by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---The luck bubbles were still blowing for the Durham Bulls in the first inning of last night's 5-2 loss to the Louisville Bats. They had gotten a healthy spray of good fortune in Game One: four errors by the Bats, which helped score three Durham runs (plus, the Bulls' three errors didn't figure in any of Louisville's four runs); and some well-placed, softly struck hits. The Bulls' eight runs on Wednesday were somehow rather bubble-like---transparent, hollow, unmemorable---but they still won the game.
And in the first inning last night, the Bulls were lucky before anyone came to the plate: rehabbing Reds right fielder Jay Bruce was out with a sore groin. Then, both Desmond Jennings and Rashad Eldridge reached on infield singles, the latter when his dribbler down the third base line hit the bag. The third man to hit was Joe Dillon, and with the count 2-1, Charlie Montoyo put on a hit-and-run. Dillon's little grounder found the precise first-base hole it needed to, and Jennings scored. Eldridge scored, too, on Matt Joyce's subsequent double-play ball. Four batters, two runs.
Those were the only runs they'd get. The luck ran out. Or rather, it kept running, but it kept running in the way that water keeps running even after the hot water tank runs out. The proof of that was in the sixth inning. We cut to that soon after the jump.
After the Bulls touched him for two cheap runs in the first, Louisville starter Ben Jukich settled down, apparently unimpressed. He gave up a leadoff double to Elliot Johnson in the second, then retired 12 of the next 13 men he faced on just 42 pitches. Jukich didn't throw hard and he had no trick pitches; the left-hander simply changed speeds, was around (but not right over) the plate, and made the Bulls hit his pitches.
But then his compressor suddenly failed. With the Bulls down 5-2 going into the bottom of the sixth, Dillon fought Jukich for seven pitches before grounding a leadoff single to left. Then the tall lefty walked Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez to load the base with no outs. The Bulls were right back in the game, and the dinky crowd---at 2,256, just a tad bigger than Wednesday's---was all the way into it.
(Aside: It's hard to know whether to prefer the large but flaccid crowds of midsummer, when 10,000 people find a way to pay almost no collective attention to the game, which is a mere distraction from the funnel cakes, the "Sumo" wrestling and the Wave; or the small but animated and impassioned cadres that come to the playoffs with gung-ho, hometown partisanship. On the other hand, is it really too much to ask for the best of both? Where are you people, anyway? And by the way, don't think the players don't notice; two Bulls outfielders brought it up with us, unprompted, in the clubhouse after the game, and one of them was adamant that the media call out the citizens of Durham for their dereliction of duty. Consider it done: I repeat: Where were you people?)
Rick Sweet was ready with a replacement for Jukich, and he swapped out his starter for reliever Enerio del Rosario. Del Rosario is a skinny 23-year-old (listed at 6-foot-2, 165 pounds!) who began the season in Class A Sarasota, moved up to Double-A Carolina after doing well in Florida, pitched in exactly four games with the Mudcats, and then moved up to Louisville. He threw something sinker-like a lot.
First Del Rosario jammed Justin Ruggiano and got him to fly out to shallow right-center, not deep enough to score Dillon from third. Then Elliot Johnson, to that point 2-2, fell behind in the count 0-2, worked it to 2-2, and then smacked a grounder toward first---right at Yonder Alonso, who fired home to force Dillon for the second out. (It appeared that Bats catcher Chris Denove juggled the ball momentarily, but then grabbed it in time to get the out at the plate.)
Then John Jaso stepped in, swung at the first pitch, and spanked another hard grounder---this time right at second baseman Todd Frazier, who threw out Jaso to end the inning. Two hard-hit balls, two outs, no runs. I suppose you could complain that the Bulls choked here, but I bet that if you went through the situational data for the whole season, you'd find that the Bulls were probably somewhere around average in scoring runs when the bases were loaded with no outs.
Still, it's the playoffs. You've got to score those runs, or you probably lose.
After getting a bit of luck in shutting the Bulls down, Del Rosario spun the luck in to skill and threw two more perfect innings. Only one ball was hit hard, and for my money he was the hero of the game for his team. No surprise that Del Rosario did as well as he did at the DBAP, though: the Bulls all-time career saves record was held for 14 seasons by Maximo Del Rosario; he was just passing down the reliever's mantle to a namesake.
In fact, the Bulls did not have a baserunner among their last 12 hitters, failing to put anyone on from the seventh through the ninth. Save for the first inning and the sixth, they had exactly two men on base. Afterward, Charlie Montoyo was quick to say, simply, that the Louisville pitchers did their jobs, and the Bulls failed to take full advantage of the opportunities they had. He invoked "momentum," our old friend, in assessing how the game turned in the Bats' favor. Ordinarily I don't go for that---to me, baseball is played in too many small episodes to generate momentum---but last night it really did seem as though some force was at work. When the Bulls got going in the sixth, Rick Sweet halted their stampede by changing pitchers; and before that, Bulls' starter Mitch Talbot, who had pitched really well for the first three innings, allowed four consecutive hits in a seven-pitch span in the fourth to hand the lead back to Louisville. (Just poor location, he said afterward of his fourth-inning collapse, and I'd agree.)
And do luck and momentum go together? I can't help but wonder about that, now that the season is near its end. Surging with runs in the fourth and fifth, the Bats' fifth and final run scored on a little dribbler past the mound that became an infield hit and an RBI for Chris Valaika.
It was not all about luck and momentum, though. You could see the results coming from the action on the field. It was a night when the Bulls were outplayed---certainly outpitched, at least---and they would have needed friendlier bounces in order to win. The game was error-free, low on walks, and decided in short, powerful bursts of runs scored and runs prevented. The Bulls were outhit, 11-6, and their power pack wasn't operating at all. There is actually little to say, in a way, except that tomorrow's the next game.
A couple of brief notes before the Bulls head northwest to Louisville:
* I asked Charlie Montoyo if he might tinker with his lineup on Friday. The only substitution from Wednesday to Thursday was John Jaso at catcher for Michel Hernandez. Henry Mateo and Chris Nowak haven't played in the series so far. Montoyo replied that Mateo was actually scheduled to start last night, but his injured finger is still bothering him and he was scratched. Look for him in the lineup on Friday against right-hander Sam LeCure. The switch-hitting Mateo is much better from the left side of the plate. I can't quite guess whether Elliot Johnson or Ray Olmedo will have the night off. If Chris Nowak plays third base, they'll both sit. But I suspect that Olmedo will play, because he, like Mateo, is a switch-hitter with much more left-handed pop. For what it's worth, Olmedo and Nowak both homered off of LeCure in the same game back in May.
* Now that a Game Four is assured, I asked Montoyo again who will start for the Bulls. "Whoever didn't pitch today," he said, laughing. But after a little more badinage, he essentially said what we might have guessed: it'll be either Rayner Oliveros or Paul Phillips (probably the former, I'm guessing); and imaginably, if the series goes to a fifth game, we'll see both of them on consecutive days. Funny that the Bulls' season could come down to two virtually unknown pitchers who until a week or so ago had no Triple-A experience. But Montoyo has little choice. The Rays' organization has left him with only two true starters (since Talbot tops out at a relief-level pitch count), so he's got to use whatever he has that resembles a starter. If you're trying to make risotto but you discover that someone has pilfered your arborio, you make pilaf. And pilaf can be pretty good, too. For the Bulls, it may have to be good enough.
More after Friday's game in Louisville. Jason Cromer is on the mound for Durham. In the mean time, a little Chris-Richard-meets-the-New York Times fun. Make sure you visit his Web site, too, if you haven't been there before.