by Adam Sobsey
That created a rematch with the Bulls' Alexander Torres, who beat Wilson 6-1 in Indianapolis on May 1. Wilson is the No. 15 prospect in Baseball America's ranking of Pirates farmhands, but their endorsement doesn't exactly ring from the rooftops. It concludes with this dismissal: "The Pirates might send him back to [Class AA] Altoona [to start 2011] to work on his command, rather than have him get beat up by Triple-A hitters." Hey, wow, let's not get too enthusiastic here, guys.
Or maybe let's do. Wilson allowed three runs on seven hits and three walks in six innings when the Bulls beat him in Indianapolis. But through six innings at the DBAP last night, the left-hander Wilson had allowed... let's see here, I'll check... oh, my god!—ZERO hits! Could we possibly be witnessing...?
No. Five walks. Doesn't throw hard enough to offset iffy control. "Effectively wild," though, in any case? Hard to say. He looked good enough, but there was nothing about his stuff that seemed to equate to a special night. "I thought he took full advantage of a big [strike] zone, and I thought he made great pitches," the Bulls' Chris Carter said after what had begun as a potentially historic pitching performance turned into a 9-6 Indianapolis win. "There was nothing good to hit," Carter added, like a man invited to large buffet but disappointed in all the food, and going home hungry. It was the third straight night that the Bulls lineup, now looking like they're pressing as a team, could do nothing against an Indianapolis starter. In a weird way, the change of scenery they'll get starting today, when they go up to play four games in Syracuse, might do them some good.
At one point, someone in the Press Box wondered if the Bulls would get anything going on this leaden, chilly night (a strong rainstorm blew through the area at around 5:30 p.m., delaying the game by a few minutes and leaving the air unseasonably clammy). "Not until they get Indy's starter out of there," was the reply. J. J. Furmaniak broke up Wilson's no-hit bid with a two-out single in the seventh. After Wilson completed the inning by getting Robinson Chirinos to ground into a double play, Wilson was lifted with a 4-0 lead. He'd thrown 98 pitches, 59 for strikes. Of his first 78 pitches, only 42 were strikes. He seemed to have gotten better as the night went on.
And then Indianapolis scored five runs in the top of the eighth inning, four of them unearned courtesy of a careless error by shortstop Ray Olmedo. That made it 9-0, and ended the game.
Well, it ended the first game.
The second game—and more about the first one—and about games to come, in a way—after the jump.
With Justin Wilson gone, the Bulls went to town against two Indianapolis relievers. Figuring that there must be something special about lefties named Justin, I guess, manager Dean Treanor replaced him with another one, this one with the last name Thomas.
But this was not the same Justin. With one out in the eighth inning, Desmond Jennings doubled of Thomas. After a passed ball, another Justin (Ruggiano) doubled. That tied Ruggiano with Chris Richard for the Bulls' career Triple-A doubles record, one he'd probably rather not hold. Jennings scored. Shutout averted. Ruggiano advanced to third on a fly-out by Omar Luna. Then another passed ball, on a pitch in the dirt, and Ruggiano scored. Felipe Lopez doubled. Chris Carter singled to right. Lopez scored. 9-3. Treanor closed the Justin case (and the left-handed book) and brought in righty Blaine Boyer, who has spent most of the last few years in the majors, including a pretty good 72-appearance 2008 with Atlanta. Yet the Pirates are his fourth organization since then, and it's tempting to speculate that he's a) got notable flaws or b) dealing with some injury issues, maybe? Pittsburgh just claimed him off waivers from the Mets a few weeks ago. In 2 2/3 prior Triple-A innings, he had a 23.62 ERA. (You read the number right.) Eight hits, five walks.
Boyer, however, struck out Russ Canzler with high heat—he throws 95 mph—but not until after throwing two wild pitches that advanced Carter to third base. That ended the inning, and he began the ninth inning with another strikeout (more high heat to Furmaniak). But then Robinson Chirinos singled, Ray Olmedo doubled off the Blue Monster, an opposite-field poke, and Desmond Jennings hit Boyer's next pitch over the Blue Monster for a three-run homer. 9-6. Boyer then nearly hit Justin Ruggiano with an errant fastball before walking him.
One more baserunner, and the tying run would, amazingly, come to the plate. Charlie Montoyo sent Leslie Anderson in to pinch hit for Luna. Dean Treanor was like, Oh, Boyer, and replaced him with Tim Wood, whose first pitch Anderson hit about 385 feet. Unfortunately, he hit it to almost straightaway center field, and got under it a little: it was caught for the second out. Felipe Lopez lined out to left to end the game. Oh, well. A 6-2 homestand against two bad teams—the Bulls will take it. By the time this game story publishes at 6:00 a.m., they will be in the airport waiting for a flight to Syracuse. Here's betting that a fair number of Bulls didn't bother going to bed before the bus to the airport arrived a the team apartments at 4:30 a.m.
I have many notes. The simple ones:
* Brandon Guyer dove for a liner by Matt Hague in the fourth inning and landed funny on his shoulder (also, he didn't catch it—it became a triple). He came out of the game an inning later, and the shoulder was on ice after the game. It's a strain, he thinks, probably nothing serious, but he wanted to take precautions: Guyer dislocated that same shoulder in 2007, just before the draft, and he jammed it again last year diving into second base. Something to keep an eye on. Omar Luna came in and played left field for the 21st time in his infielding career (I guess Leslie Anderson, who would later pinch hit for Luna, was supposed to have the night off).
* Charlie Montoyo told us that Dirk Hayhurst threw off a mound on Thursday and reported no pain. The Rays are almost pathologically cautious with their players' injuries (cf. Chris Bootcheck's extra-long stay on the disabled list after he whacked his forehead on a water pipe), so there's no telling when Hayhurst will actually pitch again. "Check his blog," Montoyo quipped. (That was a joke—I mean, do check Hayhurst's blog, because it's entertaining and thoughtful, but not for official news about his return.)
* R. J. Swindle [gave up that home run—bummer!—and then] threw what I believe was his very first curveball of the season! The 53-mph tumbler looked good, and Andrew Lambo foul-tipped it. He struck out on the next pitch. Swindle has allowed six home runs in 14 innings so far this season. It seems like he's still far away from finding a consistent feel for his bread-and-butter pitch, a low-70s slider that he throws more than half the time—although it seems to me that he's actually throwing his fastball more often this season than he did last year. If I'm not mistaken, that's the pitch I see him get beat on, a modest 81-82 mph pitch that isn't surprising opposing hitters, because the slider isn't setting it up. He also has allowed six walks, with just nine strikeouts. For his career (459 minor-league innings pitched), he has averaged a strikeout per inning and has a K/BB ratio of better than 5:1. So it isn't just the homers that are the problem.
* Both Syracuse and Indianapolis deployed an infield shift against Chris Carter during the homestand, with the shortstop almost even with second base and the third baseman ranged over toward the shortstop hole. The shift netted good results: Carter hit only one grounder to the left side of the infield in the six games I saw during the homestand, and what would have been a single up the middle turned into a force-out against Syracuse on Saturday.
I asked Carter about the shift. He said that in his first game in the big leagues—against the Tampa Bay Rays, as it happens, when Carter was with the Red Sox—Tampa used the exact same shift. In his second major-league at-bat, he singled past the spot where the third baseman would have been playing in a conventional alignment. Since that at-bat on that day—June 5, 2008—Carter said he's seen no shift, until this homestand. He didn't know why Syracuse and Indianapolis used it these last eight days, adding that Indianapolis didn't try it when the Bulls visited the Indians just last week. That leads to speculation that Syracuse (re-)started it, and either talked to Indianapolis or the Indians just happened to get wind of its success. Carter wondered if they might be doing it just to get in his head: to get him to try to hit the ball to the left side, thus taking away his pull-hitting power. It's true that his fly balls to left field tend to be harmless cans of corn. The Carter shift will be interesting to track as the season as the season goes on.
(n.b. In that June 5, 2008 game that marked Carter's big-league debut against Tampa Bay, the Rays' right fielder, batting ninth, was 26-year-old Justin Ruggiano. He went 2-4 with a pair of singles.)
* Don't blame J. P. Howell—not much, anyway—for what might appear to be a poor outing. Howell, whose fastball touched 87 mph last night, a notch up from Wednesday, struck out Lambo looking to start the inning, throwing him four consecutive (but not straight) fastballs and then freezing him with his nasty curve. Chase D'Arnaud then blooped a single to shallow center field on a curveball (I think). Howell got Corey Wimberly to hit what should have been an inning-ending double-play grounder to shortstop, but Ray Olmedo fumbled it. By the time he grabbed it and flipped the ball hopefully to Furmaniak at second base, D'Arnaud was already sliding in safely—and Furmaniak dropped the ball, anyway. Pedro Ciriaco popped out on another breaking ball for the second out, and then Alex Presley grounded a ball toward the middle that Furmaniak gloved, but had no chance to get an out. Bases loaded.
Howell then got another weak grounder to the right side that ought to have ended the inning—again—but (and here's where Howell hurt himself) he had fallen way off to the third base side of the mound on his follow-through after his delivery, facing the Indians' dugout, and didn't immediately see where the ball was going. As soon as he realized he needed to be covering first base, Howell sprinted hard for it. Russ Canzler made a good leading toss, and Howell gloved it at a gallop and slid into first. He tried to clip the bag with his foot as he slid by, with John Bowker arriving at a sprint simultaneously. But Howell just missed the base, and Bowker—Howell's old high-school adversary—was safe. Meanwhile, two speedy Indians sprinted home. 6-0.
Had the score stayed there, the Bulls' ensuing six runs would have tied the game. But because of the error by Olmedo and the infield singles (plus, Bowker battled Howell through a seven-pitch at-bat, in which Howell fell behind 2-0, threw a curveball for a called strike, and then pushed to 2-2 plus two foul balls), Howell had reached his 25-pitch limit. Swindle came in to relieve, gave up a three-run homer to Matt Hague, and made the Bulls' half-dozen into nothing more than a moral victory that cut into what little sleep they might have squeezed in until this morning's flight to Syracuse, where Howell will pitch on Monday before a decision is made about his next step with the Rays.
More difficult news: Richard De Los Santos, as I have feared for a while now, is not going pitch again this season. He was removed from his second start after just two innings, with shoulder soreness, and went on the disabled list. He hasn't suited up since. He will see a doctor soon for a full diagnosis (frankly, I'm surprised he hasn't done so yet). De Los Santos has had a long history of arm trouble, and last year threw far more innings (148+) than he had in any of his previous eight pro seasons (he logged 87 in 2007, 15 of them as a Bull). De Los Santos had a wonderful year in 2010, leading the league in wins and anchoring the starting rotation—Jeremy Hellickson made trips to the majors, and De Los Santos stepped up in his place. But he also wore down at the end of the year, clearly the victim of arm fatigue. He is such a friendly and amiably soft-spoken guy that, if this is the end of his career (it almost certainly is as a Bull), that is unspeakably depressing. There is a high proportion of cocky, unpleasant and slime-covered jerks in the world of sports—a recent Tampa Bay Ray was just revealed to be even worse than anyone probably suspected—that one can't help rooting for good guys like De Los Santos. Regardless of his next direction, we wish him a return to form and hope to see him burying that two-seamer down in the zone, from a pitching mound somewhere, soon enough again.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about how the minor leagues is like post-secondary education: undergrad and grad. It sets up nicely: Class A, which is the end of the line for most players (I'm fairly sure that the majority of pro ballplayers never make it past that level), is like college—lots of people go to college, but most of them end their formal education there. They don't have what it takes (or they have other interests) to advance to the really professional level, Double-A, which is essentially the Masters program of baseball. It's generally held that Class AA represents the big jump up in seriousness, competitiveness and, well, mastery. (It's the lowest level where it's not that uncommon to find third-year players, still toiling; it's like the first rung of truly respectable baseball.) If you can make it to Double-A, you've shown at least a flash, a promise of being a potential big-league-worthy player, and Double-A is where you labor to make something of that potential. As Brandon Guyer put it last night, "I became a much smarter hitter" in Double-A last season; "I started to trust my hands"—there's that sense of coming into one's own, believing in and relying on one's natural aptitude and gifts, and dedicating oneself to exercising them: spreading one's wings.
It is in fact still fairly common for teams to call Double-A players straight up to the majors, skipping them right over Triple-A (it's virtually unheard of from the Class A level). What does that make Class AAA, then? To carry the analogy to its proper conclusion, Class AAA, just below the majors, is the Ph.D program of baseball training. Sure, there is the occasional superstar-in-waiting who basically skips it—an Evan Longoria, a David Price—but for most players, Triple-A is that last program you attend in order to to become not just a "smarter" player, as Guyer did in Double-A, but to apply that mounting intelligence and prove your readiness for the highest level. It also is where your future big-league role is made clear. Are you a starter or, finally, a reliever (like Jake McGee found out)? What fourth pitch can you add to complete your repertoire? Are you a shortstop, like B. J. Upton tried to be in Durham, or should you be converted into an outfielder? Or maybe, like Ben Zobrist (and Elliot Johnson), you become both—a utility player. Just as in Ph.D programs, Triple-A is where you specialize—where you turn into you.
Comparing the two Alexes, Cobb and Torres, who started consecutive games to conclude the Bulls' homestand, had me thinking about the graduate school notion again. Cobb and Torres are just about the same age, born almost exactly two months apart in 1987. Torres is the more highly-regarded prospect (Baseball America's No. 6 in the Rays' farm system; Cobb is No. 16), but Cobb is by far the more complete pitcher right now, the one who most closely resembles who he'll be in the big leagues. When the Rays needed one of them to make a substitute
teaching starting appearance in the major-league academy, it was Cobb they summoned, and it is very obvious why. Watch Cobb pitch, and you see a student in the ultimate stages of refinement, editing, clarification and proofing—he is very close to the final defense of the dissertation-of-self that will earn him his major-league degree.
Torres, on the other hand, is still raw and unfocused. From at-bat to at-bat, he can be either convincing or callow. He breezed through a two-strikeout first inning on Thursday with just 12 pitches, but gave up two hits and walk in the second, leading to a run, throwing only about half his pitches for strikes (11 of 20). There was another walk in a mostly painless third inning, but two more hits and a third walk in a two-run fourth, Torres's control still shaky. In that inning, he threw Dusty Brown a 2-0 fastball just outside for ball three, and looked frustrated—at the umpire, yes, probably also at himself a little. That frustration may have led to ball four, which followed hard on ball three.
Torres pitched around a fielding misjudgment (not officially an error, just an unwise decision) by first baseman Russ Canzler in the fifth that put runners on the corners with no outs—it was as if he rose more fully to the challenge when the challenge was externally posed. That's why I'm not sure he isn't destined for the bullpen, someday; I bet he could do well putting out late-inning fires with his lefty fastballs and often impressive changeup. Torres got out of that inning unscored-on, but in the sixth he issued two more walks and another run, and yielded to Ryan Reid without completing the frame. (Reid prevented further damage.) His five walks were a regression from the improvement of his previous start, when he walked just two and struck out eight in six shutout innings. Torres is a work in progress, his dissertation still in the research phase. He will eventually complete it, I think, but what it will argue and prove him to be remains unclear.
Class AAA is, like doctoral study, a grind, and it can be a wearying and even doubtful one, one which defeats many candidates—just ask Justin Ruggiano, in his fifth year at the Durham Bull Institute. He, at least, has seen big-league time, and by that measure has proven a great deal more—reached the ivory tower's top—than most of his peers, past and present, ever have or will. There are many, many Triple-A players who will never clear the threshold (or avoid major injury, like De Los Santos) and reach the major leagues even for a day—players like Omar Luna and, more sadly, Jon Weber; just as there are so very many Ph.D students who never finish their dissertation, that monumental and decisive project that earns them the title of Doctor—the equivalent of Major-League Baseball Player, with all the respect and rights pertaining thereto, in perpetuity throughout the Universe.
That's why, when Crash Davis, in Bull Durham, announces, "I've been to the Show" to a bus full of A-ball kids, they all crowd in, awed, to listen to him. It doesn't matter that Davis's major-league career lasted 21 days; most players who get there don't stick, not for long. There are all kinds of reasons for that: injury, distraction, loss of drive or discipline—once you've reached the majors, how hard it must be to keep striving, when there's no higher you can go. You're just competing for its own sake, or for vanity, or for money—or because you haven't a clue what else you might possibly do with the life you've been given. (It's a bit of a curse to be able to do multiple things well: how do you decide on one?) When the Indians' Blaine Boyer came out to pitch last night, I had only a dim memory of who he was, even though he has in fact pitched in more career big-league than minor-league games, and was second in appearances for the Braves in 2008. Still he was, is and always will be, a professional, a success, the full measure of himself and his potential.
So please pardon this concluding apostrophe, dear readers, to one reader in particular who, by the time the Bulls have returned from Syracuse and I write my next game report, will have been officially confirmed, capped, gowned and celebrated (we also would have accepted: scattered, smothered and covered) as a Ph.D, a Doctor of Philosophy, in perpetuity throughout the Universe, with all the rights, respect—and in this case, admiration and love, pertaining thereto. Welcome to the Show, Heather.