by Adam Sobsey
It was a bit of a surprise, though, to see Holloway's name in the ninth spot on the lineup card, with the ".000, 0 HR, 0 RBI" line next to his name looking like nothing so much as five wide eyes: hopeful, alert, terrified. Montoyo was wasting no time throwing his new guy—who just arrived in Durham on Wednesday—out there under the lights.
And his new guy availed himself well enough. He caught a solid, error-free game, handling five different pitchers well; he threw out one of three base stealers (another just barely beat—or perhaps did not beat—the tag; the third stole the base on the pitcher); and he hit a ringing opposite-field double to jump-start a four-run rally in the fifth inning. On the negative side of the ledger, he struck out three times, and after the game received some fashion counsel from one of his teammates: He was wearing both horizontal and vertical stripes, which anyone who was paying attention to couture in the early 1970s could tell you is a total no-no. I trust he'll visit T. J. Maxx today and pick up some of those plug-ugly knockoff-Affliction or Ed Hardy skull-and-angel-death-design t-shirts like most other ballplayers tend to wear.
The Bulls, of course, aren't the only team in need of new blood these days; every team has been depleted by callups since the September 1 roster expansion. A line of zeroes also followed the entry for the Gwinnett Braves' ninth-place hitter, the blandly named Dan Nelson.
Nelson is a 26-year-old infielder from Los Angeles, listed at 5-foot-11 but probably shorter, playing for his fourth organization in his sixth professional season. He was released by the Washington Nationals in May and picked up shortly thereafter by the Braves in desperation after they had had three minor-leaguers on the Class A Myrtle Beach team suspended 50 games each for failed drug tests. Nelson hit pretty well there (an .802 OPS), playing mostly third base, with a four-game up-and-down mini-promotion to Double-A Mississippi in early July.
Nelson was more earnestly promoted to Mississippi a few weeks ago, and he struggled, batting just .196 in 18 games. But he did draw 11 walks against nine strikeouts in 64 plate appearances, and his career walk and strikeout rates aren't terrible. Whenever I see that, I think to myself that at least the guy has some sense of what he's doing with a bat in his hand.
But I didn't see any of those stats before the game last night; I called them up just before I started writing this. All I did before the game was what I usually do when I come across unrecognized names of obviously-just-called-up-in-September players in the visitors' lineup: I noted it and I shrugged. Dan Nelson? How can you expect to get me excited about you with a name like Dan Nelson? (If it was Dan Johnson, maybe we could talk.)
By pretty much winning the game, that's how.
How Dan nelsoned the Gwinnett Braves' 7-6 win over the Bulls after the jump. Plus more on Holloway (who?). And don't worry, plenty on the Bulls themselves.
How did Gwinnett starter Todd Redmond throw a no-hitter earlier this season? And how on earth did he do it against the slugging Louisville Bats? Redmond is former 39th-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a finesse pitcher with a fastball that tops out at 91 mph but usually sat at 88 mph last night—decent life on it, but nothing special—a so-so slider, and probably some other pitches that I didn't bother paying much attention to because they weren't very interesting. The Bulls tagged him for two runs in the first inning on a pair of walks and a two-run triple by Chris Richard (his first three-bagger since 2008); then, after Redmond looked settled and in-control for three innings, the Bulls ran him out of the pasture with four straight two-out hits in the fifth. He struggled to throw strikes all night, walking four batters and running lots of deep counts, logging 99 pitches in only 4 2/3 innings. Redmond has been up and down against the Bulls—indeed, against the entire International League—this season. He's had nine starts in which he has allowed at least five runs, and 11 in which he's allowed one or none. His record is, not surprisingly, mediocre, 9-10, and his ERA a ho-hum 4.04—not really an indicator of quality so much as a number you wind up with when you average out great and terrible. The International League's cumulative ERA is 4.14.
That fifth-inning outburst by the Bulls against Redmond did not blow the game open; in fact, it just tightened it up. Durham starter Aneury Rodriguez had five very fine innings and one dreadful one. In a car-crash fourth, with the Bulls up 2-0 on the Richard triple, Rodriguez gave up a one-out single to the league's leading hitter, Barbaro Canizares. The next batter, Brent Clevelen, hit an opposite-field liner to right field. Justin Ruggiano went back on it and seemed to have a play on it at first, but then it became clear that it would go over his head and hit the wall for a double. When it somehow sneaked over the top of the wall for a two-run home run, we were all scratching our heads. The ball looked to have no chance to get out.
Nonetheless, it did. Rodriguez got Clint Sammons to ground out for the second out of the inning, but then walked Orlando Mercado. Luis Bolivar followed with a double to left field. On that play, Leslie Anderson hesitated after fielding the carom off the Blue Monster. Had he fired immediately to second base, he would have gunned down Bolivar by plenty. But because he looked first to see if Mercado was trying for home, he was too late to do anything about Bolivar.
That brought up Dan Nelson. Nelson had struck out in his first at-bat after working the count full against Rodriguez. This time he fell behind 0-2, then fouled off a pitch. The next one, which was supposed to be inside, I guess, was instead right down the middle, and Nelson hit it to the concourse behind the Diamond View seats beyond right field. A prodigious shot. It's the only ball I've seen hit there this year. "I was just trying to protect the plate," Nelson told me after the game. "I just got lucky and ran into one." Yeah, right—that was not the swing of a hitter "protecting" the plate, unless he was thinking of the plate as his mother and the ball as someone who had just called her a dirty name.
Nelson's blast made it 5-2, Braves. The Bulls would bounce back against Redmond an inning later, but Nelson played a major role in limiting the damage. With four runs in and runners on second and third, Cristhian [sic] Martinez relieved Redmond. Leslie Anderson spanked a line drive down the third-base line, and Nelson made a fine diving grab to save two runs. He wasn't done there, either, but we'll come back to him after we take time away from how Nelson helped win the game and discuss how the Durham bullpen lost it.
Mike Ekstrom relieved Aneury Rodriguez with two outs in the sixth inning and retired Mercado to end the inning. In the seventh, he got quickly ahead of Luis Bolivar 0-2; Bolivar came into the game batting a soggy .206 with a grand total of seven walks in 177 plate appearances. That's almost as walk-less as the Bulls' astonishingly free-swinging Omar Luna, who has only TWO in 128 trips.
So you already know, but narrative demands require me to tell you that Ekstrom followed his two strikes to Bolivar with four straight balls and walked him. He was lifted by Charlie Montoyo for R. J. Swindle. Swindle's first batter was... Dan Nelson. It would be fun to say that Nelson hit another homer or something—and in fact he stung a line drive to right field, but it went right to Justin Ruggiano, who caught it. But the the thing is that, during the at-bat, Bolivar stole second base. Swindle seems fairly easy to steal on: His delivery is slow, and has a hesitation in it as well, and of course his actual pitches are slow, too. (Credit Nelson, who had never faced Swindle before, for hanging in there for seven tough pitches against him, even fouling off a 50-mph version of Swindle's tumbling curveball.)
And with Bolivar now on second, tiny Matt Young (listed at 5-foot-9, which he might be—in stiletto heels) singled to center, plating Bolivar with the tying run. Young, who had already stolen two bases to take the league lead away from the Bulls' departed-to-Tampa Desmond Jennings, bid for a third, but Holloway threw him out, even with Swindle pitching. Swindle then struggled with the even tinier Antoan [sic] Richardson—boy howdy, the Braves have some meek-looking little dudes on their roster! Richardson is another recent callup from Double-A; he was playing just his fourth game for Gwinnett. Swindle kept missing with his slider and running the count full against Richardson before finally striking Richardson out. Swindle looked quite annoyed with himself throughout his outing.
Eye for an eye ensued. Swindle had allowed Ekstrom's runner to score, and so it was only fair that when Swindle allowed a bloopy double to Joe Thurston to begin the eighth inning, Dale Thayer came on and let Thurston score. (I guess that's not quite eye-for-an-eye; more like, You poked my eye out! I'm gonna get this other guy to poke out yours!) It was the second straight night that Thayer plated inherited runners in the eighth inning. And he did it last night in the most maddening of ways. He got the dangerous Canizares to pop out, and then was instructed to walk Clevlen intentionally. That made sense: It set up a potential inning-ending double play with the slow-running catcher Clint Sammons coming to the plate—sporting a .163 batting average, by the way.
But Thayer walked Sammons on five pitches—and the pitch called a strike, on 3-0, looked low. Bases loaded, still one out. Mercado followed by booming a 1-2 pitch—another missed fastball, I think—to deep right-centerfield. It looked at first like a three-run double in the making, but Ruggiano hauled it in at the warning track (the wind was blowing in) to keep the damage to a sacrifice fly. Still, it was damage: 7-6, Gwinnett. At least Thayer struck out Bolivar to end the inning.
But when he gave up a single to... Dan Nelson (!) to open the top of the ninth, and the Bulls still trailing by a run (more on that a bit below); and when, after a forceout, Thayer gave up another single to Richardson—the trail of the apparently meek marching like tiny but in fact vicious fire ants from base to base—when Montoyo replaced Thayer with the struggling Brian Shouse; when Heather wondered aloud why Montoyo kept replacing pitchers with other pitchers, something he isn't in the general habit of doing mid-inning (he likes to let 'em have their helping); when I replied that it was to create favorable same-on-same left-right matchups, it was of course high time, at that frustrating point, for Heather to retort, "Not when they all suck!" Which she did, and bloody well right.
I reminded myself, and Heather, of the Joe Maddon Rule of Life that Fernando Perez told me during our interview was the best baseball advice he ever got: You have to be trying to succeed rather than trying not to f*** up. Montoyo suddenly has four lefties in his bullpen, and has been exploiting that advantage lately to give his relievers more situational matchup work—I can't help but wonder if that is partially by Rays' decree, as it's out of character for Montoyo. In any case, in making these frequent tactical changes, he can only do it planning that the relievers he calls on will actually do the job—in other words, he is trying to succeed; were he only trying not to f*** up, he might very well try Winston Abreu here—or even (why the heck not, with the way his bullpen has wobbled lately?) third baseman Angel Chavez, who tossed a scoreless relief inning against the Braves at Gwinnett just last week. Yes, I'm kidding.
But Joe Thurston is left-handed. Enter Brian Shouse, left-handedly. Guess what Joe Thurston did? He singled to left field. Bases loaded. One out. Guess who came up? Barbaro Canizares. League-leading hitter. Right-handed. Problem with these same-on-same matchups? If they don't work out, then you have different-on-different matchups. But there was no one warming in the bullpen—Shouse is the Bulls' fifth pitcher of the night, and someone has to relieve tomorrow night, too. (That someone will be Darin Downs. I promise.)
And Shouse fell behind Barbaro Canizares, 3-0. Canizares was going to get a 3-0 green light, just like Angel Chavez did the night before, when he hit the game-winning single in the eighth inning. Sure enough, he got the go-ahead, and he hit a grounder up the middle. It wasn't hit that hard, but it seemed destined for center field anyway.
Barbaro, however, has two problems here. First is that he is a strapping 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, and on this night the little guys win. The little guy who fields it is the Bulls' shortstop, Omar Luna, who is 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds; I know a sculptress bigger than Omar Luna. Luna, who had already made one wow! play in the sixth inning, and who has made starting a tough, nifty double play his nightly habit lately, flips to J. J. Furmaniak, who is listed at six feet tall and is also not six feet tall. (Furmaniak and Brian Shouse, who is 5-foot-10, and 41, are both from Effingham, Ill.; what is about to happen is some sort of Illini Alignment. Maybe that's called an Illignment.)
Barbaro Canizares' second problem, which is related to the first one, is that he is not only slow but enthusiastically so; he runs as though slowness is in fact what he is trying to achieve; as though slowness, as Ezra Pound put it, is beauty. Furmaniak's relay beats Canizares to first base, it's a double play, and Brian Shouse has graciously, generously not poked out Dale Thayer's eye in retaliation for R. J. Swindle's. Well, Shouse's ERA is 9.00; he doesn't want anyone letting any more of his own baserunners score.
So it is still 7-6, Gwinnett, going into the bottom of the ninth inning, but the thing is—and here we come full
Nelson circle to Thunder Dan Nelson, who not only hits massive homers like Dan Johnson, but plays third base like Johnson, too.
We come full circle because in fact it ought to be 7-7, and the reason it isn't is Dan Nelson.
In the last of the eighth inning, Braves' reliever Lee Hyde hit Joe Dillon with a pitch to give the Bulls a leadoff baserunner. Leslie Anderson sacrificed Dillon to second base, which seemed a little silly to me, since Dillon is a slow runner with a tweaky hamstring who can't necessarily be expected to score on any old single. It would have to be one not hit near an outfielder. Angel Chavez flied out, and that brought up Omar Luna with two outs. Luna smacked Hyde's first pitch hard down the third base line; it was not only going to be a two-out hit, it was going to be nowhere near an outfielder; it would go die somewhere in the Braves' bullpen and Joe Dillon was going to score easily and little Omar Luna, Little Omar Who Could, was going to pull off even more unlikely heroics, which he seems to do every single night he plays. Oh, Omar!
Well, I don't know who is taller, Omar Luna or Dan Nelson. Dan Nelson was sitting in his chair when I interviewed him and so I could not take the full measure of the man. Burly, yes, but I would wager that he is probably shorter than Omar Luna. And tonight, shortness is key, more key than lightness.
Dan Nelson dived (or dove, if you insist) toward the line, much like he did to end the fourth inning. But this chance was harder. The earlier one was a liner, right at dive height. This one was a hot skidding grounder, like if you threw burning charcoal along some asphalt, and it's also a longer reach than the liner. So when Nelson speared it, leapt to his feet, and made a strong, spot-on throw to first base to shoot the Luna—it beat him easily, it wasn't even close—all you could do was go, Who the effingham is Dan Nelson?
In the bottom of the ninth, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel makes three batters—one of them is Kyle Holloway—look stupid with 96-mph fastballs and painful, 86-mph sliders. Braves win. Craig Kimbrel is 5-foot-11.
* What's wrong with the Durham bullpen? More accurately, what's wrong with the four guys who relieved tonight? And is Winston Abreu, who recently blew a save chance and struggled a bit in converting another one on Tuesday, also cause for concern? Is late-season fatigue an issue? Charlie Montoyo didn't seem to think so. "It becomes mental after you struggle a little bit," Montoyo said. "That's why they're gonna keep pitching... see if they can get it out [of their systems]. You just gotta keep putting them back out there." These odd contagions have struck whole demographic subsets of the Durham roster: first the hitters went cold (just seven hits last night, despite the six runs—like the previous night, they did most of their damage in just one inning); now the bullpen has seized up, too. As I wrote recently, Bulls fans just have to hope that this is a brief back-to-school slump, which will end once the playoffs scoop up and discard the regular-season dregs—and also hope that whatever the plague is, it spares the starters.
* Chris Richard was the designated hitter for the second straight day—Joe Dillon played first base again—but he isn't nursing any injuries. "When I don't have enough players I don't want to DH Dillon," Montoyo said, "because then I won't be to use him in case I go through guys on the bench." Dillon may get Friday's game off—he, unlike Richard, is a bit injured, still bothered by the hamstring that has been a problem for much of the season—so look for Richard back at first base.
* I was writing yesterday about the Bulls' dominance of Charlotte and Norfolk this season, but conveniently omitted the Bulls' record versus Gwinnett because it didn't help my argument about the Bulls' South Division stampede this season: with the loss last night, Durham fell to 9-11 head-to-head against the Braves, assuring a losing 2010 record against them. The only other team to boast besting the Bulls this year is Toledo (5-2). I mentioned the struggles against the Braves to Montoyo. His response: "So?" (Montoyo's mood was a bit vinegarier than usual last night.) He did elaborate, though: "In Triple-A I never look at records because it doesn't really matter. Some teams play you tougher than others." Odd that it should be Gwinnett; perhaps it's because their bullpen is good, especially with the return of Christhian Martinez from Atlanta: He fanned four Bulls in 2 1/3 scoreless innings, using up just 29 pitches. The difference is last night's game, Dan Nelson notwithstanding, was the two teams' bullpens. Gwinnett's tossed 4 1/3 innings of one-hit scoreless baseball. Durham's, uh, did not.
* Had a chance to talk with Jake McGee for the first time since the September 1 roster expansion callups left him in Durham. I asked him if he was disappointed. He shrugged it off: "Not really. I'm already over 100 innings, and I only threw 30 last year. I'd like to get called up, but if I don't I'll just look forward to next year"—when he'll be at the top of the Rays' pitching depth chart, I'd wager. "I can't do much better [than I have]"—McGee hasn't allowed a run in 14 2/3 innings since his transition to the bullpen, with just seven hits, one walk and 23 strikeouts—"so I'm just gonna keep consistent." I asked him about his repertoire of pitches, and he agreed that his curveball hasn't been good—so he is in fact turning it into a slider, which means adjusting the turn of his wrist and his release point. He struck out Jeremy Reed with an excellent example of the slider on Tuesday, and told me that he thought that was the best slider he'd thrown so far since he began mastering it. The pitch had good swerve and dive, and Reed swung and missed badly at it. McGee's fastball seems like two different fastballs—one a riding four-seamer that usually hits 94 or 95 mph, the other a 91-92 version that tails a bit. I thought it might be a two-seamer, but in fact it's the same four-seamer simply thrown with a tad less effort, giving McGee a sort of secondary fastball with which to keep hitters slightly off-blance.
As the eye of Hurricane Earl stares hard down on the North Carolina coast, the tempest of the playoffs is now casting the same predatory glare on the Durham Bulls. This team, the best in its league and historically good in its milieu, is trying to put tape on the windows while it still can. There's some pretty fragile-looking glass right now, what with the breakages in the bullpen and the brittleness of the bats and the thin experience of the catchers. (Remember how last year's Triple-A National Championship game ended? On a passed ball by a 24-year-old catcher in his first Triple-A season.) With the season's final weekend upon us, these ostensibly meaningless games actually mean a great deal: They're where the Bulls will have to get their depleted house in order, and ready to defend the trophy inside it. Come watch the fortification as it happens.