by Adam Sobsey
ESPN 2---And that's that: the Durham Bulls took a 4-0 lead early, squandered it in the middle, and got help at the end to beat the Memphis Redbirds, 5-4, in 11 innings and claim the Triple-A Championship. It's kind of amazing, really. (What's really great is that the Bulls' own Web site has the winning run in Memphis's row in the linescore.) The Bulls, who are the first International League team to win the crown, are officially the best Triple-A baseball team in America, which by extension makes them the best team in the entire minor leagues. They could probably also take six of 10 from the Pittsburgh Pirates, if they had Winston Abreu---which they don't, not anymore, but that's for well after the jump.
Did you know, by the way, that 2009 is the Year of the Bull? A game report and some final thoughts follow.
The Bulls finished the season on a 19-5 tear, including winning streaks of seven and five games. You can attempt to attribute the team's sudden dominance to all sorts of things---timing, luck, scheduling---but it's really a matter of personnel. The Bulls had better talent, simple as that. That was brought home to us after the September 1 roster expansion, when every Triple-A team got worse but the Bulls got, well, less worse: they had better players than their opponents did for the last few weeks of the season. They ripped through their depleted division rivals, Charlotte, Gwinnett and Norfolk, in their final surge.
You have to credit the Tampa Bay Rays, above all, who have enough good prospects that they could call up a bunch of them on September 1 and still leave good ballplayers in Durham for the postseason. The Rays also stocked their Triple-A affiliate with solid veteran minor-leaguers who anchored the club during the constant shuffle that involved the more highly regarded guys. The team that took the field for Durham last night wasn't much inferior to the one we saw back in April. Jeremy Hellickson, who started for the Bulls, is every bit as good as Wade Davis (and even, dare I say, David Price); Reid Brignac's shoes were filled well enough by middle infielder Sean Rodriguez, who hit his 31st homer of the year last night; the arrival of Desmond Jennings cushioned the loss of Jon Weber to Team USA and Fernando Perez to the majors (Justin Ruggiano moved to left field); catcher Michel Hernandez made Shawn Riggans's injury and, later, promotion, a non-issue; and then there was Winston Abreu at the back of the bullpen. Abreu may never crack the majors---and his career just reached the double jeopardy stage---but he was a dominant Triple-A reliever this season, indeed the best, and he is the reason that the Bulls A) won the the division and B) found themselves playing for the Triple-A championship on Tuesday night.
Abreu left Thursday's Governor's Cup-clinching championship win over Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the 12th and final inning after facing just one batter, whom he walked on four pitches. Abreu had popped a blood blister on his finger, and he couldn't continue pitching. Later, he was found to have an aneurysm in his pitching arm, and was done for the season. Carlos Hernandez, the left-handed starter who hasn't pitched in a month and a half due to shoulder and wrist problems, was activated---although I suspect that move was made as a roster-filling formality, enabled merely by Hernandez's physical presence in the clubhouse (he was already there, so why not?). I can't imagine Hernandez would actually have pitched in last night's game.
In any case, we wish Winston Abreu a speedy recovery, and we hope he thrives again in 2010, wherever he pitches.
It was, frankly, a weird game. The ballpark in Bricktown was poorly attended and the camerawork was rather minor-league; ESPN did little to elevate the game to big-league status via its production values. There were bad camera angles and indifferent broadcasters. The graphics were minimal. There were cheesy regional advertisements between innings.
Jeremy Hellickson was, as usual, dominant, tossing five scoreless innings of two-hit ball. But he didn't come out for the sixth, despite having thrown just 73 pitches. I'm not sure if he was on a pitch count (which was suggested by one broadcaster) or if Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo was trying to get some honorary reps for other guys (as per another broadcaster); but in any case there was Jason Cromer in the top of sixth, heir to a 4-0 lead. The Bulls had put together a little two-out rally to extend their lead in the fourth inning, being both a bit lucky and a lot opportunistic---Ray Olmedo was the inning's sparkplug, fittingly, as he was for the whole night---and it looked like Durham might coast to an easy, ho-hum championship. Cromer was effective all year for the Bulls, and he had the advantage of anonymity against the Redbirds, who hadn't seen him at all.
Or so you would have thought. Instead, Cromer faced only four batters and was almost catastrophically bad: he went homer-single-homer-walk. Ouch. Fifteen pitches, 4-3 Bulls, and Cromer ended his season on a very low note. He was on regular rest (five days). Was he rusty anyway? Tired? Unused to relieving? Actually, neither of the home run balls were terrible pitches; but they were bad enough, of course. A new ballgame: a close ballgame: a Bulls ballgame.
Bring on Joe Bateman---who walked three men and hit another in 1 1/3 ugly innings. He threw a couple of pitches behind batters, and Michel Hernandez probably saved a run or two for him with his limber goalkeeping behind the plate. Was Bateman rusty? Tired? Unused to the air in Oklahoma? Who knows. He was out of the game before he lost it, and that's the best you can say about his performance.
Bateman gave way to Calvin Medlock with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh inning. Medlock retired the next two Redbirds, but one of them hit a sacrifice fly and it was 4-4. The Bulls wasted a great chance to score in the bottom of the inning, choking with men on second and third and only one out. Extra innings loomed, and then settled over the game.
I don't mind telling you that I was tired, and I suspect the players were, too. Triple-A is a long, long season, with very few days off and lots of long, hard bus rides. And yet there they all were, plugging along into the 10th inning. Julio DePaula, suddenly the Bulls' only pitcher resembling a closer, threw his second scoreless inning. He looked and acted like a closer, even doing an Abreu impersonation by striking out the side in the ninth.
The Bulls left two more men on base in the bottom of the 10th. (The Redbirds were actually worse, going 1/11 with RISP and stranding 10 men.)
And in the top of the 11th, on came... Mitch Talbot? He was the Bulls' third starting pitcher of the night---in fact, all six of the Bulls hurlers on Tuesday night started at least one game for the team this year. But Talbot is a legit starter, and still at least a marginal prospect. He missed most of the season with arm problems, but now he was back and trying to make the most of the opportunities for retuning offered by the Bulls' long push into the postseason. Talbot even stood to get credit for a win in this situation, if the Bulls could find a way to score while he was the pitcher of record.
How perfect was it that he entered the game looking for the win? Talbot started---and won---the Bulls' very first game of 2009, a 2-1 victory over Norfolk at the DBAP. (David Fellerath did the Triangle Offense recap.) The only run allowed to the Tides that night came courtesy of... Julio DePaula.
And win Talbot did. He needed only six pitches to take care of business in the top of the 11th, not only working around an error by shortstop Elliot Johnson but incorporating it into an inning-ending double play one batter later.
In the last of the 11th, Michel Hernandez led off with a double, one of those "random hits" (as another Bulls commentator calls the light-hitting Hernandez's very occasional big bops) to which he is occasionally predisposed. This random hit was perfectly timed. Rashad Eldridge, who was the wild card for the Bulls in these playoffs, the Plutonic planetoid shaking things up from out there at the edge of the solar system, pinch ran for Hernandez. He promptly moved to third on a wild pitch by Royce Ring, who had survived a shaky 10th inning.
Here it should be said that Memphis had replaced its starting catcher with a backup, Brandon Yarbrough. Yarbrough, who hails from Pinehurst, NC, was forced into the game when Redbirds manager Chris Maloney pinch-ran for starting catcher Matt Pagnozzi. Yarbrough's fielding stats are alarming. In 403 career minor-league games, he has 71 errors, 50 passed balls, and a .976 fielding percentage. (For comparison, try the Bulls' own John Jaso, who is considered a below-average catcher: 402 games, 49 errors, 44 passed balls, and a .984 fielding pct.)
So when, after Royce Ring was replaced with Oneli Perez, the 12-fingered pitcher (seriously, 12 fingers; commence Inigo Montoya jokes), and Perez's very first pitch was a breaking ball that Yarbrough again couldn't handle, and Eldridge sprinted home with the winning run (!), you couldn't help but think, Oh, no, Yarbrough!
In the words of the great Lefty Gomez, who knew more than a little something about winning championships, "I'd rather be lucky than good." What he might have added was that, in order to take home the trophy, you have to be both.
I will probably be back over the autumn and winter with sporadic updates. Major League Baseball's annual Winter Meetings are in early December, and those always bring roster changes. It won't be long after that before pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training. And then---suddenly---the 2010 season will be upon us. I have no idea if I'll be back covering the team, although I hope I will. In either case, before I go, a few thank-yous are due:
First and foremost, to you readers, who are the reason writers write, and who have permitted (or just ignored) my frequent tangents and often waited patiently for me to come to the main point while I labored to make a larger one (or just an occasional joke). I have received some very heartening feedback from you, and I thank you for it. My goal in covering the Bulls has been to make the blog useful and informative for true-blue (and orange) fans while also making the goings-on accessible to casual readers. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, thanks for being here. I hope you've had even a fraction of the fun and excitement that I have. To produce just two pieces of memorable evidence from this spirited season, we saw the Bulls pull off a pair of vanishingly rare feats in 2009: two grand slams in a game, and the even rarer seven hits in a nine-inning game. We're not likely to see a Bull do either of those things ever again. The season would have been memorable even had the Bulls finished last in the league. The championship(s!) were just tasty appanages.
Second, to the Bulls' front office, who allowed this excitable book critic to crash the press box and learn on the job how to be a sportswriter. Matt DeMargel, Mike Birling, Jon Bishop, Ken Tanner and all of the Bulls' staff were gracious, welcoming and helpful. They made every effort to cheerfully answer all of my ignorant questions; to introduce me to (and arrange interviews with) players, coaches and Tampa brass; to help me navigate the sometimes eddying waters of sports-media relations; and even to gin up for me the very occasional cup of coffee. If they minded doing these things, they were polite enough never to show it. I can't imagine receiving more genuine, generous goodwill from a sports organization.
Third, to the Independent and to Triangle Offense, for offering me the use of their bandwidth for this summerlong project. For whatever reason, they thought I was the man for this job (well, there was really no one else at the time, to be honest), and they asked me to do it. I had an absolute blast.
And finally, of course, to the Durham Bulls Baseball Club and especially their manager, Charlie Montoyo. Sportswriters are basically the cockroaches of the clubhouse: unsightly, ill-mannered, hungry for leftovers (in the form of quotes), only briefly glimpsed, but an unfortunate fact of life---and if you squash one of us, several others will crawl out of the floorboards in short order to ask you more annoying questions. For the athlete, sports journalists can really only hurt you; even the most unassuming and friendliest of us are sometimes your enemy, often just a nuisance, and never your ally. Yet the Bulls players, almost to a man, answered my questions, even after they played badly, and they rarely showed even a sliver of impatience, disdain or boredom, all of which they must surely have felt in my presence at some point or another.
Charlie Montoyo made himself available to the media after every single game, win or lose. That's part of his job, of course, but he always found something to say, even when the only obvious and sane reaction was to throw things across the room. He treated me, and all of us, with front-loaded and presumptive respect, before we'd earned it. He assumed going in that we were all professionals and treated us as such; in so doing, he made it clear in every way, both in the dugout and in the clubhouse, that he was the most consummate professional among us. A good manager helps his developing players raise the level of their game. With his candor, respect and good humor, he did that for this developing sportswriter, too.
Till next time, then. And once more before we go: Durham Bulls, Triple-A Champions, 2009. It'll keep you warm this winter.