by Adam Sobsey
When the Bulls hit the road about a week and a half ago for their annual trip to Ohio, we were still riding out a long, cool, wet spring in the Triangle. The Bulls have had an inordinate number of rainouts and delays this year—a whopping 11 so far, if I recall correctly, or about 20% of their games. While the Bulls got swept in Columbus and then took three of four games in Toledo (waiting out some major rain there, too), the cool weather trend more or less continued around here until last weekend. A torrential storm on Friday shut down businesses and flooded streets and delayed ACC Tournament games at the DBAP until the wee hours of the morning. Basically, the Rapture, a few days late.
Then out came the sun and dried up all the rain—and then it stayed out even after all the rain was dried up. It was about 95 degrees in Durham on Monday, Memorial Day. As someone in the Press Box put it, "Can't we just ease into summer?" No, sir, no we cannot. Not only has summer arrived, and suddenly; we've been enraptured into the very heat, the very heart of it, and it's going to stay that way all week. Ladies and gentlemen, start your air conditioners.
I bring this up because it's easy for us to forget that those guys we're watching out there, swinging and pitching and sprinting and diving, do their work right out in the weather that most of us are shielded from, be it by umbrellas or cold beers or whatever comforts are appropriate. It's not only that it was hot Monday while the Bulls and Clippers toiled and broiled. The day before that, in Toledo, it was about 25 degrees cooler, and damp, the region having weathered a game-canceling soaking on Saturday before the Bulls and Mud Hens played a doubleheader Sunday—and that, too, was delayed two hours by rain. The last pitch of Game Two, which Toledo won (barely—Ray Olmedo was out by inches at the plate in the game's final, bizarre play) to salvage the final game of the series, concluded somewhere around midnight.
This morning, about seven hours after that game ended, the Bulls had to crawl out of bed, take an hour-plus bus ride from Toledo to Detroit, and fly home from there to Raleigh-Durham Airport. They got out of RDU with their weighty luggage somewhere around 12:45 p.m., walked out into the blazing heat—a climate shock from Ohio—and then had to be at the ballpark just a few hours later in order to entertain the 6,316 fans who showed up to watch the local nine.
Here's how Tennessee Williams puts it in Suddenly, Last Summer (substitute "ballplayer" for "poet"):
That's what I meant when I said his life was his work because the work of a poet is the life of a poet and—vice versa, the life of a poet is the work of a poet, I mean you can't separate them, I mean—well, for instance, a salesman's work is one thing and his life is another—or can be. The same thing's true of—doctor, lawyer, merchant, thief!—But a poet's life is his work and his work is his life in a special sense.
Note how few ballplayers have interests outside the game. I happened to interview one yesterday, but Doug Glanville is an exception who proves the rule. And it's not only because most ballplayers have no other interests; there simply isn't time to pursue them. If you want to be a ballplayer, it seems to me, you have to live it every moment, and every moment plays into how you play. This is true, I suppose, of most athletes in all sports, but it seems to me to be more pronounced in baseball, the proverbial game of inches, which is decided in tiny bursts of episodic activity that are in fact dictated by long and complex forces. You'll have a hard time getting into a semi-mystical, trancelike "flow" that transports you to great athletic heights; you can't turn off your brain and simply try to maul a punt returner. Baseball, like poetry, requires the whole person, exposed under unforgiving light.
Or shadow. Monday's was a dreaded 5:05 p.m. game, which means we can quote Suddenly, Last Summer again: "It was all white outside," except for that ol' debbil shadow that was creeping over the grandstand at first pitch, and by the second inning was positioned evilly so that the batter's box was dimmed and the pitcher, sweating in his layers and his long pants and knickers, stood in squinting sunshine. "White hot, a blazing white hot, hot blazing white, at five o'clock in the afternoon in the city of—Cabeza de Lobo." Or, in this case, Durham.
We can also quote T. S. Eliot: "Between the motion and the act falls the shadow": there it was, the grandstand shadow, between the motion (the pitcher winding up on the mound) and the act at the plate—the hitter swinging. So when Chris Carter's second-inning act was to hit a Scott Barnes fastball just inside the right-field foul pole for a 340ish-foot solo homer, you might have wondered if that would be all the scoring we'd see for a while.
(Speaking of Barnes, and motion, the lefty has one of the weirder windups I've seen this year. He executes a full swivel so that his back is completely to the hitter before he revolves back frontward and delivers. Seemed to work just fine: he struck out nine batters in five innings, spotting his fastball beautifully and adding a good slider. There was only one hard-hit ball, Carter's homer, which wasn't exactly a bomb.)
The problem is, these are the Columbus Clippers, and the rumors are true that they know how to hit. Durham southpaw Alexander Torres, whose bugbear is walks, walks, walks (he led the Class AA Southern League in that malodorous category last season), threw strikes on Sunday—well, enough of them, anyway, 63 in 99 pitches. He fell behind hitters a little too often, and the Clippers made him work by tending to lay off the first pitch they saw from him, especially after the first inning. But overall, he was near the plate, and in fact keeping to the edges of it. Yet Columbus touched him for 11 hits in 6 2/3 innings, including a long homer by Jared Goedert.
Mostly, though, they hit singles, serving them into the shallower parts of the outfield, especially to left by lefties. Poke, poke, poke, single, single, single. As Tennessee Williams has it in Suddenly, Last Summer: "Most people's lives—what are they but trails of debris, each day more debris, more debris, long, long trails of debris with nothing to clean it up but, finally, death."
But if you left your Grim Reaper at home, you can use double plays instead. Torres got the Clippers to ground into three of them. Meanwhile, he walked no one—for the first time in any of his 10 starts so far this season (!)—and struck out five. Had it not been for a thoughtless error by that ol' debbil (Omar) Luna, on a grounder slow enough that you could see the whole unfortunate bad decision and consequent misplay coming, which it then did, Torres would probably have allowed three runs, maybe even two.
Torres, whom I spoke with for the first time this season (somehow my nights off almost always seem to be the ones when he pitches), knows that walks are a problem—he isn't blind to it, as some players can be about their weaknesses. And he said it didn't bother him that Columbus kept hitting his good pitches for singles. "I can do nothing about that," he said, equably. It was only too bad that the last of these, a bloop to shallow center by Cord Phelps with two outs in the seventh inning, forced a pitching change and kept Torres from getting the win he would have earned had he completed the frame.
Instead, R. J. Swindle threw four pitches—the last a 51-mph curveball to fan top Indians prospect Lonnie Chisenhall—and thus inherited the riches of Canzler's homer in the bottom of the seventh. "I'm not really trying to do that in that situation," Canzler said later. The count was 1-0 after a breaking ball from Hagedone missed low, there were two outs, and the Bulls were down 4-3 after a two-run sixth had clipped the Clippers' margin to one. Canzler, who had struck out twice and walked once, was just trying for a base hit, which would probably have tied the game with speedy Brandon Guyer on second base. But Hagedone left a ball out over the plate, and Canzler's blast cleared the Blue Monster in left-center field—a legit homer in any ballpark. (Brandon Guyer, exultant that over the weekend his alma mater, the University of Virginia, won both the ACC Tournament and the National Championship in lacrosse, had a homer, too, but his was a DBAP Special: a fly ball that just got over the Blue Monster in straightaway left.)
Canzler pointed out, too, that as good as Columbus is—they are now, even after the loss, 35-16, still easily the league's best team—their sweep of the Bulls in Ohio last week wasn't exactly a thrashing. There were two one-run games, a two-run game, and a three-run game. The Bulls know they can run with the Clippers. Perhaps that competitive confidence, coupled with Monday's come-from-behind win, will help the team going forward. They have three more games versus Columbus this week, before the Pawtucket Red Sox come into town.
* Desmond Jennings was getting a scheduled day off, which put infielder J. J. Furmaniak in right field. (Furmaniak has in fact played 22 career minor-league games in the outfield, out of 1100+ games in all.) After the Bulls took the lead, Jennings replaced Furmaniak to start the eighth inning. I guess there was some sort of justice, irony, or glass menagerie in Jennings's ninth-inning at-bat, when he struck a fairly well-hit liner to deep right field and Jerad Head didn't play it all that well. Either he didn't read it right or took a tentative route back toward the wall, and it ticked off his glove for a triple. Jennings, had he been out there, would have made the play.
* Dan Johnson is back, which is weird. He isn't bitter about his failure to stick in Tampa, after last year's MVP-winning season with the Bulls earned him a million-dollar big-league contract for 2011. He knows he didn't perform well, and that it started with some poor luck, as he described it, early on. "As a team, we were in a slump to start off the year." (The Rays were 1-8 after nine games.) "I was hitting the ball hard. I wasn't getting breaks. I lined out seven times in a row. I started going alright towards the end [of the Rays' slump], and then I got dotted." On April 16, Minnesota Twins reliever Matt Capps hit Johnson on the wrist with a pitch, a mild but nonetheless nagging injury from which, Johnson said, he still hasn't quite recovered. His ulnar nerve seems to have been affected, and he doesn't have full feeling in the hand, which has weird discoloration.
"It's frustrating," Johnson said. "I had just started swinging it good, and then I get hit. You can't do anything about it. That's how it worked. The guy that came up and filled in [Casey Kotchman, whose name Johnson did not use; twice he called him 'the guy'] did a pretty damn good job. Tip your cap to him." Kotchman, known as a glove-first, bat-much-later first baseman, is hitting an astounding .361 this season.
"You want what's best for the team," Johnson continued. "I'm not doing anybody any good if I'm not hitting homers and I'm not driving in runs. I need to get swinging so I can help the team. I understood everything about [the demotion]. Big boy. Take it. This is like my Spring Training all over again. I haven't had very many at-bats the last month and a half."
Still, Johnson was quick to thank Joe Maddon, the Rays' manager, for continuing, despite Johnson's struggles, to give him at-bats against lefties, a tough assignment for a left-handed hitter that Johnson nonetheless welcomed. "He didn't have to do that for me," Johnson said. (Naturally, he had to face lefty today, in a five-o'clock-shadow game. Johnson went 0-3 with a walk.)
* With Jennings out of the lineup, Furmaniak batted leadoff. I'd guess that's the first time he's done that this season, but you may recall that he led off for Durham toward the end of the regular season in 2010, after Jennings was called up to Tampa, and stayed in the pole position during the playoffs. He hit superbly in that role, especially in the post-season, and was one of the main reasons the Bulls were able, somehow, to defeat Louisville in the first round and advance to face Columbus. Furmaniak came into yesterday's game batting just .182 with a .467 OPS, numbers that wouldn't have recommended him for the extra at-bats that a leadoff hitter usually gets. I wonder, though, whether Montoyo wasn't trying to get Furmaniak jump-started by moving him back to his most recent successful place in the batting order. Sure enough, Furmaniak singled to left field in his first at-bat against Barnes, and in the course of the game launched a pair of drives foul down the left-field line that would have been homers had he timed them a millisecond better. Those fouls, plus the single, indicated that he was able to turn on the ball, something he seemed to have virtually given up on earlier in the year, when he appeared only to be trying to shoot the ball to right field most of the time. Also, although Furmaniak struck out in his next two at-bats, he saw a total of 26 pitches in his first three plate appearances. That suggests, perhaps, that he felt more comfortable in the batter's box: looking for his pitch, being patient, battling from a stance of comfort rather than sheer, mere defensiveness. Whether that had anything to do with being the leadoff hitter, whose job is to see pitches and help his teammates get a look at what the opposing pitcher is doing, I don't know. But do note that Ray Olmedo has improved his OPS by 100 points since May 7, and in the meantime has been rewarded for it by Charlie Montoyo, who moved Olmedo into the number two slot in the order after it was vacated by Justin Ruggiano (who hit his first major-league homer since 2008 yesterday—also in a blowout loss, as it happened). Maybe there's some psychological advantage that Furmaniak discovers in himself when he hits leadoff, or near leadoff. If the
poet's ballplayer's life is his work and his work is his life, then add his frame of mind, the mood imparted to him by his batting context, to the apparently non-occupational debris that is in fact central to his performance. Might as well leave him in the leadoff spot. It won't happen, of course—that's Jennings's role when he isn't getting a day off—but if Jennings is indeed called up to Tampa soonish, as has been rumored lately, or at least hoped-for in Tampa fandom, perhaps the job could become Furmaniak's again.
* Spoke briefly with Jay Buente, whom the Rays claimed off waivers from Florida right after he pitched against the Rays last week. Buente (and I) found that transaction rather strange—not just that he made a change of Sunshine State franchises, but that the Marlins waived him despite superb numbers so far this year in Triple-A: Bunete "crafted" (as the blurb-writers are wont to say) a 1.94 ERA and a 0.79 WHIP, with only one homer allowed in 41 2/3 innings and 44 strikeouts. On May 9, he tossed a complete game against the Iowa Cubs, allowing four hits and a run while striking out nine. Buente started the second game of the Bulls' Sunday doubleheader at Toledo, and although he took the loss, he threw a (six-inning) complete game, allowing just three hits. He made a poor choice to throw a curveball in a splitter count, he said, and that resulted in a game-changing triple. The Bulls' starting rotation is quite a mess, and if Buente can clear out some of the (long, long trails of) debris with solid performances every fifth day, it will make a big difference. I must say that I remain puzzled about the Marlins' choice to risk losing him, and for no apparent purpose—according to Buente, they still haven't replaced him on the roster. On the other hand, I mean—it's the Marlins.
* On the subject of starting pitchers, the Bulls don't have one lined up for Thursday, because Saturday's rainout at Toledo pushed Edgar Gonzalez's start back to Sunday; as a result, he'll have insufficient rest to pitch again in the final game of the Columbus series. Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said he doesn't know how that problem will be solved, although in a pinch Jeremy Hall, currently wearing the Hudson Valley sweatshirt, could be reinstated. Optimism that Dirk Hayhurst, rehabbing at the Rays' training complex in Port Charlotte, Fla., might return in time for Thursday, was postponed: Montoyo said that Hayhurst was to have thrown a five-inning and/or 75-pitch game on Monday, and that, if all went well, he could return to Durham as soon as Saturday. That would allow Chris Bootcheck to move back into the bullpen.
* And speaking of the bullpen, with Alex Cobb's promotion to Tampa Bay (oh—so—Alex Cobb was promoted to Tampa today—!!), the Rays have returned Brandon Gomes to Durham. Gomes pitched superbly early on for the Bulls until his callup on May 3, and the closer role he held down will be waiting for him when he gets back.
But wait—not so fast, maybe. Jake McGee pitched the ninth inning for Durham against Columbus yesterday, earning his second save, and the power lefty was dealing. His fastball touched 96 mph a couple of times, including his final pitch of the game, on (or just off) the outside corner to Cord Phelps for strike three. Throughout the inning, McGee was throwing 94-95 with great control—his final eight pitches were all strikes, and although I don't think he threw a single breaking ball, the fastball was good enough that he didn't need it. Going forward, I'd like to see McGee stay that ornery—just taser opposing hitters with the hard, hot mid-90s fastball, up, down, in, out, rather than settle for trails of 90-91 debris—and earn some nasty nickname. (Cabeza de Lobo has a nice ring to it, now that I think of it.) Kyle Farnsworth aside, which is ultimately where Kyle Farnsworth belongs, the Rays don't really have a closer, and the job is there for McGee to claim, either this season or, more likely, next. He was a starter up until late last year, when he was brought up to Durham from Montgomery and converted for big-league consideration. If McGee can change his mindset and decide he's a closer—and figure out how to control his breaking ball—he's already got the essential stuff for the job. It could be fun to see him grow into it as 2011 continues to heat up.
Which it does again tonight. You thought it was hot on Monday? We're headed up to 98 degrees here today, kids, and again tomorrow. That's close to a record high. The Bulls send Brian Baker to the mound against Columbus' Zach McAllister. It's a matchup of tall, right-handed guys: Baker's 6-foot-5, McAllister 6-foot-6. But height isn't the important stat here. McAllister leads the International League in wins. He's 7-0 with a 2.29 ERA. The last time he pitched against the Bulls was on Wednesday, September 15, 2010 in Columbus. It was Game Two of the IL Governors' Cup Championship Series, and McAllister shut out the Bulls for seven innings en route to a 4-0 Columbus victory, one which put Durham in an 0-2 series hole that, it turned out, was too deep to escape. Surely the locals would like a little revenge. That dish is best served cold, and it'll be an appropriately hot day for it.