by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---Only one thing about the Durham Bulls' 8-4 win over the Louisville Bats last night made it seem like a playoff game: the size of the crowd. The attendance, 1,809, must have been the smallest of the year to date, and that's about normal for a playoff game at the DBAP. It's as if fall comes along and snatches four out of every five spectators from the stands. You can pretty much sit anywhere you want for the most important games of the season each September. Not sure if it's the playoffs? Just cock your head and listen to the unsettling silence all around you, occasionally disrupted by the home plate umpire saying "Ball Two!" so loudly that you're startled by it.
But the fans who came were into the game in a way that regular-season crowds at the DBAP rarely are, and their intensity made up for their fellow citizens' abandonment of their team. It was fun to watch the game with them. They cared. They were in it. The Bulls rewarded them by taking a 1-0 lead in this best-of-five series.
But they did it in a game full of bad baseball. Yes, there was clutch hitting and good fielding, another double-digit strikeout game by Jeremy Hellickson, and a fine performance by his counterpart, the Bats' highly regarded left-hander Travis Wood. But both starters' performances had substantial flaws, as well; there were seven errors (and could easily have been an eighth---games at the DBAP have lately been plagued by poor glovework); there were three errors by Sean Rodriguez alone; a total meltdown by a Bats reliever; a lot of pitchers struggling to get ahead in the count and hitters failing to make them pay for it---and also pitchers getting ahead in the count and then failing to finish off hitters, who did make them pay for it. The Bulls took a comfortable lead into the ninth inning, but for a moment, it suddenly looked to be in grave danger, and a game that should have been over-and-done managed to get sticky at the end.
And for the first three innings, it barely seemed like we were watching an official game at all. When Juan Francisco creamed a Jeremy Hellickson fastball off the Triangle Orthopedics sign way out in left-center field for a two-run homer, you felt like you were watching a big strong young prospect take batting practice. "Wow," you said to yourself, "that kid can really hit." The ball thwacked off the sign with a resounding crack and landed back on the outfield grass. Justin Ruggiano trotted over to it as though he was just out there shagging flies.
But in fact it was 2-0, Louisville, in Game One of the playoffs. Bats, of course, are nocturnal, and dusk was fading to dark when Francisco hit his homer. But apparently, your late-inning Bulls are creatures of the night, too. They awakened in the middle innings, first needing some tapping on the shoulder from the Bats, who should have let sleeping Bulls lie.
Two pieces of exordia to begin. First, the great comic moment of the day, which was provided inadvertently. In my last post, I mentioned that Carolina Hurricanes Erik Cole and Chad LaRose would be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. "Unless they're called up to Tampa," I joked, a nod to the running roster-turnover gag that continued with Dale Thayer's departure yesterday. Then came an email from the Durham Bulls media office today that Cole had canceled "for personal reasons." Ha!
Second, the National Anthem was performed by a young girl who had the sweetest, tenderest voice, and it befit the minor melancholy of autumn as it rapidly takes hold of the Triangle. Nice piece of Anthem scheduling by the Bulls' talent people.
And to the game itself now. It seems comical to say that Jeremy Hellickson wasn't his sharpest last night. He struck out 12 Louisville hitters in just 5 2/3 innings, at one point getting nine outs in a row via K. He allowed only three hits, one of them an infield single. His pitch count rose quickly, but that owed partially to his second baseman, Sean Rodriguez, who made three errors that forced Hellickson to throw extra pitches.
Still, he wasn't at the same level we saw him at in his last couple of starts. After the game, he told us that his fastball didn't feel as good as it usually does, and it looked to be sailing a little higher than usual last night. The homer Francisco hit off of him was on a misplaced heater out over the plate.
And Hellickson's issues with the fastball were complicated by Louisville, which was "swinging at almost anything," Hellickson said. As a consequence, he had to mix up his pitches more in order to keep them from hurting him with his fastball, which meant more judicious use of it anyway. About 25 percent of his pitches were curveballs, and he seemed to have two versions of it: one that he would drop in for a called strike, and another that he would snap off so sharply that it bounced in the dirt more than once. The latter seemed designed to get hitters to chase it, which they occasionally did. And then there was the Hellickson changeup, a beast of its own kind, which had good action and produced plenty of swinging strikes. (I counted 16 all told in his 109 pitches; that's actually a slightly lower rate, I think, than he usually produces.)
And about those three hits: two were homers. That seems to be Hellickson's weakness right now. He throws the hard fastball down the middle and it gets hit far—that's why he's developing that sinker, which he'll need in the big leagues. Good hitters are going to make him pay for the fastball too often unless he has a version of it that he can keep out of the middle of the strike zone.
And Louisville has very good hitters. Actually, Louisville is almost the Carolina Mudcats. Except for rehabbing major-leaguer Jay Bruce, who batted third last night, the first five men in the Bats' lineup were playing in Zebulon earlier this season (one, Yonder Alonso, played his first game for Louisville last night after a late callup), plus the No. 8 hitter, Chris Denove, who also homered off of Hellickson. To a man, they've continued to hit (the ground running) in Class AAA. They're big; they've got power; and although they did, as Hellickson said, swing a lot, they weren't just up there hacking. They were looking for good pitches to hit. Hellickson gave them a couple, and they hit two out of the park. Otherwise, they struck out.
Later in the game, Francisco—who was the Reds' Minor League Player of the Month for August, with numbers that are downright terrifying—hit a third homer for the Bats. It appeared at first to be catchable, Justin Ruggiano going back on it; then it looked like it would hit the Blue Monster, Ruggiano waiting for the carom; then it went over the Monster. It was a lot like Bucky Dent's famous homer at Fenway Park in 1978. Francisco is very strong, and after the game Charlie Montoyo talked about him as though the Bats' third baseman were a bear Montoyo had narrowly avoided being mauled by, losing only a limb or an eye but living to tell about the attack.
If it seems odd to spend so much time talking about how good Louisville is on a night when the Bulls beat them by plenty, that's partially because Durham looked flat for about half the game. They had at least one man on base in each of the first four innings, but stranded all five who reached. Still, they had had some good swings off of Bats' starter Travis Wood, and it seemed like they had a chance to get back into the game after falling behind 3-0.
But would they, on a cool, quiet night at the DBAP? It was so cathedral-like in there that you could clearly hear outfielders calling for fly balls from 300 feet away. The usual white noise of the crowd was instead a canticle of separate, discrete conversations, any one of which you could have eavesdropped on whenever you felt like it. Meanwhile, the Bulls slumbered.
But then Travis Wood woke them up. He committed a pair of errors in the fifth inning, the second a bad throw that would have started an inning-ending double play. Instead, roused by the sudden opportunity to graze for runs, Matt Joyce (3-4 with a pair of RBI singles) and Sean Rodriguez singled, both after falling behind 0-2, and it was suddenly a tie ballgame. Wood, who had made his own mess with his fielding, was done after five innings and an inefficient 98 pitches.
His departure turned out to be a disaster, because now the Bulls were awake and the crowd was, too. Hecklers had come into fine voice, taunting Wood and Bats' second baseman Todd Frazier, who had made an error of his own (did someone bury a voodoo doll near second base yesterday?). Jason Cromer told me later that the crowd's involvement—especially the hecklers'—really brightened things up for the team. (Triangle Offense neither endorses nor condemns the practice. Even though it helped the Bulls win last night.)
So now the Bulls were ready to charge at the next entrant. Bats' reliever Federico Baez came on in the sixth and got Michel Hernandez to ground out leading off. Then Ray Olmedo stepped in. For no good reason at all, I almost turned to Heather and said that Olmedo would hit a homer. Olmedo seems livelier, insouciant, sportive lately. He finished the regular season on a nice .310 clip over 10 games, and even though he's got no power at all—his slugging percentage is a risible .335—he has a knack lately for doing the right thing at the right time: a walkoff single; a nice play on a grounder at a key moment; uh, pitch two innings of relief and get an extra-inning win; etc. So why not go long, Rainer?
But then I came to my senses—Olmedo hit a home run? off a guy throwing 93?—and thank god I did: Olmedo didn't hit a homer. Instead he hit a triple, missing that homer by about fifteen feet way out in the right-center field alley. Desmond Jennings, who has had some trouble driving in runners from third base with less than two outs, struck out. And now there were two outs, and the Bulls looked like they were going to waste a great scoring chance in the playoffs, at home.
But that's when the Bulls' espresso really kicked in. The next five men hit safely. A couple of those hits were cheapies, and the fourth was Sean Rodriguez's little fly ball down the right field line that Jay Bruce, rehabbing an injured wrist that he injured diving to make a catch, could perhaps have caught. Had he dove for it. As if. Instead, he pulled up short and let it drop for a run-scoring hit. That ended Baez's night, and Joe Krebs came in and was greeted by a single from Ruggiano. The Bulls were suddenly up 8-3—flash, bang, like that—and Baez now has a post-season ERA of a truly awesome 67.50.
But the Bats weren't going to start hanging upside down just yet. Francisco made it 8-4 in the eighth inning with his Blue Monster mash off of Julio DePaula. In the ninth, taking no chances (and trying to keep his best reliever tuned up), Charlie Montoyo went to Winston Abreu.
Abreu looked rusty. He fell behind No. 9 hitter Luis Bolivar before Bolivar singled. He got Chris Heisey to hit a grounder to Olmedo at third, and Olmedo tried to start a double play. His throw to second was in the dirt, though—but Rodriguez made a terrific scoop on it and at least managed to get the lead runner out. Charlie Montoyo singled out Rodriguez's play here as a critical moment in the game—one of those "little things that people don't [notice]. It was a big play." (And it made up a bit for Rodriguez's fielding miscues earlier, which were on easy ground balls.) It became especially important one out later, when Lew Ford singled: had Bolivar not been erased, the bases would have been loaded with one out; and on deck? Juan Francisco, who has struck fear in Montoyo's heart after just one game. Instead, Abreu struck out Todd Frazier looking ("Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!" was all I could think), leaving his heart in Juan Francisco, or something like that. Bulls win.
Frankly, although they played OK, they got a lot of help in the form of opponent errors and luck. They'll need to play better than that in order to keep winning. And they'll need more bullpen work. (I almost forgot to make mention of Joe Bateman's solid 1 1/3 relief innings following Hellickson. Bateman got credit for the win.) Mitch Talbot will be limited to four innings or 60 pitches or two homers by Juan Francisco, whichever comes first. Montoyo indicated that Calvin Medlock will probably come in after Talbot if the Bulls have a lead.
Talbot told us after the game that he originally had a partially torn elbow tendon back in May. Then, just as he was planning to return to the Bulls last month, he strained his shoulder. He talked about how frustrated and doubtful he got while waiting for his arm to recover. "A lot of stuff goes through your head. 'Am I ever gonna be able to pitch again? Am I ever gonna be able to be healthy?'" Talbot had never missed a start prior to this year's setback. Now here he is, finally back in the place he'd hoped to be jumping off from, with a chance to put the Bulls up 2-0 in this best-of-five series. I asked him if there was anything specific he was intending to work on or practice while he was on the mound on Thursday. "Only thing I want to do is get ahead," was his quick reply.
That's a pretty good strategy for the whole team to pursue tonight; the Bulls got away with spotting Louisville a three-spot before thundering back after dark yesterday. You can't expect to win consistently when you're playing from behind—even if you're the Durham Bulls of '09. You, dear reader, might give them some extra early-inning juice by showing up at the DBAP for the 7:05 p.m. ballgame. The Bulls deserve a bigger crowd to watch their heroics, the guys in the tech booth have turned down the deafening P.A. system a bit out of respect for the primacy of the on-field action, and the weather's going to be lovely. Need a more pressing reason to attend? Try this one—and don't say you weren't warned: If the Bulls lose the series to Louisville (perish that thought), then Thursday's home game will have been the last of the season.