by Adam Sobsey
The Yankees hammered Brian Baker, pitching in place of flu-beset Alex Cobb (who said after the game that he feels much better and expects to start on Monday), for three runs on four extra-base hits in the second inning, highlighted by Brandon Laird's long home run way, way over Ye Olde Snorting Bull atop the Blue Monster. Baker retired to the first two hitters of the third inning, but then allowed consecutive singles to Terry Tiffee (just picked up two days ago by the Yankees out of independent-league ball; Tiffee was a teammate of former Bull Alvin Colina's with the Lancaster Barnstormers) and Laird. Baker had both of those hitters in 1-2 holes. One of the pitches to Laird was wild, getting past catcher Robinson Chirinos and moving Tiffee to second; he scored on Laird's single.
And then it was as if Baker decided that throwing strikes was doing him no good, because seven of the first 15 Yankees had had hits, almost all of them off of his modest fastball, which he couldn't locate properly. Baker walked the next three Yankees, forcing in a run, and then Austin Krum dropped a single into right field to score two more. It was 7-0, visitors. "I Wanna Be Sedated" could just as well have started up right then; if not that, the 7-0 skunk rule might have been invoked. We used to do it in ping-pong, which was apropos last night, since our necks kept whiplashing around as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre peppered line drives all over the park.
Or how about a good old-fashioned cry of "Mercy"?
Ryan Reid and Rob Delaney made it academic in the Yankees' five-run sixth, when seven straight men had hits. The only remaining suspense was whether second baseman Omar Luna would pitch. He did, notching a scoreless ninth inning. Unfortunately, we had to sit there all night long in order to see it.
The thing is, if I'm going to babble on a regular basis about how wonderful it is that baseball is impervious to the iron laws of time, has its own special rhythm, and shamalalala, then I have to swallow the pill that goes with all that sugar, e.g. last night's punishing game and others like it, when the outcome is pretty much
sedated settled by the third inning yet the thing will stagger on for six more, like a drunk who won't just get it over with and pass out.
There are threadbare old baseball adages that apply here—a loss is just one loss no matter the score, it's-a-marathon-not-a-sprint, get 'em tomorrow, etc.—and I'm sure at least one of them was uttered somewhere in the building afterward. But the thing to take away from this game, and what it possibly forebodes, is that some of these just-losses are going to be almost inevitable, a priori, unless changes are made. Some thoughts about that, and those unavoidable Yankees, and mercifully little about the miseries of the game, follow.
Now first things first, sportsfans: When one team smells skunky, that means the other one must be all rose petals and Richebourg. Give credit to the Yankees for being aggressive with Baker's strikes and patient with his balls. This team has been decimated by injuries and callups lately. They have the league's top two home run hitters, Justin Maxwell and Jorge Vasquez, but both are on the disabled list. (Maxwell had labrum surgery and is done for the season, just months after having off-season Tommy John surgery. Ugh.) The Yankees' front office did Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's manager, Dave Miley, a solid—which he was quick to credit them for after the game—by going to the independent Atlantic League and signing Tiffee and Mike Lamb, both big-league veterans who swing mean lefty bats (actually, Tiffee is a switch-hitter) and are looking for another shot.
(A fun note about Lamb: the 35-year-old was once a Texas Ranger, where he was stuck without a job because he played third base, a position then held down for the Rangers by Hank Blalock—well-known to Bulls fans from just last season, when he tried to make a comeback with the Rays via Durham. In the 2004 off-season, in attempt to honor the Lamb, the Rangers traded him to... the New York Yankees, and Lamb was all set to take over as New York's regular third baseman. Just weeks later, though, the Yankees made another trade with the Rangers, this one for Texas' shortstop, a guy named Alex Rodriguez. Lamb was returned to Texas, this time in a trade with the Houston Astros, with whom Lamb had four solid seasons at their hot corner. He last appeared at the DBAP in 2009, with the Buffalo Bisons, who were of course just here this week, right before the Yankees invaded.)
In addition to the swapping out of the All-Star caliber hitters Maxwell and Vasquez for two indy-league guys, the Yankees also featured as last night's leadoff hitter left fielder Austin Krum, who was called up from Class AA Trenton not that long ago. (I like to think this move was made simply to put an end to any confusion arising from Trenton having another outfielder named Raymond Kruml: Krum and Kruml). Krum came into the game hitting .210. On top of that weakness, stud catching prospect Jesus Montero, considered the heir apparent to the Yankees' Jorge Posada, is so far having only a decent year; he's been more of a Mitsubishi Montero, really. Last night, he struck out three times, and rapped himself on the helmet with his bat after the last of them.
Well, so Krum, Lamb, Montero and Tiffee contributed eight hits, two doubles and six RBI to last night's 22-hit Yankee attack. Those 22 hits represent a season high for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (they had 18 against Pawtucket on May 14) and a season high against for Durham, edging the 21 they gave up to Gwinnett in the now-infamous Paul Phillips 10-run-inning disaster.
Meanwhile, the Yankees' spot starter, Lance Pendleton—once a teammate at Rice University of former Bull (now Ray) Jeff Niemann—had more or less the angelic opposite of Baker's bedeviled night. In five innings, he allowed only one hit—a Leslie Anderson two-run homer, unfortunately for him, muddying his ERA—and struck out seven Bulls, cruising on 63 pitches, a season-high for him. (Pendleton was a career starter until 2011, however, so last night's job was quite familiar to him.)
Since there wasn't a lot to ask the Bulls after the game—"There's not really much to say," Charlie Montoyo said—we quickly decamped for the Yankees clubhouse and tracked down Pendleton, who was upbeat, as you might expect after shutting down the Bulls. It had to have helped that he was staked to a quick 7-0 lead (and that Desmond Jennings and Ray Olmedo got a day off in favor of J. J. Furmaniak and Omar Luna, who are lighter hitters), and so he could rear back and throw strikes. To my eyes, Pendleton appeared to offer a fair number of hittable fastballs up above the belt, and the Bulls simply missed them. One of the hardest things for me to solve, still, is whether pitchers who appear to have only serviceable stuff are really doing as well as their line for the night indicates, or whether the hitters' approach is poor.
(In fact, George Kontos's four-inning long-form save, blemished only by a solo homer allowed to Robinson Chirinos—still riding his wave of hot hitting—plus two harmless singles, seemed like the more dominant Yankee pitching performance. He threw lots of strikes and needed just 49 pitches to roll through four innings; in so doing, he conserved Dave Miley's rather depleted bullpen.)
It was interesting to hear Pendleton move the talk quickly to the subject of walks, which to some degree were what really undid Baker, who might have kept his team in the game had he only surrendered hits and not those three straight bases on balls. Pendleton allowed two free passes, one a four-pitch leadoff walk to Furmaniak right before Anderson's homer in the fourth inning, and zeroed in on that as his problem for the night (he had the luxury of picking apart a two-walk performance which was otherwise excellent, probably his best of the year). "You're gonna give up hits and you're gonna give up home runs," he said. "But you can't walk a guy on four pitches before that home run. That's what I'm taking from this game: yeah, I'm gonna give up hits; yeah, I'm gonna give up home runs—but I gotta stop walking guys."
That echoed a sentiment delivered by the Bulls' Heath Phillips last year. "If I lead the league [in home runs allowed], I don't have a problem with it," he declared in 2010—and he very nearly did lead the league. "I hate giving them up, but that's baseball; it's gonna happen." He added, bluntly, "I don't like walking guys"—and he seldom did.
So if pitchers hate walks so much, why do they allow them? Walking a guy is, to echo tonight's theme, bestowing mercy on him. I asked Pendleton if the problem was that he simply couldn't get the ball to go where he wanted it to, i.e. over the plate, or if he was guilty of nibbling at the corners, trying to be too fine.
Neither one, and the answer was more intriguingly murky than that: "Sometimes you get out of whack just slightly," he said. Did he mean mechanically? "Maybe not mechanically, but maybe mentally-mechanically. You might relax [for] just a second; you're cruising instead of really pounding the zone." And then he fumbled around a little more for an answer to that apparently vexing question before concluding that "if I had an answer, I'd probably have fixed it by now." Mentally-mechanically. Oh, as Mr. Zimmerman wrote, Oh Mercy. I think I'll be chewing on that one for a while, Mr. Pendleton.
Fun to talk to Tiffee briefly about the Atlantic League, whose overall quality surprised him, he said. For now I'll leave it at this: to judge from Tiffee's general summation of the non-affiliated league, the level of play appears to be somewhere between Double-A and Triple-A. As a side note, I see where ex-Bull Virgil Vasquez has been snared in the pincers of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, for whom he has made seven starts, thrown 48 2/3 innings—and allowed seven homers. Some things never change.
I suppose it only seems like a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankee gets hurt every time the team visits Durham, but it happened again last night: Brandon Laird, 3-5 with the second-inning homer off of Baker, took a big swing against Omar Luna in the ninth and tweaked his back. He came out of the game with a 2-1 count (Luis Nunez flied out in his stead). Dave Miley thought Laird would probably be able to play Saturday; that's a vast improvement over the fate of 2010 Scranton/Wilkes-Barre pitcher John VanBenschoten, who came hobbling out of a game last year (in which Brian Baker also struggled) and didn't pitch again for nearly two months.
Yesterday was Yankee shortstop Doug Bernier's 31st birthday. Bulls fans should be thankful Bernier was born, because he made the last out of Durham's Governors' Cup-clinching victory in 2009, bouncing a ball back to Julio DePaula, who ran it over to first base himself, barely beating Bernier to the bag. Send the guy a card—Happy Birthday, Thank You, Don't Get Well Soon, whatever—while he's here, willya?
Enough Yankees, although they were certainly last night's story. The Bulls are best to forget about this one and move on.
Here's the deal with your Durham Bulls, the hand that the Bulls are trying to bet with going forward and the thing to be thinking about as the main issue facing the team. I'll lay out these cards just as they fell during Charlie Montoyo's post-game interview with the media, because they told the whole story quite simply: Does Montoyo think (i.e. I asked him) that his team can compete for a spot in the playoffs with its current starting rotation, much of which is relievers and swingmen who can likely be relied on to be unreliable? First he tried this: "We're going to compete with what we've got." Then he added, "Those are good questions, but you'll get me in trouble." He wasn't so much bluffing as hoping not to be called.
In other words—or rather, word—no. Two of the Tampa Bay Rays' Baseball Operations guys, Director of Pro Scouting Matthew Arnold ("the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new, / Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor"—sorry, never mind, here), and Assistant Director of Minor League Operations Chaim Bloom, have been at the DBAP the last couple of nights and are here through the weekend. They're watching the same games we are. the same Cormier, Baker and Candlestick Maker. By the time they leave after Sunday's game, maybe they, like the Yankees, will have had mercy on their Triple-A affiliate and raided the Atlantic League for some aftermarket parts.
The Bulls send their most effective converted reliever to the mound tonight. Chris Bootcheck, fresh off a sterling performance against Buffalo, faces the Yankees righty Adam Warren. Warren, himself a converted a reliever, is a former University of North Carolina pitcher who last year set the Double-A Trenton Thunder franchise record for strikeouts in a game with 15. With Scranton/Wilkes-Barre teammate David Phelps on the disabled list, Warren is without question the team's best starter going (he's eighth in the league in ERA among qualifying starters), and he's been on a real tootsie roll lately. Warren has won his last three starts, tossing 23 innings, including a complete-game six-hitter against Charlotte, and has allowed just two runs in those 23 innings. Bootcheck better check his boots, and then get 'em on. Game time at the DBAP is 7:05 p.m.