by Adam Sobsey
The game stayed scoreless until the eighth inning. You may remember a catcher named Luke Carlin from a bizarre and comical play earlier this season at the DBAP, when Carlin attempted to blow a ball foul off the bat of Justin Ruggiano. (You can't do that, the rules say—it was ruled a hit.) Carlin was playing for the Indianapolis Indians then, but not long after his attempted chicanery at the DBAP, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians, Columbus' parent club. In punishment, perhaps? Who knows?
And boy are the Clippers glad he got traded, because he doubled for them in the eighth inning. Then, unusually for a catcher, he came all the way around to score on an infield single. Two Columbus relievers slammed the door on the Yankees over the next two innings, and the wild-card Clippers took a 2-1 series lead over the Yankees, pushing the North Division champs to the brink of elimination.
The remarkable thing about the game, other than the breathless 1-0 final? The Yankees did not have a baserunner after Russo's first-inning walk. Not one. Columbus pitchers recorded 27 straight outs. What a game!
Well, it sounds like one, anyway. I wasn't there. I wish I had been. I love to watch games like that. Great games. Exciting games. Close games. Good pitching.
But I wasn't there, because I was covering the other International League playoff game that took place last night. At Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the league-best home team tallied a first-inning run when, during the Bulls' third at-bat of the game, with runners on first and third base, Elliot Johnson tried to steal second base. Louisville catcher Devin Mesoraco's throw sailed into center field, allowing J. J. Furmaniak to score from third. 1-0, Bulls.
And that's how it stayed, the Bulls constantly threatening to score for the rest of the game—they had runners in scoring position in six of nine innings—until the seventh inning. That's when 23-year-old Alex Cobb, making his very first Triple-A start (he was called up from Class AA Montgomery just a few days ago), having thrown five no-hit innings (!) to start the game, allowed a one-out single to Wladimir Balentien. The next batter was Todd Frazier, and with the count 1-0, Cobb tried to come inside with a four-seam fastball. But it caught too much of the plate, and Frazier was looking for it. He hit a rocket-launched two-run home run to the lawn in left-center field.
That was the final: The Bulls didn't score again. It was an exciting, tense, taut, well-played game. It was, in fact, one of the better games played at the DBAP in a good while—arguably, in terms of pure baseball, the best of the season. It was a game worthy of the playoffs, and this is the playoffs. Autumn has come to cull most of the funnel-cake crowd from the ballpark, and the 5,306 who showed up really cared, really got into it, shouted themselves hoarse, and had a lot to shout about, good and bad. Alex Cobb was superb—superb! (And the young, ravenous Bats kept helping by swinging, aggressively.) The Bulls kept mounting little rallies. Bats manager Rick Sweet kept making matchup-based pitching changes, at one point even ordering one in apparently the most pointless of moments: with a switch-hitter, Elliot Johnson, at the plate. A man was on first base with two out. Sweet made the change mainly in order to turn Johnson around to his right-handed side because he knew that Johnson has less home-run power as a starboarder, and also because the pitcher Sweet called on, Daniel Ray Herrera, is better at holding runners on base than the guy he replaced. The lefty Herrera also throws a screwball, which is tough for a righty to hit. That's the kind of managerial thought that went into what we were watching. It was the playoffs.
Sweet's move worked: Johnson grounded out. It was that kind of game. Tactical. Riveting. Edgy. Excellent.
And the Bulls lost. If they lose tonight, their season is over.
And if they do lose tonight, and if it is another well-played, exciting, dramatic, heart-clutching game—if a game like that is the last of the year in Durham, will you be disappointed? Or will you be happy and thankful that you got to see your team, the International League's best, sending to the mound on Saturday night a pitcher who spent most of the year in Class AA and who has made exactly three appearances for the Bulls this season—will you be happy that you got to see the Bulls play one last thrilling game, even if they lose?
The first words out of Bulls' manager Charlie Montoyo's mouth after his team lost, frustratingly, achingly, crushingly, and now face the premature end of their fabulous season?
"Hey," he said. "Great game."
Take a look at the report from this game, exactly a month ago, which also mentions Luke Carlin, bears some striking resemblances to last night's loss, and even contains some inadvertently prescient musings about the relative importance of winning not just another Governors' Cup but minor-league games in general.
Then make the jump.
Alex Cobb throws four pitches, a four-seam fastball (90-92 mph), a two-seamer (85-86), a curveball and a changeup. They all looked good on Friday night. He said after the game that he wanted to establish his fastball inside, not only because that is a good thing to do every time you pitch, but also because he had, as a Montgomery Biscuit, faced the Double-A Carolina Mudcats earlier this season, and five of those Mudcats were since promoted and in Louisville's lineup last night. In that game against the Mudcats, Cobb—a poised, soft-spoken redhead with intelligent eyes and friendly candor—used a lot of changeups, which fade down. He wanted to make an adjustment.
The adjustment worked: Only one ex-Mudcat had a hit off of him. That was Devin Mesoraco, whose little dribbler up the third-base line ended Cobb's no-hit bid in the sixth inning. No tears, please: Cobb had almost no chance of staying in the game long enough to complete the no-hitter, anyway, and frankly doesn't have the kind of stuff that suits him for it—not even on a night like Friday, when despite his excellent work he was of the opinion that he wasn't locating his fastball as well as he knows he can. Also, there were a disproportionate number of outs in the air: danger.
But after pitching around Mesoraco's hit, which Cobb himself exacerbated by fielding it, throwing the ball away and advancing Mesoraco to second base—and with R. J. Swindle warming during the sixth in the bullpen in case further trouble mounted—did he have a chance to come back out for the seventh?
Well, why not, you might have convincingly argued? Cobb had thrown just 80 pitches through six innings. He had a 1-0 lead. He had struck out nine Bats, including Zack Cozart, for the third time, to end the sixth. (Cozart would strike out a fourth time in the eighth, looking, complain to home plate umpire Fran Burke, and be ejected from the game. Ah, those young Louisville Bats.) Plus, the Durham bullpen had been heavily taxed on Thursday in Louisville, when starter Aneury Rodriguez couldn't get out of the third inning and four relievers had to collaborate on preserving the Bulls' 6-2 victory.
So many reasons to leave him in.
But I thought he should have come out. Cobb had sat in the dugout for quite a while in the bottom of the sixth. That half-inning included the first of Rick Sweet's four pitching changes; one at-bat that lasted seven pitches and another that extended to 10; two wild pitches that slowed things down further; and the Bulls' failure, yet again, to score a runner from third base. (They left six men in scoring position; they were 1-13 in that situation.) Low pitch count aside, for my money it was time to look the kid in the eye after his scintillating debut—we'll be seeing plenty more of him in Durham next year, believe me—and say, pal, you can't hardly do it any better than that. I know you've got plenty more in the tank, but you're green and this the season of leaf-drop. Let my old autumn-years guys in the bullpen take it from here; we got it; we got your back. Go grab yourself a tall cold one.
And when, to begin the top of the seventh inning, Cobb sailed a couple of four-seamers high and outside to to Danny Dorn, who had nearly homered off of Cobb in the first inning and lined out to right in the fourth, I thought, No, should have taken him out.
But then Cobb broke back and got Dorn to chase a changeup and strike out for the first out. Then Cobb got ahead of Balentien, too, 0-2—but Balentien reached out and poked a curveball into right field for the Bats' first legitimate hit. R. J. Swindle got up and started to throw in the bullpen again.
That brought up Todd Frazier. Frazier looked at ball one, and then tagged Cobb's next pitch—that four-seam fastball not quite in enough ("I probably should have thrown the two-seamer there," Cobb said with a rueful laugh)—for the homer that gave Louisville the lead it would never relinquish. Just like that—"Out goes Frazier!" would have been the appropriate call—the game changed, irrevocably, as it turned out.
Charlie Montoyo talked later about momentum. If you keep getting chances to score, he said, then every time you fail to convert those chances, the momentum swings a bit more, a bit more, a bit more toward your opponent. Finally, it had swung far enough, and Louisville led at the seventh-inning stretch.
In the bottom of the seventh, J. J. Furmaniak, who went 3-4 with a walk in the leadoff spot, singled with two outs, getting a fortunate bad hop off the lip of the infield grass. But then Rick Sweet turned Elliot Johnson around with Daniel Ray Herrera, who got out of the inning.
In the bottom of the eighth, Angel Chavez came up with two men on and two out and hit a high fly ball to very deep left-center field, with the wind blowing out that way. But he got under it just a bit, and it was just a little too high. It hung up there, and it came down on the warning track in the glove of the Bats' Dave Sappelt, who is from nearby Graham, N.C., attended Coastal Carolina University, and had folks cheering him on from the third-base stands at the DBAP last night.
And in the ninth, after two quick outs, Furmaniak fought back from a two-strike hole against Jared Burton, who had a bases-on-balls meltdown against the Bulls a couple of months ago—and Furmaniak finally drew a tough, nine-pitch walk.
That brought up Elliot Johnson, the Bulls' leading hitter, recently named team MVP. He had already failed at the plate with runners on base three times to that point. He, like Furmaniak, fell behind Burton, overswinging and missing a slider down and in. Then he took a couple of balls.
Furmaniak stole second base without a throw. A base hit would tie the game.
Johnson swung and missed at another slider down and in. Then he worked the count full. He was having a mature, Johnsonian at-bat, a ca. 2010 Elliot at-bat. He had the crowd making major noise. Anxiety, excitement, decibels, all ratcheting up, up, up.
Burton, unafraid, made a terrific pitch—another slider down and in—and Johnson swung over it and missed again to end the game.
Last month I spent several hours interviewing Fernando Perez, and one of the most thought-provoking things Perez talked about—bemoaned, actually—was something I wound up having to cut for lack of space: He talked at length about "the orthodoxy of winning." In the course of hashing out that complicated subject with me, Perez said something that should be rather obvious but which is easy for partisans to forget in the heat of the moment: The other team is trying hard, too. If all you're interested in is whether your team wins, Perez added, then you're watching a less interesting game than you could be.
Sure, Elliot Johnson was trying his mightiest to get a hit. But Jared Burton was trying his mightiest to keep him from getting it. It's not as if the Bulls were failing to hit balls off of a tee in going 1-13 with runners in scoring position. They had to deal with Matt Klinker's 68-mph curveball, which kept them off-balance; they had to deal with 95-mph heat and a 77-mph deuce from lefty Phillippe-Alexandre Valiquette (dis donc!?); they had to look at screwballs (screwballs!) from another lefty, Daniel Ray Herrera. Montoyo complimented the Louisville pitchers for their work last night.
Credit Rick Sweet with making changes freely, and note that the one change Charlie Montoyo perhaps should have made—lifting Alex Cobb before the top of the seventh and going with R. J. Swindle, who flummoxed Louisville for the rest of the game—is the one he didn't make, and it cost his team the game.
Lest anyone think that the Bulls are stamping and snorting in frustration after this enervating, draining game; or that the Louisville Bats are sweating in exhausted gratitude for having escaped with a pivotal Game Three win, compare these reactions:
Charlie Montoyo on his players, who have now played 32 games in 32 days—two in one day in a doubleheader on August 14; and the one "off" day was taken up by an 11-hour bus ride to Louisville: "They were yelling and having fun. I told them, 'We had a great season. Whatever happens, have fun.'"
The sharp, gregarious, thoughtful, tired Rick Sweet, halfway out of uniform, with an ice pack on his knee: "That was a fun game to be involved in."
All of that was for the benefit of players—and reporters—but it goes double for fans. Winning is an orthodoxy, and an intolerant one. Needing your team to win is the narrow view; seeing the broader picture (especially on 9/11) is the wider, wiser, more catholic one. Don't you wish you could have seen the Columbus Clippers retire 27 straight Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees? Didn't you love the excitement that rose up around Elliot Johnson's final at-bat? Wouldn't it be great if every baseball game were like this? Well, I'm sure Charlie Montoyo and Rick Sweet don't think so. But still...
As for the players, they're having fun, too. The peculiar thing about the game of baseball, with its unrelenting gross of games every year, is how adept players are at having a double-consciousness: They possess both long memories ("Well, I threw him a slider on a 1-2 count six years ago; so, this time...") and short ones: You and I, dear reader, may still be sorting through the remains of last night's game, but the players, sleeping peacefully, are already on to the next one. Elliot Johnson is dying to get up there again with the game on the line. Angel Chavez wants another crack at that three-run homer. Alex Cobb is hoping the Bulls win the series so he can pitch in the Governors' Cup finals.
And if they do, and Cobb does, the guy who will stave off the first elimination game against the Louisville Bats will be Paul Phillips, just called up last week from Montgomery. Bobby Livingston was originally slated to start Saturday's game, but Montoyo flip-flopped the two in his postseason rotation: "Just the way Phillips pitched in his last two outings, he earned his way to pitch [Saturday]."
And perhaps that's fitting. You know what Paul Phillips did in September 2009? He was called up late in the season and won the Bulls' first (and only) playoff elimination game against the Louisville Bats. Chatting with him after last night's loss, the straight-talking, no-nonsense, high-intensity Phillips—who is currently staying, like a lot of late-season short-timers, at the downtown Marriott, just like the Louisville Bats (he should have the front desk call their rooms every half-hour)—was upbeat and raring to go versus Louisville left-hander Ben Jukich.
The Bulls have seen plenty of Jukich over the last two seasons. He beat them in Game Two of the 2009 playoffs; he also gave up Chris Richard's second grand slam of the game in the Bulls' memorable, come-from-behind win last season, and hooked up an unlikely pitchers' duel with the Bulls' James Houser later that summer—Elliot Johnson hit a tie-breaking eighth-inning homer off of Jukich in that game. This year, Jukich has faced the Bulls twice, and has been nothing more or less than just about average. In other words, there is no telling, really, what tonight has in store—and as long as it's fun, and exciting, and good baseball, let's all agree to love it, whatever the outcome.
It is probably a little much—perhaps even offensive to some—to use 9/11 as a rallying cry for tonight's game. In fact, I don't think Paul Phillips intended to make such a reference after the game. Nonetheless, his answer, when asked whether he felt prepared for the nervous excitement and pressure already mounting late Friday night for Saturday night's do-or-die game, invoked that date anyway.
"Let's roll," he said.
You know what else he said?
He said, "It'll be fun."