by Adam Sobsey
Part of my routine also includes what I do at the park once the game starts: I'm in the general habit of watching the first few innings of each game from the Press Box; then I usually go down and watch the rest of the game from the section behind home plate, if there are empty seats there (there almost always are). That's because the Press Box at the DBAP is actually off to the side a bit, up the first base line, and you don't get a true read on the strike zone. You also miss some of the nuances of interaction between the major players on the field: pitcher, catcher, hitter, umpire. Had I not, for example, been down close on Tuesday night, I would not have seen this telling little moment: The Knights' Jeremy Reed had checked his swing on a pitch, and at first it was ruled a ball—it skittered past catcher Nevin Ashley. But the Bulls protested that Reed had actually made contact and so it should have been ruled a foul ball. The umps conferenced and agreed with the Bulls, and Reed was charged with a strike. He protested briefly, and was then overridden by his manager, Chris Chambliss, who was coaching third base. While Chambliss talked to the umpires, Reed turned his back and faced the seats where I was parked. I could swear he was smirking; he knew, you see, that the foul call was correct.
Anyway, last night, for the second time this season, I left my wallet in the cup holder in front of my seat—it's uncomfortable to sit on it in my back pocket, so I usually stick it in the cup holder while I'm sitting in the stands. Both times I've forgotten it there, I got all the way home before I realized I was without the wallet; both times I returned to the ballpark and found the poor thing, untouched, right where I left it. That's really, really lucky, of course, and I need to incorporate some mechanism into my game-coverage routine that prevents this oversight from happening again. One of these times, the wallet won't be there when I go back for it—in fact, now that I've written this, the folks who clean up the DBAP will probably be trolling section 100 every night for the rest of the season, looking for an inadvertent tip. Keep the cash if you must, just give the rest back, OK? I love the serial-killer look on my driver's license photo, and it'll be hard for me to make that exact face again for the DMV camera.
My wallet loss was on my mind when I got home, because so much of the game last night, which the Bulls won, dramatically, 4-3, with a four-run rally in the eighth inning, turned on what got left behind. The lost and found after the jump.
The Durham Bulls haven't been hitting lately. This team, which has scored the most runs in the league this season, has suddenly gone tepid over the last week or so. Some of this has to do with the promotion of Dan Johnson to the majors, but that doesn't excuse (or even fully explain) the lack of production. The Bulls have scored just 32 runs on 75 hits over their last nine games.
And last night they found Knights starter Jeff Marquez at his best, or at least at something that was very, very effective. He didn't throw a whole lot of strikes—only 58 out of 96 pitches, and nine three-ball counts against 23 batters—but the ones he did throw kept the Bulls flummoxed for six innings. "Effectively wild" is a phrase you hear bandied about with pitchers sometimes, but with Marquez it was more like he kept the Durham lineup from feeling comfortable thinking they might know what was coming next. Moreover, he changed their eye level a lot, moving the ball up and down, up and down. He and relievers Clevelan Santeliz and Ryan Braun threw several pitches up and in—often, it seemed, by accident, but in Marquez's case the accident helped the purpose of the strikes he threw. The Bulls looked skittish and uncertain at the plate, hitting only three balls hard against Marquez. One of the three singles he allowed was an infield dribbler that Omar Luna beat out for a hit. He walked three batters, but the Bulls couldn't do anything with the opportunities.
Yet all those balls out of the strike zone that Marquez left behind caught up with him. He was done after six innings, turning things over, in a scoreless game, to Santeliz. Meanwhile, Bulls' starter Bobby Livingston was sailing. Nothing he threw was over 85 mph, but his mixture of offspeed pitches, some of of which I couldn't even identify, had Charlotte off-balance for most of the night; he had matched Marquez's scoreless six innings, and needed just 68 pitches to do it. I actually found myself wondering if he might throw a nine-inning complete game.
But in the top of the seventh inning, he hung a breaking ball to Dayan Viciedo, and Viciedo, who appeared to be looking for the pitch, blasted it way up onto the grassy knoll in right-centerfield—you don't see a lot of homers hit all the way out there at the DBAP. It was fitting that Viciedo launched his homer right after the group roll-call on the video board: It included a company called RPG, which I assume does not stand for Rocket Propelled Grenades, but still.
1-0, Charlotte. The next batter, Jordan Danks, singled, and it seemed like Livingston might be hitting the wall. But Omar Luna started another nifty double play, a bit like the jim-dandy one he started on Tuesday, ona grounder by Jeremy Reed. That emptied the bases. Luna then made a lame throwing error on the next grounder, by Fernando Cortez; but Livingston picked Cortez off first base to end the inning.
But we may have been lulled into complacency by those unlikely outs. Santeliz mowed the Bulls down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the seventh, and the first batter of the Knights' eighth inning, catcher Donny Lucy (Tyler Flowers was called up to Chicago), ripped Livingston's second pitch for a resounding double off the Blue Monster. That brought on Dale Thayer, with Livingston—who had been wonderfully effective all night and deserved better than he got—leaving behind a man in scoring position.
Dale Thayer has been on the Tampa Bay Rays' 40-man roster for a good while now, since November 2008. Over the last two seasons, he has been called up a few times, not generally pitched all that well, and been returned to the Bulls. This season, his effectiveness has decreased, and it is largely because his one really reliable pitch, a zippy 93-mph fastball, has been harder for him to keep down in the strike zone in 2010. He throws a slider, too, but it isn't consistent, often hitting the dirt and sometimes hanging up for punishment by opposing hitters. Thayer's changeup is seldom seen. His walk and strikeout rates are about in line with his career minor-league totals, but his hits have shot up, from his career rate of 7.6/9 innings pitched to 10.4/9. Now this rise could owe to a fluke of BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play), which is known to have inexplicable deviations that relate to nothing but luck. But in Thayer's case, anecdotally and at close range, it seems to me that too many of his pitches are just too hittable.
And just yesterday, it was revealed that the Rays had quietly passed Thayer through waivers (he went unclaimed by another team, mainly because any claiming team would have had to add Thayer to their own 40-man roster), and "outrighted" him to Durham, removing him from the 40-man roster in an effort to free up space for the recent round of callups that was detailed here yesterday.
It's hard to guess at the depth of disappointment Thayer must have felt at having been left behind, especially given that his more recently acquired teammate, Mike Ekstrom, who has a similar fastball-slider repertoire, remains on the Rays' 40-man roster. Thayer had been one of the strongest relievers in the Rays' system since they acquired him in 2006—I made a case for calling him up way back in May 2009—but he seems to have begun treadmilling, even regressing, this season. He just hasn't mastered locating his fastball, and his slider has not improved much. He looked quite disgusted with one of the breaking balls he threw last night after it swerved way outside and low, catcher Nevin Ashley scrabbling to corral it with a runner on third base and one out.
At the plate for that slider was Brent Morel, the Knights' very tough right-hander. The score was still 1-0, Knights, and Donny Lucy was on third base, sacrificed there after his double. The count, following Thayer's errant slider, was 2-1. A fastball count, probably, if you were a guessing hitter. Thayer had started Morel with two fastballs, one a good one down and in that Morel fouled off, the next too high (but not by much) for a ball. To his credit, Thayer threw another slider on 2-1, but it hung, and Morel lashed it into left field for a hit to score Lucy and make it 2-0. The next batter, Luis Rodriguez, rapped Thayer's very next pitch to left field for another single. Morel advanced to third, beating Leslie Anderson's throw, but Angel Chavez made a shrewd relay (of sorts) to second base to nail Rodriguez trying to advance.
There were two outs now and a man on third. Thayer was an out away from escaping further damage—and on a night when the already run-starved Bulls lineup could do little against Marquez and Santeliz, further damage needed to be escaped. But Thayer threw two straight balls to Stefan Gartrell, then grazed Gartrell's jersey with the next pitch. Gartrell took first, and Dayan Viciedo followed by grounding an opposite-field single to right field to score Morel. Thayer grimaced, then got Jordan Danks to hit into a fielder's choice to end the top of the eighth, but it was 3-0, Charlotte. That looked like it might as well be 13-0, the way things were going for Durham's hitters.
On the very same day in 2008, November 20, that the Rays announced their addition of Thayer to their 40-man roster, the Chicago White Sox added Clevelan Santeliz to theirs. He, like Thayer, has seen brief big-league action, making four so-so appearances for the White Sox this season. And yesterday, like Thayer, Santeliz—on his 24th birthday, no less—was dropped from the 40-man roster. He was actually, according to the official transaction, designated for assignment on September 1. There is supposed to be a three-day waiver period, I thought, but perhaps players with Santeliz's limited service time don't have to pass through waivers. In any case, there he was, like Thayer, left behind and back in Triple-A, stripped of his membership to the majors.
In the seventh inning, 10 of his 11 pitches were strikes, most of them 94-mph four-seam fastballs and a 90-mph version that looked like a cutter. When Angel Chavez hit a comebacker to Santeliz and Santeliz snared it, he did a quick little cha-cha—more out of delighted surprise, really, I thought, than in showboating; a shake of the hips—before lobbing a throw to first to retire Chavez.
One of the Bulls later murmured that Santeliz's dance of delight may have been an omen, although the Bulls' half of the eighth against him certainly didn't have the makings of an uprising: Omar Luna and Fernando Perez both grounded out—but the thing was that, between them, the two slap hitters had seen 11 pitches, as many as Santeliz had thrown the entire inning prior. The next batter, Elliot Johnson, fought through a tough, eight-pitch at-bat before hitting a little opposite-field flare down the left-field line that dropped just fair for a double. Santeliz then fell behind Justin Ruggiano, 3-0, including a pitch that went to the backstop, advancing Johnson to third—he might have thought about trying to come all the way home, because Santeliz didn't bother to cover the plate until Johnson had rounded third, and then did so only perfunctorily—he was showing off a little, after all.
And he worked the count back to 3-2. Ruggiano would have been vulnerable to a breaking ball low and away here, and Santeliz tried to come up with something like that, but his 25th pitch of the inning wasn't tempting—it was too low, too outside—and Ruggiano laid off of it and earned a walk. Suddenly, the zombified Bulls, who grounded into two quick outs to start the inning, had the tying run coming to the plate in the person of their leading home run hitter—indeed, the franchise's all-time leader—Chris Richard.
Knights manager Chris Chambliss removed Santeliz, who left behind two baserunners, and brought out Ryan Braun, who has been excellent versus the Bulls this year—one run on 10 innings to that point. But he had nothing last night. Richard didn't tie the game with his second three-run homer in as many nights (that's asking a bit too much, perhaps), but he did hit Braun's second pitch to right field for an RBI single to score Johnson and make it 3-1. Joe Dillon followed with another single to right to plate Ruggiano. 3-2, Charlotte. J. J. Furmaniak pinch-ran for Dillon and stole second base. The go-ahead run was in scoring position.
That brought up Leslie Anderson, lefty on righty, and Anderson worked through a challenging, six-pitch at-bat (including swinging and missing badly on a breaking ball in the dirt) before tasering a grounder off of Braun's foot. It caromed high into the air, perhaps 20 feet or so, Braun chasing it over the first base line toward the home dugout, as Anderson chugged up the line. It seems doubtful that Braun would have been able to throw Anderson out at first, but the issue was settled when Braun couldn't field the ball cleanly at a full sprint. Richard scored—and Furmaniak might have, too, all the way from second, had he gone hell-for-leather (which would have been risky).
3-3, and the small but passionate crowd, chanting "RYYY-AN! RYYY-AN!" with every pitch now, went into a frenzy of approval.
Angel Chavez, whose comebacker to Santeliz an inning earlier provided the so-called omen for all of this, got ahead 3-0 against Braun, who by now seemed helpless to control where the ball was going—one of his pitches had almost hit Joe Dillon in the head. Charlie Montoyo is fairly liberal in giving certain hitters the green light on 3-0 (the pro forma automatic-take count), and it seemed almost sure that he would take the cuffs off of Chavez. Sure enough, Braun delivered a 3-0 fastball right down the middle, and Chavez laced it to left field, hard. Jeremy Reed made a valiant dive, but he missed it, and Furmaniak scored to give the Bulls their first lead of the night with two outs in the eighth inning.
A seventh-straight two-out batter reached when Braun then walked Nevin Ashley to load the bases, but with the hex broken (or, perhaps more accurately, cast), the gods stepped in and had Omar Luna strike out. With Winston Abreu apparently unavailable after earning a high-leverage, high-anxiety save on Tuesday, Joe Bateman came on instead in the ninth inning. He very nearly allowed the tying run to score, when Fernando Cortez blasted a drive to deep center field with one out. But Justin Ruggiano caught it about 385 feet from home plate, and Bateman fanned Donny Lucy to earn a save and give an undeserved win to Dale Thayer, yet another example of how unfair the rule that governs win-crediting really is. In the last few days, both Thayer and Mike Ekstrom have notched wins in games in which they have pitched terribly. I appreciate consistency and the desire to limit too much subjective judgment, but I don't see why the Official Scorer shouldn't, in a case like this one, be allowed to give the win to Bobby Livingston.
Regardless, though, of which pitcher gets the credit and whether it's due or not, the Bulls' 86th win of the year certainly was—you could even argue that it was overdue. Durham leads the league in runs scored and fewest runs allowed, and if you go by the Pythagorean Winning Percentage formula popular among sabermetricians and other baseball eggheads (before you start making fun of pocket protectors, that includes me; the formula usually resolves quite near actual results), they should actually have won 90. The Bulls need to win three of their last five games to tie the franchise's all-time single-season victory record of 89, set way back in 1962.
It has been noticed aplenty that part of the reason for the Bulls' easy path to the South Division championship this season has owed to the lack of quality opposition in their division—only Gwinnett, 69-69, is playing .500 ball, and just, exactly, barely. But look at this another way: It's the Bulls' thorough manhandling of the two lesser teams in their division, Charlotte and Norfolk, that has allowed them to leave the divisional competition so far behind them. Durham is 28-12 against those two rivals—that's a third of the Bulls' wins. And as Charlie Montoyo has regularly pointed out, it's not as if the Knights are creampuffs. They have dangerous hitters and good starting pitching—Harrell-Marquez-Torres matches up fairly well with any other team's top three—and you can't just phone it in against them. You have to play hard, and well, to beat them. Many of the Bulls' wins versus Charlotte have been close or tough ones. But that is the difference between champions and also-rans: The champs find ways to win games like last night's, and the rest find ways to lose them.
A few notes:
* In case we needed proof that the Tampa Bay Rays' callup of Jose Lobaton was a formal technicality and nothing more—he's on the major-league disabled list and his 40-man roster spot can thus be used for another player—he was the guy warming up the pitcher between innings last night at the DBAP. In other words, Jose Lobaton is basically a Durham Bull, and will probably remain one in all but name (and perhaps even in name again, too, should certain moves be made by the Tampa front office) for the rest of the season.
* Charlie Montoyo said that the Bulls would be getting another catcher, now that Lobaton and Dioner Navarro, who started for Tampa last night (the Rays won, 2-1, behind David Price, now a fancy 16-6 with a 2.92 ERA), are both decommissioned Bulls. Montoyo thought the FNG was coming from Class A Princeton (Va.), and he was half right. Twenty-two-year-old Kyle Holloway had recently been promoted from Princeton to Hudson Valley, although recently is a relative term here. Holloway was signed by the Rays just seven weeks ago as a non-drafted free agent out of Lynn University (Boca Raton, Fla.). So although his promotion to Hudson Valley was pretty quick, it actually represented the midpoint of his career so far: Holloway has played a grand total of 25 professional baseball games. (Joe Dillon has played 1,116.) Nonetheless, expect to see him catch at least once at the DBAP before the regular season is over. Montoyo often reiterates his commitment to playing everyone on his roster (just ask Omar Luna, Craig Albernaz, Matt Hall, Alex Jamieson, et al), and Holloway will be no exception. This totally unknown greenhorn gets to make his Triple-A debut having left three levels of the minors behind him. Sometimes I think this is a wonderful world we live in.
* Don't look now, but the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees are still making a push to challenge the Bulls for best overall record in the International League this season. They are three games behind Durham with five to play. This is a matter of nothing but pride, since both teams have clinched playoff spots and are merely playing out the September remainder, but pride does matter in sports, quite a bit, and don't think for a moment that Charlie Montoyo is unconcerned with his team's final place in the overall standings. He sends Aneury Rodriguez to the mound tonight against the Gwinnett Braves, who come in for two quick and final games. The Braves' starter will be familiar face Todd Redmond, making his fourth start of the year versus the Bulls. In the last one, on July 3, he shut them out for seven innings on two hits and got the win. I don't mean to sound any unfairly early alarms, but the Bulls have only five regular-season games left, and tonight's the one where you get in for free if you give the nice person behind the box office window a book. Don't try tell me you don't have an old, unread copy of Atlas Shrugged or Ethan Frome lying around. Trust me, if you haven't read it by now, you never will. Might as well be your ticket to a ballgame. Seeya at 7:05 p.m.