by Adam Sobsey
But their presence yesterday helped shed some light, under the high midday sun, on one of the essentials of the ballplaying life. It has to do with teaching children.
The Indy's publishing platform was busted yesterday, which is why this post is already a little stale. Personally, I'm a little stale, too, having celebrated my birthday with perhaps a bit too much gusto last night. (What did you get me?) So what follows about the game will be rather brief.
You can mail my present c/o The Independent Weekly, 302 E. Pettigrew St., Durham, NC 27701. Thanks in advance!
And read on.
It's not only that tardiness makes it appropriate not to say too too much about yesterday's game. It's also that Alex Torres turned in another typical Alex Torres performance, one I feel like we've seen many times. In about a quarter of his starts in 2011, he gave up as many or more walks than hits. In five innings yesterday, he allowed just two hits, but also issued four walks and was charged with three runs.
Afterwards, Torres expressed a little more contentment than I expected to hear from him. "I had a couple walks that elevated my pitch count," he said, in such a way that implied that he's used to that and has become a little inured to the problem. In terms of his overall results yesterday, there's no immediate harm in Torres shrugging off his wildness—he did, after all, allow three runs and get the win. But you don't want to see him get comfortable with the idea that "a couple walks" is acceptable in every outing, especially when "a couple" was actually, in this case, four—including two leadoff walks, both of which came around to score. In the major leagues, what he did yesterday wouldn't earn him a win.
Torres mentioned the extra importance of "just throw[ing] strikes" on a day dominated by a cold, cutting wind that blew strongly enough to ripple players' uniforms and may have played a role in a dropped fly ball in the outfield that gifted Durham an insurance run it wound up needing. But, in fact, of Torres 97 pitches—way too many for five innings—only 51 were strikes.
Well, it's the minors—a good opportunity to teach your children. Yesterday's sponsored promotion for the Education Day crowd was an ongoing thing about "healthy lifestyles"—e.g. stuff on the video board about eating fruits and vegetables. Everyone knows that many of these youngsters will, as they reach adolescence, begin to make some remarkably unhealthy "lifestyle" choices. The idea is that they will grow up and have good training to fall back on ("the one they pick's the one you'll know by" (controversy!))—so that those choices don't ultimately become habitual. If you knock back a little too much whiskey, to take a totally random example, the next day you might give the bottle a rest and get some good, cleansing exercise.
Now is the time when Torres really needs to be taught to loathe the unhealthiness of bases on balls, to develop an almost moral aversion to them. There will be times, of course, in the big leagues—where Torres is almost certainly headed someday, and perhaps soon—when wildness will happen; he needs to build habits now, if it's not too late, to self-correct when he and his pitches go astray.
To that end, changeup! It's Torres' best pitch, and pitching coach Neil Allen encouraged him to go to it during a mound visit in Torres' rocky first inning. It's also, for Torres, extra useful because the southpaw throws it to lefties as well as right-handers. (He used it to strike out Knights slugger Dallas McPherson, twice, after McPherson had gotten a cheap, shift-foiling single to drive in Charlotte's first-inning run.) You don't see that very often. Torres said after the game that it was something he picked up from the Rays' James Shields, who also uses his changeup against same-siders and, seeing Torres' changeup, told him to do the same.
It seems to me that Torres' difficulty throwing strikes tends to stem not from over-reliance on breaking and offspeed pitches, but rather on poor fastball command, simple as that. In both of his starts so far this year, his four-seamer has tended to run up and to his arm side. "I'm just too quick to home plate," Torres said. "I don't give a chance for my arm to find the release point, get out in front."
So the good news is that Torres knows what the trouble is. The bad news is that he still can't fix it on a regular basis or, often, even for the duration of a single start. After his two-walk, 22-pitch, 10-strike first inning, Torres had an easy second and third. But a leadoff walk and a booming Hector Gimenez double, plus a wild pitch, led to two more runs in the fourth. And in the fifth, his final inning, even though Torres retired the side in order, he needed 19 pitches for the project, only 11 of which were strikes.
Torres is generally very good at pitching out of trouble, just as kids tend to be good at wriggling out of it. But you always find yourself wanting to (just look at them and sigh and) tell them, and perhaps Torres, too, that life would be so much easier if they didn't make the messes in the first place.
It was in fact a much bigger first-inning mess, this one made by Charlotte starter Charlie Shirek—a rare native of North Dakota, which makes him virtually an endangered species—that wound up deciding the game. The Bulls jumped on him early in the count to tally five hits in a row to start the game, one a sacrifice bunt by Brandon Guyer that hugged the third base line. After 16 pitches, the Bulls had scored four runs.
Shirek must have learned some good habits himself, because he settled down, started throwing his offspeed stuff early in the count to keep the Bulls off-balance, and allowed just two hits and no runs for the next five innings. The game got tighter until finally, in the eighth inning, it came down basically to one pitch—and wouldn't you know it, that pitch was thrown to Dan Johnson.
Dane De La Rosa came on in relief of Cesar Ramos, who had tossed 1 1/3 perfect innings in relief of Torres. The big righty was ineffective, uncharacteristically walking two of the four batters he faced (as though he caught some peer pressure from Torres). The score was 5-3, Bulls, there were two outs, runners were on first and second base, and up stepped Johnson, the potential go-ahead run—Charlie Montoyo later said that of course it would happen that way. Johnson, to that point had seen 13 pitches in three at-bats and swung at exactly one of them. Not a good matchup for De La Rosa, who just couldn't find the strike zone.
Brandon Gomes came on, threw Johnson a good breaking ball low and away on a 2-2 count, and Johnson poked an opposite-field fly ball down the left-field line for a run-scoring double. That made the score 5-4, Durham, but in fact it was a good outcome for Gomes and the Bulls, because the situation seemed perfect for Johnson to do his now-customary heroic thing. But maybe it's too early in the season for that. The Great Pumpkin doesn't ripen until autumn.
Gomes took care of Hector Gimenez, stranding the go-ahead runs in scoring position, and worked easily around a leadoff single in the ninth to pick up his first save of the year.
One little side note, an extra-curricular thing worthy of a detour. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Knights reliever Jhan [sic] Martinez had control trouble of his own, hitting a batter and walking two more on his way to allowing what turned out to be the decisive run, although it was unearned because right fielder Greg Golson dropped an easy fly ball off the bat of Brandon Guyer—surely the wind or the high sun was responsible. Martinez threw 20 pitches before a Bull swung at one of them.
After the inning, Charlie Montoyo had a fairly animated discussion with home plate umpire Mark Lollo. This was a bit puzzling, since nothing controversial seemed to have occurred during the inning. It turned out that Montoyo was perturbed that Martinez had been been permitted to lick his hand without then wiping it on his jersey or pants, which is mandatory (otherwise, you're basically throwing a spitball, which is outlawed). Apparently, Lollo had issued Martinez a warning, but then did nothing when, according to Montoyo, Martinez committed the infraction again, which is supposed to result in a balk call.
The Bulls are down in Gwinnett, where they play four games against the G-Braves to kick off a four-city, 14-game road trip, including a northern expedition to Pawtucket. That's so absurdly long and far a haul, I'm not even sure we'll recognize the Bulls by the time they play their next home game on April 27. How can such a ludicrous schedule get approved?! (Don't you ever ask them why / If they told you, you would cry.)
And recognition might get even harder than that. Injuries are already causing reshuffles. Chris Gimenez has been out but should be back very soon, sending the great Cincinnatus, Craig Albernaz, back to Double-A Montgomery. (I do hope he gets to go to Pawtucket, which is just minutes away from his—and Brandon Gomes', and Lizzie Borden's!—hometown of Fall River, Mass.)
Also, starter Bryan Augenstein, who was supposed to pitch tonight, has the mysterious and dreaded "elbow soreness" (or maybe shoulder soreness; Montoyo claimed not to know, exactly), so Jhonny Nunez, who is accustomed to swing duty as an occasional starter, will fill in, facing alleged ace Julio Teheran, whom the Bulls chased out of Saturday's game at the DBAP before the second inning was over. If Augenstein's injury turns out to be serious, expect more roster changes.
I'll jump in mid-trip with an update, and will try to remember, during the two-week hiatus, that it is indeed still baseball season for the Durham Bulls. Just look at them and sigh, and know they love you.