by Adam Sobsey
Although the outcome was different, last night's game in many ways resembled Thursday's: a lot of sleepy doings punctuated by a few bursts of excitement in the seventh inning, with Bulls' infielders Angel Chavez and Dan Johnson in the middle of the fray. (Bulls' manager Charlie Montoyo would later note the game's playoff-like intensity.) To get the lede out of the way—actually, the headline kind of does that all by itself—Chavez atoned for his game-losing two-run fielding error on Thursday night with a game-winning three-run home run on Friday. The legendary manager Casey Stengel once carped, "I don't like them fellas who drive in two runs and let in three." On balance, though, he'd probably, grudgingly, have to admit to at least tolerating and perhaps even liking guys like Chavez who let in two and drive in three. (How great is it that Stengel, who died 35 years ago, long before the Internet was born, has an "official Web site"?)
Chavez's blast, which hit Ye Olde Snorting Bull beyond The Big Bad Beautiful Bogus Blue Monster and won him a salad (it hit the grass portion of the mural; sorry Angel), came on the very first pitch thrown by Red Wings' reliever Rob Delaney. It looked like a lame fastball, but after the game Chavez said it was actually a slider. (It obviously didn't slide very much.) He was looking for a breaking ball on Delaney's first pitch, he said. Why a breaking ball, he was asked? "I don't know. Runners on second and third." And then he said either "one out" or "why not." It was loud in the clubhouse, and you couldn't tell which.
Not that either of those responses would have quite explained Chavez's reasoning. One out? Why not? So, breaking ball? Whatever the case, his answer to the question had that irrepressible insouciance that characterizes his play at all times. Sometimes it ends in a botched ground ball at second base that loses the game; sometimes it delivers a three-run homer that wins it. If you're Casey Stengel, or if you're Charlie Montoyo and Joe Dillon is out with a hamstring injury, you hope for the better Angels of our
For what it's worth, Chavez also banged a double off the top off the Blue Monster in the third inning; it would have been a homer in many other ballparks. Actually, the double hit the Plexiglass-fronted railing just above the blue part of the wall, and some people thought it was a homer. It wasn't, but the confusion over where exactly the line is recurred, almost catastrophically, in the decisive seventh inning. Chavez, however, made it meaningless; sometimes going yard can put paid to the game of inches. All the devilish details after the jump.
Bulls' starter Richard De Los Santos looked a little shaky early. The first batter of the game lined out sharply to center field. He walked the leadoff man, Jose Morales, in the second inning and then, unusually for a sinkerballer, got two outs in the air after that. The next batter, Danny Valencia, singled to center. Morales rounded second and started to head for third. Then he changed his mind and froze for a split second. That allowed Bulls' center fielder Desmond Jennings to throw behind Morales to Elliot Johnson at second. Morales was caught between the bases and Johnson threw him out at third.
Had Morales stayed safely at second, De Los Santos would still have been well positioned to get out of the inning. (There were two outs.) But the Red Wings looked like they were solving him, finding vulnerabilities, and waiting out at-bats for pitches they liked. (In the second inning, De Los Santos threw 18 pitches, just 8 for strikes.) Morales's S.B.G. halted the momentum that seemed to be gathering for the Red Wings, and it allowed De Los Santos to try to make adjustments.
Which he did. After the game, De Los Santos said that he took the counsel of pro tem pitching coach Dick Bosman to stop nibbling around the plate and be more aggressive in the strike zone. And although he was nothing like dominant from there on out—he gave up three doubles and two runs in the fourth, and allowed 10 hits overall in 6 1/3 innings—he was making the Red Wings hit his pitches. After the third inning, he had no three-ball counts and only two two-ball counts, and 10 of his last 17 at-bats were over after one or two pitches. De Los Santos will need to keep the ball down more efficiently going forward—10 hits will result in more than two runs most of the time—but at least he made Rochester earn its baserunners. It was a corrective of sorts to Jason Cromer's disastrous walk-fest the night before, which cost the Bulls a win.
It's been my experience that Charlie Montoyo tends to leave his starters in games just a batter or two too long. Reliever Brian Baker had been warming in the bullpen during the sixth inning, when De Los Santos allowed a one-out single to veteran Jacque [sic] Jones. But Valencia hit into a 1-6-3 double play—not elegantly turned by De Los Santos or Angel Chavez, but it ended the inning. I thought we'd see Baker to start the seventh, but I guess De Los Santos's nine-pitch sixth convinced Montoyo to send him back out for another frame. Two of the first three batters singled, though, and Montoyo came out with a late hook.
Brian Baker is the long man out of the bullpen, and the Bulls haven't needed one lately: they've either won blowouts or played close games. So Baker hadn't pitched in over a week. Bringing him in in this situation—runners at the corners, one out, Bulls down 2-0 late in the game—was nervous-making. It's to Montoyo's credit that he was willing to adhere to his oft-voiced commitment to making sure that everyone on his team gets to play—even if that commitment may sometimes cost his team games. (Dale Thayer and Winston Abreu were both rested.)
And the move was even riskier because the next batter was the dangerous Trevor Plouffe. Plouffe makes good contact and hits the ball hard, and a soft-tosser like Baker seemed vulnerable to him. Baker ran the count full, and with the runner on first taking off for second Plouffe smacked a grounder down the third-base line. Dan Johnson made a fine diving catch, and with shortstop Chavez yelling at him to throw home. Johnson leaped to his feet and did so, although he took a split second to find a good throwing angle.
After the game, Johnson said that he knew he had some time, because it was Rochester's slow-moving catcher, Wilson Ramos, who was running from third; a reasonably fast player would have scored on the play. Johnson's throw arrived at home plate right as Ramos did, and Ramos slid in safely, just ahead of Jose Lobaton's tag.
Except that he was called out by home plate umpire Arthur Thigpen. Ramos didn't argue—it all happened fast and in a dust cloud, and catchers don't like to argue with umps in order to help their pitchers' strike zones—but from where I sat, just behind home plate, it was clear that Ramos was safe. A devilish detail, that, because Baker struck out the next batter, Brian Dinkleman, to end the inning and hold the score at 2-0.
Later, Charlie Montoyo called that the play of the game, adding that Bulls' hitting coach Dave Myers had said, right after Johnson threw out Ramos, that that play would get the team going. They'd had only three hits off of Red Wings' starter Matt Fox in six innings; a few weeks ago in Rochester, he'd held them to just two hits in five scoreless frames. They wouldn't get any more hits off of him, either, but that's because Fox was lifted for a reliever in the seventh. Left-hander Jose Lugo, whom the Bulls faced twice in the road series at Rochester, fanned Dan Johnson looking to start the inning. Justin Ruggiano singled to right, and up stepped Chris Richard, who is pretty good at shortening his swing against lefties and trying to take them to center field. With the count 1-1, Richard did just that. He blasted a ball to deep center, just left of the 400-foot sign, that barely cleared the wall for a game-tying two-run homer.
Except that the Red Wings protested that the ball had in fact landed between the blue wall and the railing that sticks up over it. The railing is officially in play, and so (Rochester argued, led by the very excitable Trevor Plouffe) Richard's hit should have been a ground-rule double. But the thing is, at least twice last season, umpires at the DBAP ignored that technicality and awarded homers on balls that should have been called doubles. (One was hit by the Bulls' Alvin Colina, when he was still a Gwinnett Brave.)
So there was nothing to worry about. But there was, because Plouffe and his Posse convinced the umpires to look at the replay on the scoreboard, and they agreed that Richard should only be on second base. Although the call was correct, it infuriated the crowd (a guy near me was beside himself, wondering why Chavez's third-inning shot off the Blue Monster railing, and now this, weren't homers.) Richard and Ruggiano were summoned from the dugout—I couldn't help recalling that it was Ruggiano out in center field who pleaded this same case, fruitlessly, in a game last year—and reset on second and third. There was one out, two men on, and the Bulls were still down 2-0. The team has looked a little sallow lately, and it seemed like this would be the devil-detail that did them in again.
Having seen enough of Jose Lugo, and with a righty due up for Durham, Red Wings' manager went to the bullpen. He called on Rob Delaney.
Which brings us to Angel Chavez. One pitch, one three-run homer, I don't care about your railing, your umpiring, or my error last night. A couple of minutes after his hit, the night's first lightning flash lit up the sky. "That's the baseball," was the first thing Chavez said after the game. Yep, that's the baseball. And as if to echo the thought, check out this other game in the International League last night: the Gwinnett Braves' Todd Redmond, a 39th-round draft pick in 2004 who had never thrown a complete game in professional baseball, not only threw one, but no-hit the Louisville Bats.
One last devilish detail. After the Bulls' sidearming lefty reliever R. J. Swindle retired Rochester in order in the eighth, throwing at one point a 53-mph pitch (!) that I will go ahead and call a curveball, just in case a pitch traveling slower than a schoolbus at top speed can be called anything, the Bulls came up in the last of the eighth looking for insurance. Rashad Eldridge doubled with one out, and the next hitter, Elliot Johnson, hit a grounder back to Delaney on the mound. Eldridge didn't read the play well and was hung up between second and third base, but Delaney inexplicably decided not to start what would have been an easy-out rundown, and instead retired Johnson at first base. Worse, he failed to look Eldridge back to second, and Eldridge scampered to third on the play. He then scored on a wild pitch to—natch—Dan Johnson. (The sight of Eldridge scoring on a pitch that goes to the backstop will forever call up memories of his Triple-A Championship-winning run in 2009 on a passed ball.) He would not, of course, have scored otherwise.
The Bulls didn't need the run, as it turned out. Winston Abreu pitched a painless ninth inning for his fourth save. (Telling statistic: it was just the Bulls' 10th save of the season. League-leading Scranton/Wilkes-Barre has 21. The Bulls don't play close games.) And then, almost immediately after Matt Tolbert flied out to left to end the 2:35 game, in celestial reverberation of Angel's detail-effacing home run, the heavens opened up and drenched the ballpark with powerful, violent rain, as if to wash away every last detail.
Carlos Hernandez, whose 2.31 ERA leads the Bulls' starting rotation by nearly half a run (Jeremy Whollickson?), is on the mound for the Bulls tonight. You can be sure that whatever details of last night's game the rain didn't erase, Hernandez's first pitch at 7:05 PM will. See you then.