday's twinbill fell on one wing or another of the Buck Showalter Theorem: one was lost early, one won early.
That is to say, borrrr-ing. In seven innings, you pretty much spend the last two or three anticipating the end of the game. I was shocked to hear from Neil Solondz that Dale Thayer was up and warming in the sixth inning of Game One before I remembered the abbreviation rule. Thayer may have been surprised, too: with the Bulls leading 6-0, he came on in the bottom of the seventh, hit a batter, and then gave up a two-run homer to Juan Miranda before settling down and retiring the next three Yankees.
Game One was also weird in that the hitting star was Ray Olmedo, who is almost always a complementary part of the Bulls' charge, not its leader. He homered for the first time in over three weeks, and had a run-scoring single. The Bulls scored most of their runs with the help of walks and an error, leaving tire tracks all over a "complete" game by Yankees' starter Ivan Nova, whose name sounds like it should belong to a Russian drag queen.
On the other side of the ledger, Jeremy Hellickson turned in another solid performance in his second start for the Bulls. He went six shutout innings, and like a chaste high-schooler he didn't allow anyone to reach second base after the first inning. Here's a mini-report (or the whole thing if you want to cough up bucks for a Baseball America subscription) for those interested. A criminally under-linked and un-Tweeted account of his first start as a Bull can be found here.
Game Two was weird, too. DeSalvo allowed all five of his runs in the first two innings. The big blow was a two-out, three-run homer in the first by John Rodriguez. After that, Charlie Montoyo had to something he seldom does: find ways to get his relievers some work. Usually, his challenge is to keep from over-using them. But after Andy Sonnanstine's eight-inning performance on Tuesday, followed by Wedensday's rainout, the bullpen residents were starting to stamp and snort in impatient fury. So James Houser, John Meloan and Jorge Julio each got an inning of work, with the result that the game was sort of like a Spring Training exhibition. Houser and Meloan were tres bon---Houser benefited from never having faced Scranton before, so they didn't know what to look for from him---but Julio struggled, and like DeSalvo, he got into trouble after two were out. He started the inning with a pair of groundouts, but then he hit a batter, wild-pitched him to second, and went single-single-double to the next three hitters. Like any reliever, Julio was due for an outing like this one: he had allowed no runs in seven of his last eight appearances (10 innings overall), and the one stumble was largely the result of bad luck.
The Spring Training feel was exaggerated by the context: the second game of a double-header in summertime, when much of the crowd---which, Neil Solondz pointed out, included a lot of day-camper children---has gone home, having satiated their baseball thirst with Game One. Stranger still was the unlikelihood of the Bulls' playing two yawners in a row: this is a team that likes to go to the wire. And then there again is that doubleheader problem, where you feel like you're watching halves of two games but not a full game. The whole thing is like baseball-lite, a rehearsal or a sketch of a game, but not the real thing.
Unfortunately, the results count, and a 1-1 result on a day when the second-place team wins (Gwinnett beat Rochester) means you lose half a game in the standings. The Bulls lead the Braves by just a game in the International League South Division. That makes tomorrow's series-ending (nine-inning!) tilt against Scranton seem like a bigger deal than perhaps it is: Gwinnett hasn't been in first place since the third game of the season, and the Bulls don't want to give them that psychological boost now. When the Bulls return home on Saturday they'll be facing the Indianapolis Indians, who just lost their two best starting pitchers, Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell, in trade-deadline deals.