by Adam Sobsey
It's 4-3, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, bottom of the 10th inning. Brandon Guyer is at the plate. The Bulls have a run in, cutting the deficit from 4-2 to 4-3, on an RBI single by Leslie Anderson, plating J. J. Furmaniak, who drew a one-out walk, advanced to second on a single by Omar Luna, and reached third on a fielder's choice groundout by Ray Olmedo—after Olmedo, like Guyer, took too big a hack with his first swing.
Olmedo is now the tying run on second base following Anderson's single to center. This 2-1 count is good for Guyer, who can now expect fastballs from Yankees' reliever Eric Wordekemper.
He gets one. It's 93 mph and it looks like it's outside—the best thing to do (if you insist on swinging at it) is serve it into right field for what might end up as a game-tying single. But Guyer takes another huge swing, and misses again. Two balls, two strikes.
The next pitch is also a fastball, also 93 mph, and it's high. Guyer swings for a third time, hugely—his third home-run hack of the at-bat—and misses for a third time. Game over. Yankees win, 4-3. The Bulls finish the homestand 4-4—they are 14-14 in their last 28 home games, going back to May 9—and see their division lead over Gwinnett shrink to just a single game.
Later, Guyer confesses that "I was over-aggressive." He was trying to hit a three-run homer, he acknowledges, when all he needed was a base hit to tie the game, or perhaps a double to the gap to score Anderson behind Olmedo and win it. He admits he was too pumped up by the situation: Bulls rallying, fans into it, Wordekemper showing signs of cracking.
Guyer is still sweating, 20 minutes after his last swing ended it. His well-cut mohawk suggests some still-bristling manifestation of the intensity of his final at-bat. He's got big, clear eyes that look like they're taking in life, in huge drams, every waking minute.
Guyer used to play football, a sport whose mentality is pretty much always that of the home-run swing: run to daylight; hit the hole; lay the guy out. Sometimes it's hard to let go of that attitude, to wait for your pitch and poke your opposite-field single. Leslie Anderson did it in his at-bat. Guyer didn't in his. So be it. He'll get more chances.
That's what the minor leagues offer: chances. At critical junctions last night, players got theirs—chances, in some cases, that they would never get in the major leagues—and how they handled those chances determined who won.
But who won is not really important, most of the time—it makes a certain kind of sense that, with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's win last night, these two teams are just percentage points apart, with essentially identical records: it's easy to imagine them splitting every series they might play.
No, the thrill of prospecting, which is what minor-league afición amounts to, ultimately rests not on results—whether your team wins or loses—but in effort, growth, process. That's why I often preach non-attachment when it comes to rooting for the team: non-attachment to winning (which is secondary to learning); to players (who come and go); to Governors' Cup trophies and the reason the Bulls have been so good at competing for them in recent years—that is, non-attachment to the Tampa Bay Rays, who provide the rich source of talent that makes the Bulls' sustained excellence possible. The Rays are, after all, a latecomer to the Bulls' long history; someday they, too, will be gone. And the Process will continue.
There are two independent Tampa Bay Rays blogs that stand out from the others that I know of. I mentioned one of them, DRaysbay, earlier in this homestand. The other is The Process Report. That name, a play on the more common phrase "progress report," comes (I presume) from a well-known credo of Rays manager Joe Maddon about "The Process," which he elaborates thus:
If you get really involved in the outcome all the time, you're going to miss a lot of good things. Everybody wants to win, but how do you do that? You win by performing the process properly.
W.I.N. (What's Important Now?): This goes back to "process" in the present tense. It's so easy to get caught up in the recent past in a negative way. It does you no good whatsoever.
And finally, the Process is reflected in the way he manages games:
Do Not Be a Fan: When the game's in progress, you can't be wishing and hoping that something good's going to happen. It's either gonna happen or it's not gonna happen. All this wishing and hoping like you do in the stands does you absolutely no good in the dugout. Manage the game, know what's going on. Stay two or three steps ahead of schedule.
So there is in fact a good deal of concord between the Rays' manager's approach and the approach that the wise Triple-A fan must take. That wise fan will, contra convention and even instinct, leave off "wishing and hoping that something good's going to happen." That wise fan will, in the traditional sense, not be a fan. Hard to accept, even for me, a supposedly objective reporter. I still get caught up in nerves in a close, tense game like last night's. I can't help it: I cover these players and their manager, Charlie Montoyo, all summer long, and have for three years. It's impossible for me not to care how they do on the field. I want them to succeed.
The thing is, I want the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees to succeed, too. They're part of the same process the Bulls are. I've watched Kevin Russo play for the AAA Yanks for three seasons now. Doug Bernier, Kei Igawa. Fortune favors the bold—see below—but the Process favors no one.
And that is why the game's decisive at-bat—not Guyer's final hacks, but the at-bat that in retrospect settled the game—was so appropriate. It will take a little while, require a Process, to get to it. Dig in, as though for a long at-bat which culminates in a two-run double to the gap:
The two teams had each scored two runs in the sixth inning. Bulls' starter Alex Cobb, was sharp and in command, getting a telling 46 swings on 84 pitches (61 strikes). He showed perhaps two flakes of rust after a nine-day layoff (he shed them, with no consequences, in the game's first two batters), but was victimized by his only walk of the game—a leadoff pass to Bernier in the top of the sixth—and then by a couple of painful groundball singles through the right side that could have been, under many circumstances, outs. One of them Omar Luna dove for, and it actually bounced off the top of his glove; he should have had it, I thought, although it was a tough play, and Luna thought so, too: he pounded the dirt in frustration after just missing it. The other one was Luis Nunez's chopper—keep Nunez in the back of your mind—hit right to the spot where Luna would have been standing, with the infield in, had Luna not broken for second to cover the bag because Austin Krum was trying to steal it. Instead, it bounced into right field for an RBI single.
Chance. In this case, the chance is created (by the Yankees) via another of Joe Maddon's philosophies: Fortune Favors the Bold (I prefer that phrase's antecedent, Branch Rickey's much more eloquent "luck is the residue of design"):
If you don't take chances, you become like everybody else. With the Rays, we're not in the same stratosphere as some of these other guys financially, so we had to do things differently.
Those tough-luck plays were key in helping the Yankees build a 2-0 lead. But in the bottom of that same inning, Dan Johnson—who has been battling a terrible case of warning-track power this season (he had yet another 375-foot flyout last night)—whacked a two-out, two-run double to left-center field off of Yankees starter (and Winston-Salem native) D. J. Mitchell to tie the game. Given another of the many chances he's had and will keep getting in Durham, this time Johnson capitalized.
It stayed 2-2 through the regulation nine innings, with Bulls reliever Jake McGee pitching around a potentially disastrous error by Omar Luna (about whom more, much more, later) to escape the ninth. In the bottom of the ninth, Felipe Lopez drew a two-out walk. Desmond Jennings, who has been out of the lineup two straight nights with a bothersome right wrist (he expects to play in Charlotte tonight), pinch ran and stole second base, getting a huge jump and barely beating a great throw by Scranton/Wilkes-Barre catcher Gustavo Molina. (The throw actually beat Jennings, somehow, but Jennings's head-first slide jarred the ball loose.)
With Russ Canzler coming up, Yankees manager Dave Miley replaced lefty reliever Randy Flores with the righty Wordekemper. Canzler worked the count to 3-1, but Wordekemper did a gutsy thing: he threw Canzler a curveball, and Canzler, clearly not expecting it, watched it drop in for strike two. He flied to right on the full-count pitch to send the game into extras, and the fans began the process(ional) toward the exits.
In the top of the 10th, McGee comes back out for a second inning of work. He strikes out Jordan Parraz looking at a pitch that is probably ball four—Parraz can't believe the call—but Molina singles to left and then McGee hits Bernier.
Two on, one out. McGee has thrown 29 pitches. The last time he threw that many was May 22, 13 appearances ago. Ryan Reid is warming in the bullpen and is probably ready to come in.
But remember the process: McGee needs to learn how to get through this sort of situation, one in which he's tiring. Austin Krum lines out to center field, rather hard. Two outs.
That brings up Luis Nunez. Nunez is not supposed to be in this game. He was inserted into the lineup after the National Anthem because regular second baseman Kevin Russo's back locked up on him (maybe when he strained for the high note on "rockets' red glare"?). Nunez made his only other appearance in the series back in its first game—also because of a locked-up back, this one Brandon Laird's. It's reasonable to think that, without these two back-fires, Nunez would not have played at all in the four games at the DBAP.
In fact, if not for the New York Yankees' early-season need of two of its Triple-A middle infielders, one of them another Nunez (Eduardo) and the other Ramiro Pena, it's likely that Luis Nunez would still be toiling for Class AA Trenton, where he was the starting shortstop in 2010. His numbers there last season were so-so. He batted .241 with an ugly .284 OBP, due to his allergy to walks: he only drew 25 of them in about 500 plate appearances.
Nunez's unwillingness to accept walks is like that of the Bulls' Omar Luna—and there are many such resemblances. Nunez, who is from Venezuela, is listed at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds. Luna, who is from the Dominican Republic, is listed at 5-foot-11, 165 pounds. They were born three weeks apart in 1986. They are both middle infielders. They are both light hitters—Luna comes into the game hitting .202 with a dismal .455 OPS. Nunez is even worse, much worse: a .151 average and a .366 OPS. He has had two extra-base hits all year coming in, a pair of doubles—although he did double on a hanging curveball from Alex Cobb back in the first inning, a mistake pitch on a 1-2 count.
Another—indeed, the fundamental—similarity between Luna and Nunez: they are both the last guys on the rosters of their respective teams. Charlie Montoyo insists upon playing everyone on his club, but Luna plays the least and is the guy who gets pinch-hit for when it counts. Nunez, in his eight weeks as a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankee, has had little stretches of playing every day, but only when it has been absolutely necessary, i.e. when Dave Miley has no other options on his bench; Nunez has also ridden the pine for one span of five days and another of one week.
Yet Luna and Nunez have also both stuck, improbably, up to now, anyway, in Triple-A. Luna earned the chance via an improbable 2010 season with the Bulls. As a (very) part-time player, he hit a career-high .291 despite basically never having played above Class A. Nunez earned it... well, he'd played 25 games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2009, and three back in 2008, but he basically earned it because he was the closest thing the Yankees' farm system had to a Triple-A middle infielder after Eduardo Nunez and Ramiro Pena were called up to the big leagues.
And so now, in the top of the 10th inning, Luis Nunez steps in against Jake McGee. Two outs, men on first and second base. Tie game. McGee gets ahead of Nunez, 1-2, just as Cobb did back in the first inning. And McGee, like Cobb, makes a mistake: he leaves a fastball up and out over the plate, and Nunez belts an opposite-field double to the base of the right-center field wall. Molina scores. Bernier scores. Nunez has his second double of the game—in which he was not even supposed to play—after having hit two doubles all season.
That is making the most of one's chances; that is, as Joe Maddon says, not "get[ting] caught up in the recent past in a negative way"; and that is one of the many, many kinks in the Process for Jake McGee, who was less than a year ago considered a viable candidate for the 2011 closer's role in Tampa but now finds himself getting beat by .151 hitters in Triple-A.
4-2, Yanks. Ryan Reid comes in, strikes out Greg Golson to end the inning. You might say that this is one batter too late. But you might also say that it's two or three or four or five batters too late. In the majors, it's likely that McGee—who is more or less the Bulls' closer—would not even have come out for this second inning of work after having thrown 18 pitches in the ninth inning and striking out the side. Those last two strikeouts had come under heavy pressure, because Luna had tripped on second base covering it when pinch runner Golson stole it; Luna fell pretty much right on his face, and Jose Lobaton's accurate throw went right over him and into center field, allowing Golson to move to third. But McGee fanned Terry Tiffee, and then got Brandon Laird to fly out to center. Excellent work. Tough work.
Yet Montoyo was asking McGee to do more of it in the 10th, partly because McGee needs chances like that, partly because Montoyo had few options left in the bullpen (he had already burned through three relievers; at least two more were probably unavailable), and partly because—again that little earwig, which crawls into the mind and causes insidious thoughts—Montoyo wanted to win.
And why wouldn't he? It's his team, his record, his livelihood, and McGee is his closer. Ryan Reid is the Omar Luna of the bullpen: the last chance; the dead end of the Process.
Luna has one more chance: He hits third in the bottom of the 10th. To his credit, he singles to left field, raising his average back up over .200, where it has hovered for most of 2011 after flirting with .300 in 2010. But the Bulls come up short and so, finally, does Luna: after the game, Omar Luna, the A-ball underling who has somehow been the ImprobaBull since all the way back in June 2010, is sent all the way back down to Class A Port Charlotte. The Rays promote Daniel Mayora from Class AA Montgomery, where he is hitting .305 with an .869 OPS. Those player moves, too, are part of the Process. I wrote just the other day that Luna doesn't really belong at this level, and last night's demotion concurs, but he may very well be back. Just because you don't belong somewhere doesn't necessarily keep you from being there. Thrust into an opportunity, what are you going to do with it? Don't get caught up in the recent past. Take chances—and if you do, try to field them cleanly!
Since I'm already detailing player moves, I think that means we're ready for notes:
* To recap: Luna to Class A Port Charlotte, Mayora to Durham (well, really Charlotte, N. C., where the Bulls play tonight).
* Desmond Jennings's absence from the starting lineup probably caused much salivating in Rays-land, as it seemed to suggest that Jennings was going to be called up. Turns out it's only a right-wrist ouchie of unknown origin—he told me after the game that he might have done it sliding into second base the other night—and he feels better and expects to play tonight. This is not an aggravation of last year's injury, which was to Jennings's other wrist. Montoyo said after last night's loss that Jennings, after pinch running in the ninth inning, would not have hit had his turn in the order come up. Robinson Chirinos would have hit instead; that's why Chirinos wasn't called upon to pinch hit for Luna in the 10th. Chirinos was Montoyo's last bench player, an ongoing handicap while the Bulls continue to carry 13 pitchers because their starting pitchers generally don't go deep into games, necessitating extra bullpen arms. (Keep in mind that minor-league teams are restricted to 24 players, rather than the 25 permitted on big-league squads. I suppose that's to allow for rehabbing big-leaguers.)
* The Bulls had two big innings during the just-concluded eight-game homestand: a five-spot against Buffalo in the eighth inning on Wednesday; and six runs in the seventh inning of Sunday's win over Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, getting much bases-on-balls help from Yankee reliever Andrew Brackman, the former multi-sport standout from North Carolina State who is now a one-sport disaster for the Yankees (he leads the IL in walks despite having thrown 17 fewer innings than the guy behind him, the Bulls' Alexander Torres). Other than those outbursts, the Bulls scored 23 runs. They aren't doing a good job of causing steady, consistent damage, but they are doing a good job of making pitchers with average stuff look very good. Nothing against D. J. Mitchell and his 88-mph fastball last night, but he had allowed 36 hits in his previous 23 1/3 innings over four starts, all of them losses. Last night, he allowed five hits in six innings.
"We're not hitting," Montoyo said as soon as our post-game interview began. "For the first time I'm really getting frustrated about it." Montoyo allowed that the Yankees sent some good pitchers to the mound against Durham, "but it's against everybody lately, and that's frustrating. Somebody's got to get it going.... You go through [team slumps] during the season, but it's frustrating when that happens." When a word is used three times in four sentences, that is all you need to hear.
Are the Bulls pressing? "The more you struggle, the more people press," Montoyo said. "But it's not because I put the pressure on them, because I've been there; so I know what it's like. You start yelling and stuff, then they start pressing. We're okay; even keel; go get 'em tomorrow." Process. Chances.
* Speaking of pressing, going 9-36 isn't exactly a slump (it's a .250 batting average), unless you're hitting .324. Brandon Guyer's final at-bat last night—that over-aggressive, game-ending strikeout with the tying run on second base—was emblematic of his recent difficulties at the plate. Guyer has 10 strikeouts in his last 42 plate appearances. Strangely, he is batting 89 points lower against left-handers than he is against righties (.250/.339). In 2010 with Double-A Tennessee, he hit .356 against southpaws. What gives? Also, Guyer got poor reads on at least three fly balls during this homestand, and had to make awesome-looking catches in drastic compensation for his initial misjudgments.
* Brian Baker has been shifted to the bullpen, so for now the Bulls' rotation is: Cobb, Dirk Hayhurst (who starts tonight in Charlotte), Alexander Torres, Chris Bootcheck and Lance Cormier. I'll be a little surprised if it holds up that way even through the All-Star break, which starts in about two weeks. But if, as Joe Maddon counsels, getting caught up in the past is a mistake, then it follows that we oughtn't get caught up in the future too much, either. The Bulls will try to find their swing against Charlotte's Freddy Dolsi tonight. Dolsi, a converted reliever (sound familiar, Bulls fans?), has been terrible this year as a full-time starter, with a 6.46 ERA in 14 starts for the Knights—Dolsi Starter Experiment #FAIL, as they say on Twitter. Brandon Guyer homered off of Dolsi earlier this season; last year, the Bulls faced him seven times, and he tended to be either great or horrendous with no middle-ground. J. J. Furmaniak hit his only regular-season homer of 2010 off of Dolsi on August 16. This would be a great time for Furmaniak and Guyer to jump-start the Bulls' hitting again. On the other hand, it would also be a great time for Charlotte to win four straight games: they trail the Bulls by exactly that many in the IL South Division. And so the Process—of wins and losses, of hits and misses, of Lunas and Nunezes—marches on. It lasts all the way, fittingly, through Labor Day. And the reward for "performing the process properly"? The Process pushes past Labor Day and toward the here-and-gone, nothing-favoring equinox.