Durham Bulls thump Rochester Red Wings: Lights! | Sports

Durham Bulls thump Rochester Red Wings: Lights!

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  • Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features
DBAP/ DURHAM—The count was full on Dan Johnson and two runs were in, in the bottom of the fourth inning last night, when the power surged and blinked. After a few seconds, everything came back on except the lights in the standard over right field. The power had gone out in the Diamond Vision I Building, and it took 16 minutes for them to come back on and play to resume.

Not that it really needed to resume. The Bulls already led at that point, 7-1, well on their way to beating Rochester, 10-6. But if you're going to show up, you might as well play through. Durham banged out double-digit hits for the second straight night against the league's worst pitching staff (4.66 team ERA) and cruised to its fourth straight win.

Just about everybody hit, again: seven of nine starters. Five Bulls had multi-hit games. Dan Johnson and Stephen Vogt homered. The Bulls hit two triples (John Matulia, Reid Brignac) in a five-run third inning. Andy Sonnanstine did his Sonnanstinian thing, moving the ball around, changing speeds. Had he not had to sit, twice, through long Bulls rallies plus the gray-out, and perhaps had he not had to adjust to a new catcher midway through the game, he might have left with a better line than the one that went into the books. At one point, he faced 13 straight Red Wings without allowing a hit. He had six strikeouts through 3 1/3 innings.

But more important than all of that is having shed light on this mystery: Who is the Bulls' new bullpen catcher?

The answer, and other enlightenment, below.

Probably the big news of the night was the return of John Jaso. Jaso was the Bulls' regular catcher in 2009. Hopes were high for him then, but he was a disappointment. Jaso struggled both at the plate and behind it for most of the 2009 season. He rallied toward the end of the year, going on a little tear over the final two weeks or so, but his stock had dropped by then, and his future looked cloudy.

But it became much brighter early in 2010, and via distant Rays. Tampa Bay catcher Kelly Shoppach went down with a knee injury just a few weeks into the year, and Jaso was called up. He quickly thrived, and stuck with the big-league squad. By the end of the season, Jaso looked like a promising young player again.

His production dipped in 2011, but he continued to share catching duties with Shoppach (a lefty-righty platoon). On July 5, the Rays played a night game in Minnesota. Jaso started that game (he was lifted for Shoppach partway through). The next day, the start time was 12:10 p.m., and Jaso didn't feel quite right around his rib cage—maybe it had to do with trying to loosen up his body for a day game after a night game. Nonetheless, Jaso played again, spelling Shoppach this time. He went 0-2.

The Rays traveled to New York to play the Yankees, and the first two opposing starters there were right-handers (Bartolo Colon and A. J. Burnett). That meant the lefty Jaso would be in the Rays' lineup, and he was determined to play in the New York series. Besides, he wasn't sure if the pain in his side indicated anything serious, and the All-Star break was approaching; maybe a few days of rest would heal him up.

Jaso went 0-3 in two games against Colon and Burnett with a pair of walks, replaced by Shoppach in the second game when lefty reliever Boone Logan relieved Burnett. The day after that, Jaso tried to take batting practice and couldn't get through five swings. He had a strained right oblique muscle and went on the disabled list on Bastille Day. Dommage!

Jaso's narrative is illuminating. One may wonder, first of all, why Jaso didn't go immediately to his manager and trainers the minute he felt a twinge and ask to be at least examined if not rested. Isn't that what most of us do when we feel hurt or sick? Use it to score a day off from work?

Not Jaso. He wanted to play, especially with a trip to Yankee Stadium coming up. And Jaso isn't unique in his desire to get into the action. Sure, there are some goldbrickers in baseball; but mostly, players want to play, and badly. (Is it more convincing if I put it differently? Playaz gotta play? There.) They can appear lazy, sitting around and chewing tobacco or sunflower seeds in the dugout, standing out in left field woolgathering while a pitcher wanders off the mound, trotting half-heartedly after foul pops that are headed for the stands. But make no mistake: Sportsmen want sport. They want to compete. They want to swing and hit and throw and win. That baseball moves to a different rhythm than clock-bound sports doesn't make the essential spirit of its players any different.

Also, I was reminded, listening to Jaso recount his injury last night, of something Justin Morneau said the day before. The rehabbing Twins first baseman has missed most of the last season's worth of games, and some before that as well, with a multitude of injuries. Asked about them, and about the frustration of missing time, he noted that "nobody really plays this game healthy."

That's probably true of most sports, but baseball is peculiarly injurious in the way it asks players to perform unnatural and frequently painful actions, from a dead stand-still, over and over again. Athletes build up a head of steam in most sports, keeping the body loose and flowing, the muscles warm and the momentum high. Not so in baseball. You stand there—then swing! Stand there—then pitch! Stand there—now break for second base! And so on: the things a baseball player's body does, thousands of times a season—fundamental actions like swinging and pitching—are hell on it. Just as stop-and-go traffic is harder on a car than highway driving, so is baseball more deleterious on the body, in certain ways, than other sports.

To be fair, baseball careers generally last longer than careers in basketball, football and hockey. Those, however, are contact sports (yes, basketball, too, and soccer). The occasional collision aside, such as the one that gave Morneau a season-ending concussion last year, baseball isn't a contact sport. It is proportionally much less violent between players; it's what ballplayers do to themselves that hurts them.

Baseball players often talk about "grinding"—both Morneau and Ryne Sandberg used the word in interviews over the past few days—and although they're referring to getting through a relentless 162-game season, to some degree they're also talking about playing through the gnawing pain of minor injuries that are slowly grinding down their bones.

You see this in every clubhouse. Joe Dillon, a Bulls and Rays utility player in 2009 and 2010, had a bad hamstring for virtually all of 2010. Desmond Jennings's shoulder was tweaked for most of last year. Fernando Perez had an injured shoulder and wrist. Virgil Vasquez fractured both of his wrists and banged up his knee in a scooter accident in downtown Durham; the wrist healed rather quickly and, anxious to pitch again, he came back before the knee was really 100% and and messed it up worse, ending his season early. Justin Ruggiano, eager to return as quickly as possible from the bicep strain that befell him early last year, rushed back too soon and was never really the same after his hot start.

If they can play, players play. It's what they do, it's what they love to do, and it's what they will not be stopped from doing unless they feel physically incapable—and even then, they sometimes play. So it's no surprise that Jaso played three games with a strained oblique muscle before revealing the problem to his bosses—who placed him on the disabled list, immediately.

Last night, in his first game against live pitching in a month, the lefty faced a left-handed pitcher—not a very good one, it should be said, but still. Jaso just missed a homer in his first at-bat, getting a bit under a pitch and flying out to fairly deep right field. He followed that with two opposite-field hits, a single and a double, and reported no pain after the game.

He also caught Andy Sonnanstine. Jaso and Sonnanstine have worked together plenty over the last few years, so this was a comfortable battery for the Bulls' starting pitcher—although the game didn't open comfortably for him. He missed with a fastball to Luke Hughes in the first inning, and Hughes belted a home run to straightaway center field. Sonnanstine gave up two more hits in the second, but uncharacteristically struck out the side. He had six strikeouts through 3 1/3 innings. Six of the nine Red Wings were left-handed against the righty Sonnanstine.

Sonnanstine sat on the bench for a long time during the Bulls' five-run third-inning outburst against Rochester lefty Scott Diamond. Sonnanstine had a fairly easy top of the fourth inning, working around a two-out walk to Aaron Bates, and then sat for an even longer time in the bottom of the inning. Not only did the Bulls score three more runs and force Diamond to throw 37 pitches, that was the inning with the 16-minute power-outage delay. Sonnanstine probably sat for at least 35 minutes, all told.

Sonnanstine actually went down to the bullpen and threw a few pitches during the delay, in order to try to stay sharp and warm—not incidentally, that artificially increased his pitch count—but it was no surprise to see him open the top of the fifth inning by throwing three straight balls to Chase Lambin, none close to the strike zone. He walked Lambin on five pitches, got Steve Holm to ground hard into a double-play, and then gave up a well-struck line drive by Rene Tosoni—but it happened to go more or less right to Russ Canzler, which is where you want balls Russ Canzler has to catch to go.

The Bulls did more damage in the bottom of the fifth. Stephen Vogt, a left-hander, who had made two outs against the southpaw Diamond, now got to see a right-hander, Kevin Waldrop. Vogt turned on an inside pitch and hit a towering fly ball just inside the right-field foul pole for a home run. J. J. Furmaniak hit a two-out double, and although the Bulls didn't score again, Sonnanstine had sat through 22 more pitches and another longish top half of an inning.

In the top of the sixth, he had a new catcher. Jaso was only scheduled for five innings in his first game on rehab (I apologize for misspeaking yesterday, when I somehow thought he'd be the designated hitter). Nevin Ashley replaced Jaso, so Sonnanstine had now not only sat in the dugout for three long half-innings in a row, he also had a new catcher. With one out, Luke Hughes singled to left, and then Morneau ripped a double down the first-base line. (Morneau would hit another double in the seventh. He went 3-5. I think he's ready for the majors now.)

Dustin Martin followed with a medium-hot low liner that second baseman Ray Olmedo dove for, got a glove on, but could only deflect into right field for a run-scoring single. Bates hit a weak flare-out to third base, and Sonnanstine was an out away from a six-inning, two-run performance. But Brian Dinkelman bounced a single through the first-base hole to score Morneau, ending Sonnanstine's night. It was just the sort of annoying little hit you expect a guy with a name like Dinkelman to get, and it badly marred Sonnanstine's final line. Instead of two-in-six, a 3.00 ERA, he instead went three-in-5 2/3, a 4.76 ERA for the game. Ugh. Sonnanstine walked into the dugout and tossed his cap onto the bench in dismay. It was his third straight One Bad Inning game.

Afterward, Sonnanstine was admirably candid in his responses to questions. Most pitchers will categorically deny that sitting for long innings and delays affects their rhythm and sharpness—they'll tell you that they're just thankful for all the runs their hitters are scoring for them—but Sonnanstine said that of course the waiting made it hard to stay loose. "You just try to stretch," he said. "As much as I don't want to admit it, I think [the power delay] affected me a little bit."

We had already asked Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo whether he thought Sonnanstine's struggles in his final inning of work had anything to do with pitching to a new catcher. Montoyo said no, not for an experienced guy like Sonnanstine. Sonnanstine, asked the same question, said that it it did make a difference—although he was clear that it had nothing to do with Ashley himself. "I'm not knocking Ashley at all," he said. But he added that he had been sync with Jaso, whom he knows much better, "from the first pitch of the game. Once you get into that rhythm, and then switch it up, that was a factor that didn't bode so well for me tonight." I like Sonny. He tells it like it he sees it.

***

Jay Buente relieved Sonnanstine and struck out Lambin to end the sixth, holding the score at 9-3. The game was over, had been over since the fourth inning, but the Red Wings fought their way back into it—or near it anyway. Some of that owed to one glaring hole in the Durham roster: there are no left-handed relievers. R. J. Swindle's choice to exercise his opt-out clause on July 15 may ultimately have done more to hurt the Bulls than Chris Bootcheck's, Chris Carter's and Cory Wade's. (Swindle doesn't appear to have latched on with another team, more than three weeks after leaving the Rays organization. Curious.)

So righty Joe Bateman replaced righty Buente after Buente tossed 1 1/3 scoreless innings. Buente worked around a leadoff walk in the seventh and switch-hitter Mike Hollimon's long, long drive to center field that John Matulia hauled in at the wall. In the eighth, lefty Morneau greeted Bateman with a double to left-center field, and lefty Dustin Martin boomed a triple to straightaway center. Lefty Dinkelman scored Martin with a sacrifice fly, making the score 9-5. Dane De La Rosa was throwing in the bullpen and nearly ready. Bateman walked the lefty Lambin before finally getting righty Holm to foul out. The inning cost Bateman 25 pitches.

Dan Johnson hit a solo home run in the bottom of the eighth, giving himself a birthday present about two hours early (happy 32nd, DanJo!). That made it 10-5: a meaningless garbage-time run, and a nice capper to a three-extra-base-hit night for the unpredictable first baseman—or it seemed meaningless at the time.

It turned out to be a helpful run to have in the bag. De La Rosa came out for the ninth inning, and with one out walked Hollimon. Luke Hughes then hit what should have been a fairly routine game-ending double-play grounder, but third baseman J. J. Furmaniak appeared to come up off of it a split-second too soon and mishandled it for an error. Morneau followed with his third hit of the night, smacking a single up the middle. Hollimon scored. 10-6.

Two men were on base. Had Johnson not hit his homer, the tying run, unthinkably, would have come to the plate in the person of Martin, who has 12 homers this season and hit one off of Mike Ekstrom on Monday. In the event, the Red Wings still needed another baserunner, and Rob Delaney got up and started throwing in the bullpen in case they got one.

But De La Rosa recovered, getting Martin on a broken-bat flare to Furmaniak for the second out, and Bates on a game-ending grounder to second. For the second straight night, the Bulls made the game closer than it ought to have been, but you can get away with that against bad teams. You can get away with having no lefties in your bullpen, too, although it muddies up the scoresheet a fair amount. Not to excuse Bateman's failure to handle the hitters he faced, but in an ideal world he probably wouldn't be called on to pitch that eighth inning. I expect, when rosters expand on September 1, that the Rays will call up one or more of the Bulls' relievers and promote from Montgomery to Durham one of the three southpaws in the Biscuits' bullpen, probably Frank De Los Santos and/or Neil Schenk. If the Bulls make the IL playoffs, they'll need a left-hander or two in the relief corps in order to win.

***

I spent some time talking to Stephen Vogt, who homered (and hit the ball hard twice) last night. Vogt swings a legit bat, it seems to me. He's keen and quick at the plate, with a smooth swing, and I asked him why, at his age (he'll be 27 on November 1), he's never before been to Class AAA. Vogt reminded me of something I only dimly remembered from my pre-season research into the Rays' lower-level prospects: He missed almost all of 2009 after tearing his labrum.

It was a freak play, Vogt said. He was drafted in 2007 and had steadily advanced one level per year after that. In the 10th game of the 2009 season with High-A Port Charlotte, Vogt was running for home, where a play at the plate was developing. He was going to slide feet-first, then decided instead to go head-first but changed his mind too late (or maybe it was the other way around; forgive me, I forgot to turn on my voice recorder). Vogt wound up landing awkwardly with his right arm outstretched—it basically took all the impact of the landing, and Vogt knew immediately he'd done something bad to his shoulder. He actually played the rest of the game (there again is that reluctance, like Jaso's, to announce pain) but had to have the labrum surgically repaired.

Vogt missed the rest of the season. He returned to Port Charlotte in 2010 and won the Florida State League batting title, hitting .345 with a .910 OPS. Vogt was a catcher until the Rays drafted him in the 12th round out of Azusa (Calif.) Pacific University, where he was a career .448 hitter, and they converted him into an outfielder. The way he told it, they had too many catchers in the minor-league system at the time. (I guess they didn't think he was their equal, which may no longer be true here in 2011.) Vogt made himself an everyday player in the Rays organization by learning to man the outfield and a little first base, as well.

After adding catching back onto his resume and recovering from the surgery, Vogt has jumped two levels in one season in 2011. So far, in 10 games with the Bulls, he's hitting .381, slugging .738, and nine of his 16 hits have gone for extra bases. He seems, too, to have fit right in with his Durham teammates (his locker is next to Russ Canzler's, and they're both really nice guys), many of whom—as he pointed out—he played with in Spring Training, where he was in major-league camp.

Speaking about the present now, Vogt talked about how the current team has really "gelled," as he put it. That confirmed something you can sense about the Bulls since this current homestand began a week ago: They seem like a much tighter bunch than they were at the All-Star break. There's more camaraderie, and lots of happy energy in the clubhouse (it helps to be winning, and the Bulls are a season-high 17 games over .500). The antic relief staff has its jokes and its lively Twitter banter (Buente, De La Rosa, Delaney, Ekstrom, Ryan Reid, Adam Russell and honorary member Dirk Hayhurst really shoot the 140-character bull). There are tons of little kids running around the clubhouse, sons of Cormier and Furmaniak and Johnson and probably others I can't ID yet.

In other words, the Bulls now feel like a team, finally illuminated. For much of the season they were a rather dim and nebulous entity; combined with the fitful league schedule, which seemed to take the team out of town for long stretches just when we were getting to know them, it was hard to see the players as a cohesive unit. The Bulls were stocked with four future opter-outers (Bootcheck, Carter, Swindle, Wade); a blue-chip center field prospect (Desmond Jennings) who was just biding his time until the call came from Tampa; a bad-seed free-agent starting pitcher who was quickly released (Edgar Gonzalez); and a twice-demoted former All-Star who clearly wanted out (Felipe Lopez).

Jaso won't be around very long, and Reid Brignac isn't exactly thrilled to be in Durham either. UPDATE, 12:22 p.m.: the Rays recalled Brignac about an hour ago, nd put Justin Ruggiano on the disabled list with "knee bursitis," which he probably acquired from sitting on the bench so much lately. Ruggiano has barely played since Desmond Jennings was called up, and the Rays may have seen no point in continuing to carry him on the active roster. But much of the rest of this team has, as Vogt put it, gelled. That's partly, I would argue, because there are five players recently up from Montgomery, and four of them have never been to Triple-A before. They want not only to make something of the opportunity the Rays have given them, and thus have good and hopeful attitudes; they also want to ingratiate themselves a bit by fitting into the clubhouse of their Class AAA colleagues. Also, only one of these newbies is a bona fide prospect, and that's Matt Moore, who has no superstar attitude about him whatsoever.

Combined with those up-and-comers are five players from the 2009 team: Bateman, Brignac, Jaso, Olmedo and Sonnanstine. So there is some history there, and that history comes from the Bulls' most recent championship season. In addition, old hand Lance Cormier is back in the Rays organization, where he knew many of these players before he left temporarily for Los Angeles. Most of the other players know one another from time spent in the Tampa Bay organization (Leslie Anderson, Brian Baker, Alexander Torres), and newcomers like Canzler and Brandon Guyer have made themselves easy to welcome aboard. There doesn't really seem to be an outlier in the bunch, except maybe for fresh-from-Sacramento Matt Carson, who was injured just a few days into his Durham tenure and has already fallen off the radar; and the mysterious Matt Torra—whom I don't think I've seen, not once, in the locker room after a game. (Hey, I just noticed that Torra is a former first-round draft pick!)

But Torra has found his own unique way to attach himself to the team, and at an important spot—which brings me back to that essential question, posed in the fourth paragraph of this game story. (Did you think I forgot?) The Bulls' current bullpen catcher is, apparently, a buddy of Torra's—he just showed up a day or two ago. Whether Torra summoned the fellow belatedly from the Diamondbacks, whether he's a pal down from Pittsfield, Mass. (Torra's hometown), or whether the two are confreres from some other walk of life, I don't know.

Neither does Charlie Montoyo. Montoyo doesn't even know the new bullpen catcher's name yet: The FNG just got here, after all. In fact, according to Montoyo, after Craig Albernaz was sent down to Class AA Montgomery, the Bulls brought in another bullpen backstop. Montoyo said that Torra's friend's short-lived predecessor was a Durham County judge. Repeating: a judge. The kind that wears a robe and is called Your Honor. I guess Bulls General Manager Mike Birling needed to find a way to get some speeding tickets dismissed. But did the judge call his own balls and strikes?

***

I have three tiny notes:

* Speaking of justice and especially its long arm, law enforcement, the beat cop who slouches around the DBAP during games, waiting for someone to do something drunk and/or disorderly, told us last night that Russ Canzler came to the police station recently. No speeding tickets or misdemeanors involved. Canzler wanted to take the fitness test that the department's officers were undergoing. He finished in second place.

* Nevin Ashley crosses himself every time he steps into the batter's box. Not every at-bat. Every. Single. Time. He. Steps. Into. The. Batter's. Box.

* Last night, J. J. Furmaniak's 1-year-old was toddling around the locker room after the game. At one point, he got interested in the assortment of objects sitting on a table low enough for him to grab the objects off of it. The one he chose was a bobblehead doll. The bobblehead doll was in the likeness of J. J. Furmaniak.

***

Tonight at the DBAP, Ryan Reid starts for the Bulls against... someone. It was supposed to be Kevin Slowey, the Red Wings' only decent starter, but Slowey was called up to Minnesota. Poor Rochester. Things are bad for them already, and now they've gotten worse. I should probably make a Jane Eyre reference here—something about the man's blindness, I suppose, or his lost left hand. But the Red Wings have more left-handed hitters than I can count, for one thing; and for another, why summon images of men groping in the darkness, even after a power outage, when for the home team, the Bulls, the lights right now are very bright?

See you at 7:05 p.m. I will try to title tomorrow's game story "Camera!" and Thursday's "Action!"

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