by Adam Sobsey
So writes Henry James in his novella The Aspern Papers, which features an elderly and rather ghoulish lady by the name of Miss Juliana Bordereau. The book came to mind for a few reasons after the Bulls' 8-4 loss to the Charlotte Knights. One, I just read it and really enjoyed it (H/T to Heather); two, the above line, probably my favorite in the book, applies to last night's ballgame; and three, the Bulls blew the game by missing borders.
The home team, fresh off a 1-3 road trip to Gwinnett and Charlotte (which made last night's game really a continuance of a series in-progress), built a quick 4-0 lead, thanks mostly to a couple of ruinous errors by Knights infielders in the second inning—Durham had only five hits all night. The Bulls' starter, Ramon Ortiz, making his third appearance since being signed just a couple of weeks ago after injuries to three of the Bulls' other starters, was pretty effective early. He struck out the side in the first inning on nine pitches after allowing a leadoff double to Alejandro de Aza (third baseman J. J. Furmaniak had a play on the hot smash but it kicked off his glove and down the left-field line). Ortiz produced an astounding seven swings-and-misses on just 15 first-inning pitches. He fanned two more in the third inning, and another in the fourth—all six of his strikeouts were of the swinging variety rather than looking, and they were all against Brent Morel, Jordan Danks and Stefan Gartrell, the latter two near the league lead in strikeouts.
But Ortiz allowed three runs in the fifth on three hits, a walk, and a sacrifice fly to very deep left field, and Brian Shouse started throwing in the bullpen. Ortiz's control, which had been excellent early—first-pitch strikes to all but three batters through four innings, no walks—had begun to deteriorate. He wasn't pleased with the strike zone of home plate umpire Jason Bradley, who wasn't giving Ortiz the corner on what looked like a slider. Recall that the strikeouts were all swinging, none looking: His control wasn't mesmerizing, especially not to this swingin' Knights team.
And in the top of the sixth, after Ortiz allowed a leadoff single to Dayan Viciedo, he threw five pitches to the Knights Tyler Flowers. Probably all of them were right around the plate, but only two were called strikes. The count was full and Ortiz sent some language from the mound to Bradley. Bradley sent some back. Bulls catcher Dioner Navarro started to speak to Bradley and manager Charlie Montoyo emerged from the dugout—just to protect his player, really, not because the pitches were no-doubt-about-it strikes. Montoyo attempted to distract Bradley with some nosegays of conversation, but when Ortiz shouted loudly enough for anyone to hear (what, exactly, we weren't sure, except that it wasn't a compliment), Bradley ejected him. (Was it just coincidence that, after the game, as we passed the umpires' locker room we heard one of them bray an exaggerated, mimicking, mocking "Donde esta?" As in, Where was that pitch, please, Senor Ump?)
Like the man says, there's singular folly in not having known when to stop. You can get away with it once, but not twice, and Ortiz was got away. Some general intercourse ensued, as Mr James might put it, over the ousting of Sr Ortiz from his perch, an intercourse which occupied the conversants for the next several minutes. Mr Shouse, however, put a soothing and quieting poultice on the recrudescent misgivings by inducing a 1-6-3 double play from Mr Flowers, clearing the bases with two men out. Nighthawks circled approvingly in the bright lights overhead, "a turn of the game had pitched us together the last of August," &c.
And sportsfans, I wish I could tell you that that's how it ended, but I'd be lyin' if I did. The madness of art, or at least the rest of the game, lies after the jump.
Well, so some of the pitches Brian Shouse threw may have been pretty near the plate, just like Ortiz's were, but Bradley declined to change his survey: He called most of 'em balls. So Shouse walked Jeremy Reed; then Buck Coats chopped a single through left side; then Shouse walked Fernando Cortez on four pitches—Cortez, who averages one walk about every 13 plate appearances, walked in consecutive innings against Ortiz and Shouse.
The bases had gone from empty to full, but Alejandro de Aza hit his third double of the game—he was four for his first four—to empty 'em again: 4-4, 5-4, 6-4 Knights. Joe Bateman was summoned to clean up the mess, striking out Morel (Morel's third K of the night) to keep the Bulls within striking distance. They didn't stay there long, though, as Darin Downs allowed two more runs in three innings of long relief to anesthetize the patient.
Sure, a lot of the pitches that Ortiz and Shouse threw were put-near strikes; but I bet if you subjected them to, say, the high-tech PitchFX technology on the press box level of the DBAP that tracks everything about a pitch from its type to its trajectory to its favorite pizza topping—I bet if you did that you would find that most of them were just missing the bordereau. I thought of another game earlier this year in which the Bulls' Mike Ekstrom fell behind Gwinnett's Mitch Jones, 3-1, with a couple of almost-strikes that the umpire didn't bite on. On the fifth pitch, Jones blasted a homer that is still in flight somewhere. "You often have to be better than close, closer than near, to get hitters out," I wrote of that at-bat. "Often you have to remove all trace of blur and be unerringly fine. The difference between the majors and the minors, it sometimes seems to me, is precisely that." And it probably cost the Bulls the game last night.
So did another failure to know when to stop, and this time it was the other side of that misguidance. The Bulls had a nice comfy 4-0 lead after two innings but then went to sleep against Charlotte starter Kyle McCulloch, whom the Bulls whacked around for eight hits and four runs in 4 2/3 innings back on July 7 (he was demoted to Double-A Birmingham right after that). Justin Ruggiano, who had homered off McCulloch in the July game, did it again in the first last night; and then the Knights' infield donated three runs with errors in the second inning.
But given how well these teams know each other by now—there are really no more tricks, no more hidden assets, no more "I'm-not-left-handed-either" deceptions for them to bust out; they've played each other 20 times by now—a 4-0 lead really isn't so comfortable, especially not with the dangerous hitters in the Charlotte lineup. "We sat on the four runs," Charlie Montoyo said later, "and I knew that wasn't going to be enough. The whole time I was saying, 'If we keep this team in the game, they're gonna come back.'" Sure enough, they did. The Bulls needed to pile up more runs against McCulloch and put this game out of reach. But McCulloch made some adjustments, and the veteran Bulls made none in riposte.
Speaking of adjustments, and of the difference between the majors and the minors, we have nearly arrived at another border: the one between the 25-man roster and the expanded 40-man version. For readers who aren't familiar with this procedure, a brief explanation: Every September 1, major-league clubs are permitted to carry 40 rather than the usual 25 players on their active roster, until the regular season ends and they must contract back down to 25 (the September grace period allows teams to choose which of the men on the 40-man roster will make the cut for the postseason 25, and also gives them a chance to see minor-league prospects in big-league action without losing veterans). September 1 is the threshold—more like the thresher, in a way (it could level the talent on the Bulls)—through which the minor-league season passes, often painfully at the Triple-A level, since that is where most of the 40-man candidates are toiling. Montoyo was asked whether he thought that was on some players' minds, distracting them from the Bulls' business at hand: They've lost five of their last six games. Montoyo, normally even-keeled and calm-voiced, replied, "Of course! If I was one of them, I'd be thinking the same thing: Is it gonna be me?"
It's tempting here to add to the Bulls' late-season skid another failure to know when to stop: Having clinched the division so early, they'd probably rather dispense with the rest of the regular season and get to the playoffs, already. You could forgive the Bulls if they turned on their out-of-office autoreply buttons for a week and just waited it out, But Montoyo was quick to remind me that, despite the losing ways lately, the Bulls have been competitive in most of their games—Winston Abreu blew a ninth-inning save opportunity in one, they lost in extra innings in another, and pulled into a fifth-inning tie but were eventually blown out in a third.
The problem is, fortunately, easy to diagnose: The team as a whole has simply not hit much lately. Take away an eight-run outburst in Charlotte on Sunday afternoon, and they've tallied just 15 runs in six games—and three of those were last night's unearned gifts from Charlotte. The pitching has generally maintained its high level (it is the best staff in the league, statistically), but even though the Bulls still have good bats—and newcomer Nevin Ashley belted a two-run homer in his Sunday debut—they just aren't producing. In a way, a team-wide contagion isn't so terrible right about now: Maybe they're just getting the megrims out of their system in time for the playoffs.
Meanwhile, they have seven more games to play before they get there. You might as well catch them in their late-season languor, what is evocatively called, I believe, "lay-by" down in cotton country: The DBAP corporation is practically giving tickets away on street corners for these last few ballgames, and I am especially tickled to learn that if you bring a "new or gently used book" to the game on Thursday, you get in free. Sign me up, but I'm keeping my copy of The Aspern Papers. I want to be reminded how far is too far, and when it isn't far enough.