by Adam Sobsey
My copy would have gone right into the recycling bin, except that there on the cover were three pictures from this season at the DBAP: One is of an airborne Justin Ruggiano, about whom more later (he's coming back to the Bulls!), leaping into a celebratory throng of teammates at home plate after his walkoff homer on April 19. Another is of J. J. Furmaniak and his one-year-old bambino, toddling up the first-base line together during what I imagine was one of the Bulls' "Kids Run The Bases" Sunday postgame free-for-alls. There's the littler Furmaniak, gaining his traction at Daddy's feet as a walking member of society.
The third shot is of Wool E. Bull pointing like Babe Ruth when the capital-B Bambino called his shot in the 1932 World Series, only Wool E. is holding his T-shirt launcher instead of a bat. But he's looking just as confident and grounded as the Babe did that day.
As the Yellow Pages made clear, the Bulls are the face of Durham, its frontispiece. After last night's 6-1 win over the Rochester Red Wings, they looked ready to represent the city proudly. The victory gave the Bulls a 3-1 series win over the Red Wings and a 5-3 homestand—that is, it made the difference between the sister-kissing mediocrity of .500 and the surefire playoff percentage of .600. It felt like a big win, one that got them on track, and with their hooves planted firmly on the ground. They'll need plenty of traction in the next fortnight, when they make a long hike to Buffalo, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Norfolk. What happens on that ascent to the North, and then on the march back down South, could very well set the Bulls on their final course in the 2011 regular season.
The Bulls went 47-25 at home in 2010. That's a superb record, and it was set by a team that went 88-55 overall—so they were 41-30 on the road. Last year's Bulls were just plain awesome all around, in a Green Eggs & Ham kind of way: at home, on the road, at the plate, on the mound, with the glove, in the bullpen. (There, I'm a book critic.)
It wasn't reasonable to expect the 2011 edition of the Durham Bulls to be as good. They're now 37-26 at home, and although that's a dropoff from last year's mark, it's still pretty good. The thing is, though, that coming into last night's game against Rochester they had gone just 24-21 at the DBAP since May 17. The weirdly imbalanced International League schedule may have something to do with Durham's failure to gain traction here, but in any case the team hasn't had much of a home-field advantage for most of the year. The team's road record is 30-24 overall, 20-14 since May 17: they've actually been a better visitor than host for most of the year.
And they haven't blown hot and cold, either, have never reeled off a bunch of wins or losses, with no streaks in either direction of more than five games. It's been sort of hard to tell whether Durham has the good, steady traction of a team marching slowly yet sedulously to the playoffs, or the slippery tread of a club whose final destination remains a mystery.
With last night's win, the Bulls are now 7-3 in August, and both the game itself and some postgame news gave signs that they may be able to keep playing winning baseball through the dog days.
Bulls starter Matt Torra had his best game of the season, with either of the teams he's played for (he struggled with Class AAA Reno in the Pacific Coast League for most of 2011 before the Rays acquired him). Torra tossed seven innings of five-hit, one-run ball, his shutout work marred only by Dustin Martin's leadoff home run in the top of the seventh inning. He walked no batters, struck out three (he's not a strikeout pitcher at all), and used an efficient 88 pitches (57 strikes). He also worked quickly, as did his opponent, Rochester's Liam Hendriks. Both pitchers were in the habit of receiving the ball from their catchers and immediately looking in for the sign for their next pitch. The game took a refreshing 2:14 to play.
Torra threw six innings in his previous start and allowed only two runs, after looking unsteady in five starts for the Bulls before these last two. What has he been doing differently? According to Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo, Torra has been throwing his changeup more often, which has helped him keep hitters off-balance. The changeup was an especially important weapon against the lefty-heavy Red Wings. Torra got seven outs on the ground and eight in the air. He kept Rochester from elevating the ball too much, which at the cozy DBAP will result in a lot of runs.
As for Torra's opinion of his performance, feel free to text him if you have his phone number. His gear bag was packed, his locker tidied, and he himself out of the building by the time we reporters arrived in the clubhouse. He remains the only player, other than recently-acquired and immediately injury-shelved Matt Carson, that I have yet to talk to in the locker room. He's an enigma, even a cipher.
All I can say is, if Torra has gained traction, and can pitch effectively and deep into ballgames for the Bulls for the rest of the year, then I don't care if he never grants the media a single interview: He'll give the Bulls a starting rotation with four great-to-solid pitchers in it. Matt Moore, Alexander Torres, Andy Sonnanstine and an effective Torra are a barbershop quartet with well-stropped blades, and I'd bet they'll remain with the Bulls at least until September 1, and perhaps beyond. If Durham makes the playoffs, here's betting that the Rays leave at least three of these pitchers in Class AAA to help the team pursue another Governors' Cup. Minor-league trophies are of vestigial concern to the front office, but they do matter to some degree as a point of corporate pride—and, perhaps more importantly, the Rays do like to see how their farmhands respond to playoff pressure, even if it's in the minors.
The game not only took just 2:14 to play, it was effectively over in about 20 minutes. The Bulls scored a run in the first on a one-out double by John Matulia and an RBI single to right by John Jaso. I thought Matulia would be thrown out easily at the plate, but (speaking of traction) he really got on his horse after he rounded third, and his slide pushed catcher Rene Rivera's blocking foot off the plate just enough for Matulia to make contact.
Charlie Montoyo joked after the game that he sometimes has trouble remembering Matulia's name—he was recounting a catch Matulia made, in the sixth inning, of a ball that Justin Morneau absolutely crushed to the center-field wall, and for a moment Montoyo hesitated with his praise because he couldn't think of whom it should go to. Matulia, who turns 25 while the Bulls are on their next road trip, has been the least heralded and most easily overlooked of the half-dozen Biscuits to rise from Class AA Montgomery in the last several weeks, and he's likely to go back down rather soon (see below for more on that). But he has manned center field quite well, once for a stretch of 14 straight games, another for nine straight: He has made some fine catches out there, and thrown out at least one runner at the plate. Matulia has also posted a perfectly acceptable .733 OPS in his first exposure to Class AAA pitching. He has hit four home runs, too, as many as J. J. Furmaniak has hit in more than triple the number of at-bats, and four more than Ray Olmedo, who hasn't hit a single one.
That very nearly changed for Olmedo in the second inning last night. In fact, for a moment, it did. Just as the Bulls' starter on Wednesday, Ryan Reid, had lost control in the second inning, so did the Red Wings' Liam Hendriks in the same inning on Thursday. He threw seven straight balls to open the second, walking Russ Canzler and falling behind Stephen Vogt. Hendriks recovered to run the count full, but Vogt singled to left to put two men on base.
Hendriks had found the plate now, but not in a good way: Leslie Anderson hit the first pitch Hendriks threw him down the right-field line for a run-scoring double; then Olmedo hit the first pitch he saw deep to right field. It appeared, at first, to clear the railing above the right field and bounce off of a seat behind it back onto the field. The hit was ruled a home run, a three-run shot. (Olmedo, a switch-hitter, was batting left-handed against Hendriks, and that's Olmedo's power side. Ditto Elliot Johnson, as it happens.)
Rochester manager Tom Nieto protested, the umps conferred, and the home run was changed to a double. Replays showed that Olmedo's drive had actually hit the railing itself, right at the very top. Montoyo counter-protested, but the call rightly stood. Later, Montoyo quipped—he was in a position to do a fair amount of that last night—that that's what happens when little guys (like Montoyo himself,) hit balls like that: they're too small to get those few extra inches they need for homers.
Montoyo loves him some Ray Olmedo. He penciled Olmedo right back into last night's lineup in the game following the one in which Olmedo made two errors to let in five unearned runs, grounded into a double play, and struck out. Olmedo rewarded him with the disputed homer-double, a single, and a clean fielding night at second base.
Olmedo also wound up on the right side of some good luck in the fourth inning when Chase Lambin fielded Olmedo's fairly routine grounder to third base, but then threw wide to first. Aaron Bates (giving Justin Morneau a night at designated hitter) applied a swipe tag to Olmedo, but first-base umpire Jeff Gosney missed it and wrongly called Olmedo safe. Lambin was charged with a throwing error.
In the following inning, the fifth, Lambin singled to center field. When he got to first base, he must have complained about the previous inning's missed call for about two seconds, because that's how long it took Gosney to eject him. (We heard in the Press Box that, on leaving the ballpark, Lambin complained to someone that he had been in the minors for 10 years and never been ejected. True or not, I don't know, but if it is I feel bad for him that he didn't get his money's worth.)
Olmedo scored after his fourth-inning homer-cum-double when, two batters later, Matulia beat out a potential inning-ending double-play relay for an RBI fielder's choice. The Bulls had a four-run inning and led 5-0. That was plenty for Matt Torra, who retired the first eight men he faced, allowed only three runners to reach second base, and retired Morneau all three times he faced him—even if one of those outs was a 390-foot cannonball to center field that Matulia ran down.
The Bulls got their sixth and final run in the sixth inning. Canzler led off with a triple, and this wasn't a the lost-in-the-lights fly ball like his last one: Canzler hit a full-count pitch on the outer half of the plate to the opposite field, and his drive split the outfielders and went to the wall. The "golden rule," as Canzler called it later, is never to make the inning's first out at third base. But Canzler noted that, because he hit the ball to right field, his momentum was already taking him down the first-base line. He got quick traction and reached a full sprint in no time, and you could see him decide as he rounded first base to charge all the way to third. Canzler has no reflexive quickness as a fielder, but once he gets going he actually runs pretty well, and he beat the relay easily. Vogt followed with a deep sacrifice fly to center field—off of lefty Chuck James, who came in after Canzler's triple—to drive in the Bulls' final insurance run.
In the eighth inning, Canzler got his second hit of the night. He turned on a 2-2 fastball from James, hitting it so high and hard off the Blue Monster that what would have been a chest-beating homer in almost every other baseball park in America became a measly DBAP single. "I thought the wall was going to come down," Montoyo joked of Canzler's bazooka shot. It got to the wall so quickly—maybe in three seconds—that the crowd didn't have any time to cheer the hit; so you could hear it go "WHAM!" when it made impact, like a gunshot on a firing range.
Canzler has an 11-game hitting streak going. He is now batting .321, second in the league by one point and tops among active players (Alejandro de Aza was called up from Charlotte to the White Sox). He has the highest SLG, the highest OPS and the most doubles, and is tied for the most total bases. His OBP is second-best to Rochester's Aaron Bates. He's fourth in walks drawn. He's also 10th in strikeouts, but trust me when I tell you that that doesn't matter at all. Not only are the whiffs OK when your production is so strong, Canzler has struck out only four times in his last eight games. He has gained total traction.
Yet he isn't entirely content. Informed that he saw 22 pitches last night and swung at only five of them—more evidence of how faithfully Canzler has stuck to his vows of selectiveness, which he renewed the other day—he replied that at one point he was too choosy: Before he hit his wall-denting eighth-inning double, James had thrown him a 1-0 fastball right down the middle for strike one. Canzler thought he should have swung at it, and perhaps he should have, even though he got another tasty heater to crush three pitches later. The thing is, he knows he could have handled the at-bat better, as he will have to do in the majors, where you generally don't get more than one good pitch to hit in any trip to the plate.
Note, too, that Canzler is working on knowing when to be aggressive and when to be selective not only at the plate but also on the basepaths. He stretched his sixth-inning drive into a triple, but wisely held at first after his eighth-inning hit off the Blue Monster, even though any ballplayer would, in that adrenaline-flooded moment—having just hit the ball about as hard as a ball can be hit—have an almost irresistible impulse to try for a double. But Canzler said later that he knew what the score was, and what inning, and that it was better to play it safe.
Two innings before that, Leslie Anderson had hit his own drive hard and high off the Blue Monster, gave into his appetite for another base, and was thrown out at second by about 15 feet. Anderson's locker is two over from Canzler's, and when I brought up Anderson's similar (but differently terminated) hit that preceded his, Anderson looked over. Anderson still speaks basically no English—he just heard his name, which is why he got involved, but he had no idea what we were talking about. He did, however, pick up on the general subject of the conversation, which had included whether this is the best stretch of Canzler's career. ("In terms of approach it is," Canzler said, wisely resisting the offer to talk about results.) Apparently, Anderson knows how to pronounce at least three letters of the alphabet in English, and he grinned, pointed at Canzler, and said them in this order: "M. V. P." If the season ended today, Canzler would almost surely win in a landslide, or even a slide into third base.
I've got notes, and some of them are actually interesting and meaningful this time:
* This one is not meaningful, it's just funny (or I thought it was, anyway): Talking about Tim Beckham's arrival in Durham, Charlie Montoyo retailed to us that someone in the Rays minor-league administration claimed—tongue in cheek, I'm sure—that the Rays are an Equal Opportunity Employer: the last three Bulls shortstops have been Latino (Olmedo), Reid Brignac (white, or maybe Cajun) and black (Beckham). Korean-born Hak-Ju Lee, promoted to Montgomery to fill Beckham's spot there, is probably, next, along about 2013. Well, as Burlington News & Record reporter Bob Sutton remarked, this is the International League. Maybe the Rays can boost their revenue with a USAID grant. If they're interested, I know a scouting and development svengali in Lithuania. Seriously, I do. His name is Will.
* Guess who's gonna be a Durham Bull again, just when it seemed like we'd never see his Romanesque face again? Justin Ruggiano! Ruggiano, who has been with the Rays since his callup from Durham on May 21, was placed on the disabled list a couple of days ago with knee bursitis. As I wrote yesterday, that sounded suspiciously like a phantom injury, a way to separate Ruggiano, who had basically not played since Desmond Jennings was promoted to the majors two weeks ago, from his spot on the Rays' 25-man roster.
After last night's game, we were informed that Ruggiano will begin a rehab assignment with the Bulls starting August 15 in Buffalo. That only increased speculation that there's really nothing wrong with him. For one thing, do ballplayers really recover from knee bursitis in four or five days? For another, the timing of the 20-day rehab stint (the maximum time allowed for position players) means that Ruggiano's minor-league assignment could carry him to September 1, when rosters expand; at that point, he could be added back onto the Rays' roster without a corresponding move being made. How convenient.
Rats don't smell good. And it seems like the Rays are determined to make Ruggiano play for the Bulls no matter what contrivances they have to manufacture in order to do it. Do they really have it in for him that bad?
* More outfielders: Charlie Montoyo said that he expects Brandon Guyer to return to action perhaps as soon as this weekend, which is good news: Down in Tampa, the media were saying that Guyer, who had a strained oblique muscle, wouldn't be healthy enough to play until September. In addition to Guyer, Matt Carson's hamstring strain is improving, and he could soon join Guyer in the Bulls' outfield. There is one open slot in the Bulls' roster, and rehabbers Ruggiano and Jaso don't count toward the team's 24-man limit, so only one corresponding move will need to be made when both Guyer and Carson return. That's why I was speculating that John Matulia is rather likely to go back down to Montgomery. But who knows? I told Montoyo that he was going from not enough outfielders to too many, and Montoyo quipped right back: "You can never have too many."
* Tim Beckham saw his first Class AAA action ever, handled his five chances at shortstop cleanly (they were all easy), and went 1-4. He was robbed of RBIs twice. The first time, he came up in the second inning with Olmedo on third base after his downgraded not-quite-a-homer, one out, and the Rochester infield in to cut off the run. Beckham rapped a grounder to the right of the second baseman, Luke Hughes, who committed three errors in the series but—wouldn't you know it—made a fine diving stop. Hughes couldn't find the ball for a moment after he knocked it down (it was right at his feet, alas), and Beckham reached on an infield single, but Olmedo had to hold at third base. Later, in the sixth, his well-hit fly-out to left field would have gone for a sacrifice fly had Anderson not been thrown out at second trying to stretch his Blue Monster-mash into a double. Instead, Beckham's fly was the third out of the inning.
Beckham was pleasant and upbeat after the game. He was totally comfortable in the clubhouse—he played with five of the Bulls in Montgomery for most of the season, and knows plenty of the others from major-league Spring Traning camp—and had that bouncing-on-the-toes confidence of a highly touted athlete. But it was friendly, unassuming (though energetic) confidence; Beckham had none of the peremptory, supercilious or surly 'tude that first-rounders sometimes display (howdy, Pat Burrell!). Desmond Jennings, only a tenth-rounder, was kind of aloof, although he might have just been shy. Even David Price, cooperative as he was with the media in his brief time in Durham, comported himself in such a way as to make it very clear that he didn't expect to be here long and wasn't going to do more than was minimally necessary in order to satisfy the basic requirements that his blue-chip status demanded of him. He was cordial but a little impatient, and always distant—his 6-foot-6 frame, it should be said, added to that distance. You felt like he was talking down to you even when he wasn't. Beckham is listed at an even six feet, but isn't. It's going to be fun to have him around.
Indeed, it's going to be fun to have all of these late-season Bulls around as they make their final charge toward the postseason—and they'll have to really want to get there, because neither the South Division title not the wild card is remotely guaranteed. Gwinnett beat Scranton-Wilkes-Barre last night, 1-0, behind yet another just-promoted stud pitching prospect (Randall Delgado), of which the Atlanta Braves seem to have no end. They remain just two games behind the Bulls. Meanwhile, Lehigh Valley, with whom Durham just split a home series, leads the wild card race over the G-Braves by half a game (the IronPigs also trail North Division leader Pawtucket by just one game), and both Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and, surprisingly, Indianapolis, aren't far behind either. It could get pretty thick come the last week of the season.
The Bulls can stay above the fray if they just keep winning. Tonight they start a four-game set in Buffalo. The Bisons aren't very good, but their middle infield has recently been upgraded with two very promising Class AA callups, Joshua Satin and Jordany Valdespin; and they have two of the league's best hitters in Zach Lutz and Valentino Pascucci. They also happen to have two longtime former Bulls, Fernando Perez and Dale Thayer. So who knows what Buffalo holds in store?
After that, the 10-game road trip works its way south, with a four-game stop in Moosic/Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Southwest-Bronx, Penna. (the baby Yanks really should make up their minds about that), and then two in Norfolk before the Bulls return to Durham on August 23 to start the LAST HOMESTAND OF THE SEASON. If you're telling yourself that they'll be in the playoffs after that, so why sweat it, you've got 10 August days to sweat that complacency right out of your system. Start by running down to the DBAP and buying your regular-season tickets—if nothing else, being at the August 23-30 games ensures that you'll get to see the last hurrah of Justin Ruggiano as he makes what are sure to be his farewell appearances in Durham. The Roodge is pretty close to some franchise records, so you may get to see him melt into manly tears of joy when he breaks them.
I'll be coming at you from Norfolk next weekend, and I'll see you under the shadow of the Bull on August 23. Between now and then, don't forget to send birthday wishes to Dan Johnson (32 two days ago), Nevin Ashley (27 on Sunday), and Lance Cormier (31) and, uh, what's that center fielder's name again? They both were born on August 19. (So were Bill Clinton and Orville Wright.) I'm sure the boys are already trying to decide if they'd rather celebrate in Scranton or Wilkes-Barre that day. Tough call.