by Adam Sobsey
Perhaps in mild punishment for expressing his druthers—and also, of course, in phenomenological continuation of the Bulls' and Bats' now-traditional first-round playoff meeting—Louisville claimed the West Division. By the prearranged laws that govern the International League post-season, Louisville's ascension meant that the Bulls, after playing 29 games in 28 days, with no days off, to close out the regular season, had to spend their first off-day in four weeks on an 11-hour bus ride to Derby City.
But after his Bulls came back from a 2-1 series deficit and eliminated Louisville last night, 4-2, Montoyo is getting his wish after all. Guess what his team will be doing on its day off tomorrow? They'll be riding the Colum-Bus, where on Tuesday and Wednesday they play the first two games of their best-of-five championship series.
The Bulls' series-clinching win over the Bats marked the third straight year they've knocked Louisville out of the playoffs in the first round. You could say those things that people like to say of such things: Durham "has Louisville's number"; the Bulls "match up well" against the Bats; etc. But in fact the apparent domination is nothing more than a fluke, an accident, the chance product of inconstant process and virtually random, often flimsy materials. Last year, the Bats looked like the better team, amply stocked with potent young hitters hungry to prove themselves to the major-league club; the piecemeal Bulls won anyway. This year, the veteran Durham roster looked superior to the Bats' caveful of Triple-A holdovers and mid-level Double-A callups—and the Bulls won again, even after spotting Louisville a dangerous 2-1 series lead.
And if you want to try to compare managers—just about the only constants for three straight years in Durham and Louisville—it looks more or less like a wash. Charlie Montoyo and Rick Sweet are both highly successful Triple-A skippers, yet they differ widely in approach and attitude, and to some degree they are uniquely suited to work for their respective organizations. Sweet, a much more demonstrative type, works very well with the variable stream of very young, unmolded players the Cincinnati Reds often send him (a bit more on that later). Sweet clearly works hard to help shape and mature his charges, and his persona—at least the one he presents to reporters—is engaging, outgoing, expressive and opinionated.
Montoyo, on the other hand, is a comparatively reserved leader, but the Rays don't need him to do Sweet's type of heavy-sculpting work. Tampa generally likes to draft maturer players—lots of college kids—and then to team them with productive and self-motivating upper-level veterans (plenty of what are known as "Four-A" players, not quite good enough to stick in the bigs but usually at the top of the minors). Perhaps as a partial result of the care with which the Rays populate their farm—and also because the Rays, like many small-market teams, have to develop very good young players in order to compete with the free-agent-laden Yankees, Red Sox, etc.—Montoyo seems to be under greater pressure to win than does Sweet, who, while clearly disappointed, seemed philosophical and almost relieved after his team's season-ending loss on Sunday.
So you can't compare too much. Montoyo and Sweet both made tactical pitching changes; some worked, brilliantly, and others failed, badly. The hard-fought series went five games, for the second straight season; and for the second straight season, the Bulls won. But it isn't a trend. As Tom Stoppard argued in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, just because a coin flip comes up heads 92 times, doesn't mean it's any likelier to do so the 93rd. If these teams meet again in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, a Bulls win will be no more probable than it was when they beat Louisville in 2008, 2009 and 2010. And 2003. And 1998. Hmmm...
Plenty more—including, I promise, details of the game itself—after the jump.
Why lead this report with the managers of these teams, and not the players who took the field and achieved the final result? Because it's the managers who create the work environment for their clubs, and what we saw last night was not only the work that was done but how and in what spirit. Louisville's energy is sparkier, more prone to temper and to mood swings. They complained about the strike zone more often—Todd Frazier was still doing it with one out in the ninth inning, when the game was pretty much over. (Frazier also, according to a couple of Bulls, popped off some taunting words to Durham starter Alex Cobb during his home-run trot in the Bats' 2-1 win on Friday. He paid for it; see below.) Zack Cozart was ejected for arguing balls and strikes in Game Three. Dave Sappelt waggled his bat a lot, stylish and showy at the plate. Louisville had more attitude; they were tighter, fierier, more keyed up. They swung at more pitches, many of them out of the strike zone. When they connected, the sound reverberated and the ball went hard and far on a line somewhere. When they connected they could shut you up; when they didn't, it shut them up.
The Bulls were looser, wilier, more patient. They took pitches. They were canny about stealing bases. They hit the ball the other way. Their pitchers got Louisville's aggressive hitters to chase balls out of the strike zone. That is not to say that the Bulls were detached or aloof—they weren't—but that they went about their work more methodically, more evenly, more rhythmically. They were confident rather than cocky, and there is a big, big difference between the two. The family nature of this web site prevents (or anyway dissuades) me from narrating a scene from the movie Colors—a scene about bulls, in fact—that perfectly encapsulates what I'm getting at. You are strongly, strongly encouraged, with a parent's permission, to watch this clip, however.
Take, for example, Durham starter Bobby Livingston, a 28-year-old Triple-A veteran with a couple of major-league tours under his belt. Livingston avowed that had been nervous the previous night and was up until the wee hours of the morning with some butterflies. Nonetheless, he knew what he wanted to do against Louisville, for whom he pitched in 2007 and 2008. (He was very complimentary of Bats' pitching coach Ted Powers.) Livingston got to the ballpark early on Sunday and took some time to calm himself down, telling himself to "do what I do; don't try to throw harder." He was familiar with many of the Bats' hitters, including the dangerous Wladimir Balentien, a former teammate in Seattle. The soft-throwing Livingston, whose pitches top out at about 85 mph, was well aware that Louisville's lineup would be up there swinging, and so he quickly set to work establishing his sinker away, also using his changeup a good deal and adding what he called a backdoor cut-fastball as well. Sure enough, the Bats swung at 40 of Livingston's 73 pitches, and didn't draw a single walk against him or the Bulls' relievers. In the final three games at the DBAP, the Bulls drew 16 walks against Louisville's pitchers; the Bats drew just three against Durham's. That isn't entirely because the Bulls staff throws more strikes; it mostly reflects the hitters' approach and relative discipline.
Meanwhile, the Bulls were patient against Louisville's starter, 24-year-old Jeremy Horst, swinging at just 20 of his 69 pitches. Where Livingston went to only two three-ball counts in five innings, Horst had that many after his first two batters, and six in just four innings. Two of the four men he walked came around to score—the difference in the game. Horst had walked just 18 batters in the entire regular season (three intentionally), covering 72 innings, four times fewer than he did last night. Whether he was nervous, lacked a game plan against the Bulls, or simply struggled with his command, the fact is that he had trouble doing the most essential part of his work: throwing strikes. It was only, perhaps, due to the Bulls' excessive patience that Horst managed to keep the game close. Durham had only one hit off of him, perhaps not swinging enough—and, to his credit, he got stronger after the second inning, retiring the last six men he faced. But by then he had reached his modest pitch limit—he is a reliever by trade (in other words, not even suited for the work he was being asked to do)—and left after four innings, having allowed just two runs, both unearned, despite his control problems.
Those two runs scored on another basic work mistake, this one by Lightning-Rod Todd (Frazier), who had hit a pair of homers on consecutive nights at the DBAP and seemed at all times a-rarin' to go. With two outs in the second inning, the Bulls had runners at first and second—both Joe Dillon and Nevin Ashley had walked. Fernando Perez lined the first pitch he saw from Horst into left field for a base hit, but it bounded quickly toward Frazier out there, and Charlie Montoyo put up the stop sign at third base for Dillon, who doesn't run well. Meanwhile, Frazier charged the ball aggressively in order to throw home if necessary, and he made a little-league mistake: He looked up to see where the runners were, taking his eye off the ball momentarily, and it rolled right under his glove and all the way to the wall, scoring two runs: karma, if you like, for Frazier's alleged mouthing off to Cobb on Friday.
I suggested in my series preview that plays in the field—errors, throws to the wrong base, etc.—would play a key role in deciding who won, partly because some stats rank Durham and Louisville 1-2 in fielding in the International League, and so the margin for error(s) between them was quite small. After Frazier's goof on Sunday and Devin Mesoraco's costly catcher's interferences on Saturday, it seemed that it was Louisville who would ultimately be on the red side of the fielding ledger. But Bobby Livingston, though he wasn't charged with an error, made a damaging mistake of his own to help reduce the balance—to even it temporarily, in fact.
In the fifth inning, now protecting his Frazier-given 2-0 lead, Livingston seemed to be losing his crispness. He had cruised through the first four frames on just 50 pitches, allowing only a single to Zack Cozart and striking out four batters, an uncharacteristically high total for him. But he didn't throw a single first-pitch strike in the fifth inning, and was ahead in the count against only one of the six batters he faced. Perhaps the Bats were adjusting their approach against Livingston. Michael Griffin singled with one out, and he advanced to second when Leslie Anderson mishandled the hit in left field—the Bulls' first error since Alex Cobb's errant throw midway through Game Three, 17 innings prior. Eric Eymann followed with another sharp single, moving Griffin to third base.
The next batter was a slow-running catcher, Wilkin Castillo, and he had already hit into one groundout against Livingston. A double play was in order, if Livingston could get another ground ball from Castillo. Livingston fell behind, 2-0, but then sure enough Castillo hit a sharp comebacker to the mound and Livingston snared it, the first step in an easy, inning-ending 1-6-3 double play.
Except that Livingston froze, distracted (he said) by Griffin, who started scampering home from third base, right in Livingston's line of sight. Livingston should have ignored Griffin, but imagine that you see a delicious looking chocolate dessert right in front of you. The last thing you want to do in that situation is reach to the counter behind you and start eating your chipped beef and vegetables.
But getting ready for work means eating right, and Livingston later told me that he had failed to do something that pitchers almost automatically do whenever a double play is possible (and especially when they really need a double play): He had not checked with second baseman J. J. Furmaniak to make sure that Furmaniak would be covering second base, as the second baseman traditionally does when the batter is right-handed. Livingston didn't really have to verify with Furmaniak—a well-practiced protocol was already in place—but because he had not planted the double-play seed in his own head; had not, essentially, pre-visioned it for himself by making eye contact or talking to his second baseman: because he had not prepared for his work properly, Livingston didn't do his work properly: He decided to go after Griffin between third and home. "That's my fault," Livingston later told me, gamely owning up to it before I even finished my question about the play.
The rundown Livingston initiated was a success, and Griffin was tagged out for the second out of the inning. But the two other runners, Castillo and Eymann, advanced to second and third base, respectively, putting themselves in scoring position.
Then, with the count 2-1 against the next batter, ninth-place hitter Kris Negron belted an opposite-field double to right-center field; and just like that the game, which had seemed nowhere near as close as the 2-0 score, was tied.
Charlie Montoyo often talks about which team has the momentum; and although I spent a fair amount of time and words last season expressing skepticism that baseball, which is episodic and repetitive, even has momentum, Sunday's fifth inning evinced some probability that there is—but that it may take more than one event to affect it.
To wit: The game, now tied, seemed to be tilting toward the Bats. The Bulls failed to do enough damage to the inefficient gift-Horst, and now Micah Owings, a major-league veteran, was on the mound in Horst's place.
And so "Furmy," as Livingston later called his second baseman, essentially accepted his pitcher's apology for failing to check in with him—and then some. Here's how: With one out, Furmaniak got ahead of Owings, 3-1, taking a couple of close pitches, and then drilled the fifth one to deep right-centerfield. It didn't look to have home-run distance on it; in fact, I thought it would be caught well short of the wall. But center fielder Dave Sappelt, after first racing back, slowed to a trot, and the ball surprised us by just clearing the fence. The wind was blowing out that way, but a homer is a homer, and the Bulls had a 3-2 lead.
Furmaniak wound up batting .412 in the series, with a triple, a homer and five walks. He reached base in 12 of his 22 plate appearances: shades of the Bulls' 2009 post-season second baseman, Sean Rodriguez, who reached in 11 of 21 appearances against Louisville, a major reason why the Bulls squeaked past the Bats on their way to winning the Governors' Cup championship.
Furmaniak's game-untying home run was all well and good, but the Bulls had already lost a two-run lead. This is where Charlie Montoyo capitalized on Furmaniak's momentum-shifter and pushed it further in the Bulls' direction: He lifted Livingston from the game after just 73 pitches, and brought in Joe Bateman.
Bateman pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing just one (infield) hit and hitting one batter. He struck out two. By the time he left, 37 pitches later, it was the eighth inning, there were two outs, and the Bulls were still leading, 3-2. The sun had almost risen on the Bats, but they clung to one more little vampire of hope in their cave: Kris Negron, the hit batsman, was on second base, the potential tying run. Danny Dorn, who has hit the Bulls well over the last couple of years, stepped up, a lefty versus the incoming righty, Winston Abreu.
We were speculating that Montoyo might just as well have let Bateman finish the inning. Despite hitting Negron, Bateman's command was good and he didn't appear to be tiring. Someone even predicted that Montoyo's choice to go to the tried-and-true Abreu was a bit of a panic move—of the sort that managers make when they trust their habits more than their instincts—that was liable to backfire.
On the other hand, it's easier for a lefty to pick up the sidearming Bateman's release point than the overhanding Abreu's (plus, Abreu is a bit windmilling with his delivery, making it harder to track); and Dorn had already faced Bateman a couple of innings earlier, and may have felt more comfortable this time. So there was some reasoning behind the move—or reasoning could be manufactured, anyway.
But when a very close pitch was called a ball by umpire David Rackley, bringing the count to a nervous 2-2, the second-guessing started up again.
So Abreu quieted it by blowing a 95-mph heater right by the swinging Dorn, and the top of the eighth inning was over.
Bateman and Abreu have, all season long—and arguably last year, as well—been the indispensable workhorses of the Durham bullpen. What Montoyo did yesterday was call on his most trusted employees when it mattered most. He did not try to extend Livingston into the sixth inning. He did not turn to Darin Downs to bridge the middle frames, even though Downs has pitched well. He did not attempt to ask more from the soft-tossing R. J. Swindle, who deals with a chronically balky oblique muscle and had just thrown 2 1/3 excellent innings on Friday. No, Montoyo called in his musclemen, his best shots, his closers—and they rewarded him. All year long, Montoyo's bullpen has been superb—the relievers posted a season ERA of just 2.86—and he went back to them all series long. The bullpen allowed just three runs in 19 2/3 innings against Louisville. That's a 1.37 ERA. Say what you will about the powerful hitters—some of the best of them are gone. Dredge up the old adage that starting pitching gets you to the post-season: The Bulls have lost their entire rotation to injuries and callups, and have had precious few starters last past the sixth inning this season. The Durham pitching staff is its bullpen, simple as that. And that bullpen is anchored by two pitchers.
Charlie Montoyo after the game: "Thank god for Bateman and Abreu." 'Nuff said, I think.
The Bulls added a salutary insurance run in the last of the eighth inning. With two outs, Leslie Anderson doubled to right-center field off of lefty screwballer Daniel Ray Herrera. That brought up Angel Chavez, who later told me that the double he belted on Saturday was actually a homer: It hit the Triangle Orthopedics sign beyond the wall and bounced back onto the field; according to Chavez, the umps later apologized to him for botching the call.
I bring that up because it was good to see the third corporation of men at work on the diamond, the umpiring crew, do a good thing on Sunday, and not only because it benefited your Bulls. Leading off the fourth inning against Livingston, Zack Cozart hit a hard, sinking line drive to left-center field, and Justin Ruggiano made a very good sliding backhand catch just inches from the ground.
But it was ruled a trap by one of the umpires, and Cozart was awarded a double. That brought immediate protest from the Bulls, even Chris Richard, the most mild-mannered of ballplayers. Charlie Montoyo emerged from the dugout, too. The ump who had ruled it a hit—I think it was Fran Burke—must have acknowledged to his colleagues that he had not had a clean look at the play (as we watched replays in the press box, it was clear that Ruggiano had made the catch), and so the crew confabbed. After a minute or so, they reversed the ruling and Cozart was called out. He and Rick Sweet protested, but the call was the correct one, and the umps are to be commended for having the rectitude and deliberation to ensure that it was made.
It was also a little recompense for Chavez, who had been swindled of his home run the previous day. On Sunday, he said, the Louisville pitchers refused to throw him fastballs, perhaps because of his Saturday drive to left-center field; and so he went to the plate looking for something soft and on the outside part of the plate from Herrera to poke into the opposite field. Sure enough, he got it and did just that, dropping a tailing liner just inside the right-field foul line to score Rashad Eldridge, who had come in as a pinch runner for Anderson. It was another mature, workmanlike effort: not a flashy homer or pull-hitter's Blue Monster special; just a piece of everyday, hit-'em-where-they-ain't, (and where it's pitched) production-line output from a veteran third baseman who happens also to make nearly every play he can get to in the field.
And after Abreu retired the Bats in order in the ninth—the final out was caught, fittingly, by J. J. Furmaniak, who had broken the tie—and champagne was sprayed about in front of the home dugout, the music we heard in the clubhouse, where the soundtrack of choice is usually techno beat or Fernando Perez's beloved LCD Soundsystem, was the 1980s pop hit "Down Under." That's by Men at Work, of course.
I had a longish and chewy postmortem with Louisville manager Rick Sweet after the game. He surveyed his team's season-long labor to emerge from its early struggle, and the maturation of his very, very young roster of talented but raw prospects as they seasoned themselves for the majors. Sweet ended that narrative with the ironic fillip that, as soon as Yonder Alonso, Juan Francisco, Travis Wood, Chris Valaika, Aroldis Chapman et al evinced sufficient signs of growth, they were all called up to the majors—flushing Sweet's roster anew with a fresh batch of Double-A youngsters for him to start polishing, which he and his coaching staff had just begun to do when the playoffs started. And although Sweet acknowledged—and embraces—that that shepherding of green talent is precisely his job, he called 2010 "by far the most stressful year I've ever had." His team was nine games under .500 and 13 games out of first place in early July, when Louisville was playing its regular-season series at the DBAP). At that low point, he said, "I made a total turnaround of how I usually approach this level [Triple-A]. I told my coaching staff. I said, 'We're going back to [Class] A-ball. Simply treated [the players] like they were in A-ball, and if they were gonna play that way, I was gonna treat 'em that way. I refused to lose. They had to learn. The way we were playing"—and, Sweet added, behaving off the field—"was unacceptable."
It must have been indescribably gratifying, then, for Sweet to preside over his team for the next several weeks. All of the friction and overheating of the early season led his team to catch fire, suddenly, right after the series in Durham concluded in early July: Louisville went an astonishing 32-6 from then into mid-August, and on the very last day of the season—decimated again by September callups, even more so than Sweet had been led to expect—the Bats beat Indianapolis to win the West Division. Sunday's season-ending loss to the Bulls, despite the apparent three-year "curse," barely even registers as a disappointment, comparatively. The Bats became the team they could have been but weren't for half the year, and they won another division title against long odds. Sweet, who is in his seventh year as the Bats' skipper (and fifth among active Triple-A managers with 1,515 career wins), has not been offered a 2011 contract by Cincinnati yet. Here's hoping he gets it, or a job in the big leagues.
Sweet did a good job framing his 2010 sob story so that it didn't seem like he was complaining about the youth of his team or its ravaging late-season roster overhaul, but I did notice that his tale of woe was far from unique. He mentioned at one point that he finished his season without a single one of the five starting pitchers with which he began it. You know who else could say the same thing? Charlie Montoyo. In fact, Montoyo even lost three of the guys who replaced three of the guys he lost. By season's end, his rotation comprised—and will comprise in the next round—one last-man-in-the-bullpen candidate (Richard De Los Santos, who improbably became the staff ace); one unexpected Double-A callup who kept losing his starting role due to inconsistency (Aneury Rodriguez); a 28-year-old journeyman with his third team this season alone (Livingston); a Double-A reliever who throws only two pitches, and who in two seasons hasn't done enough to convince the Rays that he even belongs in Triple-A (Paul Phillips); and a kid three weeks shy of his 23rd birthday who was called up from Class AA less than a week ago and made his Class AAA debut in Game Three of the playoffs, on Friday night. The thing about the men at work in Triple-A is that the employees are constantly changing—yet you're somehow supposed to keep achieving the same winning results. Credit Montoyo with doing that yet again in 2010. His Bulls have made the playoffs in all four years under his watch.
But will the directory change some more before it all ends? I speculated yesterday that the Rays might promote Jake McGee and/or Elliot Johnson to the big leagues at the end of the Louisville series. With the Bulls' win, that may now be less likely to happen—Tampa values winners at all organizational levels, and they could decide to let McGee and Johnson stay with the Bulls and help them try to win the Governors' Cup. But if infielder Drew Anderson and reliever Dane De La Rosa, late of the Montgomery Biscuits and tagging along with the Bulls as understudies for now, wind up on the stage against Columbus, it will come as no big surprise; and if more roster changes are indeed made, Charlie Montoyo will probably say what he said at the end of last night's postgame interview session, as he contemplated another long bus ride, another tough series, another five games played deep into the dusk of the Triple-A season. He said, "Here we go again."
Then his phone rang. It was his wife, calling to congratulate her man at work, so we let him answer it.
I'll be back on Tuesday with a championship series preview.