by Adam Sobsey
The Durham Bulls return home tonight, after a 4-4 road trip to upstate New York, to start their second 10-game home stand of the season. At 7:05 p.m., they take on the IL North Division leaders, the Pawtucket Red Sox. It's the first game of the teams' annual four-game series at the DBAP.
The Bulls are 15-24, still in last place in the IL South Division, 9.5 games behind Gwinnett. That is a deep hole to be in, and the Bulls have been in it for most of the last two weeks despite having played better recently. After a catastrophic 13-game losing streak dropped their record to 6-18 before April was even over, Durham has gone 9-7 since. That is by no means great, but it computes to a respectable .563 winning percentage. Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo occasionally talks about "playing for something in August"—i.e. a playoff berth—and if you go 9-7 every 16 games you play, you'll find yourself in contention in the last month of the season. The question is whether the Bulls' early-season stagger will have ultimately been the thing that kept them from reaching the post-season.
Certainly there is precedent for a comeback. Although last place and a 9.5-game deficit seem prohibitive, recall that the Louisville Bats were nine games out of first place, 13 games below .500, in July of 2010 before storming back to win the IL West Division. It's certainly true that that team had more upper-level prospects than this year's Bulls can boast, but in the volatile environment of Triple-A, where rosters change daily and fortune follows, there's hope for the Bulls. They may not, in the end, have the horses they need to overtake the front-runners, but the jockey, Montoyo, won't quit—he has gotten the Bulls to the playoffs for five straight years, often with dodgy personnel.
That personnel is about to improve by a quantum measure. Sportsfans, I give you Hideki Matsui,
It's true. Matsui, Godzilla, the 2009 World Series MVP, by OPS one of the 250 greatest hitters of all time—call him by whatever honorific you want, he's now a Durham Bull. It was made official yesterday. With one stroke of the pen, he has gone from an unemployed has-been to the most famous (and wealthiest, with lifetime MLB earnings of $83 million) player in the minor leagues.
Matsui's arrival in Durham is unlike anything else that has ever happened for the Bulls. Really not since the movie Bull Durham, almost 25 years ago, has such celebrity come to the club. Matsui has that Hollywood presence, and is reported to be tailed by a media entourage of anywhere from 20-50 reporters, photographers, etc. (the exact number varies from source to source). There is no room for them in the DBAP press box, which on most nights barely accommodates the few reporters who usually show up, plus a few staffers. The Matsarazzi are accustomed to interviewing Godzilla twice daily (so the story goes, anyway), and the Bulls will have to figure out where to conduct those press conferences.
In other words, it's gonna be fun, real fun. And as if Matsui alone isn't enough, guess who is scheduled to pitch for Pawtucket against Durham on Thursday? Daisuke Matsuzaka. Dice-K!
Matsuzaka's record-setting signing in 2006—Boston won a suspenseful, wildly expensive sealed-bidding war for the rights to negotiate a contract with him—remains one of baseball's most famous business stories. But for what he cost the Red Sox, more than $100 million, he has been something of a bust. Plagued by injuries and erratic control, Matsuzaka has missed well over 300 games in his five-year career, perhaps due partially to overwork of his own making—he nibbles around the plate and racks up high-stress pitch counts. Matsuzaka is now rehabbing in the minor leagues after the severest injury of his career, the now common elbow blowout that led to Tommy John surgery about year ago. (I am glad Tommy John has a surgery named after him, but the guy won 288 games in a 26-year major-league career, and I'm sure he'd rather be remembered for that than for donating his ulnar collateral ligament to an experimental operation.)
That head-to-head matchup of Japanese multimillionaires, who are so famous they are usually referred to by their nicknames, is one you won't want to miss, a huge moment in the annals of the DBAP. To repeat, Thursday, 7:05 p.m. Get your tickets now. For the record, Matsui has faced Matsuzaka 19 times in the major leagues. He has three hits, including a double and a triple, five walks and one strikeout.
But what if there's no dice on Dice-K? What if he misses the start, or is called up, or eats some bad sushi (if he sticks to Kurama he'll be fine)? Don't worry, Matsuimania will prevail. In any circumstance he would be the headline here, but it's in even bigger type given that the Bulls are in last place. Matsui makes that inconvenient fact almost completely irrelevant.
A few other notes, of comparatively negligible importance:
* Matsui's arrival will more than make up for the loss of Stephen Vogt, who was called back up to Tampa Bay yesterday when Desmond Jennings went on the disabled list with a knee problem. Vogt had been hitting better over the past week on the road, but overall his season so far (.536 Triple-A OPS) has been a disappointment. It's less Vogt's bat that will be missed than his catcher's mitt. His departure, coupled with the ongoing absence of Nevin Ashley, who is out with a broken hand, means that the Bulls' backstops are now Craig Albernaz and, as of today, Mayo Acosta. Acosta is a 24-year-old right-handed hitter (so at least there's that for this lefty-heavy team) who in five professional seasons had yet to play his way out of A-ball. His stats are okay—he seems to have reasonable plate discipline, at least at the level of the low minors—but he hasn't been on the Rays' prospect radar for a while now. Probably his stay with the Bulls will be fairly brief, as Vogt is highly likely to return to Durham as soon as Jennings is healthy. Also, Acosta's full first name is Mayobanex.
It's remarkable how quick and radical the change has been to the state of the Rays' catching depth. Not all that long ago, if I recall correctly, their 40-man roster included Ashley, Robinson Chirinos, John Jaso and Jose Lobaton, plus big-league starter Kelly Shoppach. Now they're down to three healthy MLB-worthy catchers, none of them a viable full-time starter. Chris Gimenez was a last-minute, spring training acquisition, Jose Molina has been a backup most of his career, and Vogt has 13 career big-league plate appearances. Are the Rays really going to stick with these options all season? Certainly they've worked smoke-and-mirrors magic with marginal players before, but if this trick works, it will be one of Tampa Bay's best ever.
* Chris Archer had two very good starts during the road trip and was named IL Pitcher of the Week. Alex Cobb followed a poor, apparently illness-shortened start with five shutout innings yesterday against the "Empire State" Yankees, although he needed 99 pitches to do it. Dane De La Rosa threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings to preserve a 1-0 win. The Bulls' pitching seems to be improving, although the team ERA, 5.06, is right about where it was when they were 6-18 and still last in the league. A few pitchers—Josh Lueke, Romulo Sanchez and Alex Torres—have been total disasters so far. Matt Torra has allowed 10 home runs in just 40 innings. If you predicted that, by the time June approached, Ryan Reid would have been the Bulls' most reliable pitcher (Brandon Gomes doesn't count, and Cesar Ramos' three mistakes have all been costly), come claim your prize. I suspect I'll be waiting with it a long time.
* A few other roster notes: Reid Brignac has missed three straight games. I haven't heard whether he has a minor injury—he isn't on the disabled list—or if something else is afoot.... Brandon Guyer was called up to Tampa Bay not long ago, and the Bulls received outfielder Henry Wrigley from Double-A Montgomery. Wrigley has some power and has already hit his first homer with the Bulls, which for a day or so gave him more than Juan Miranda, who finally hit his first round-tripper of the season yesterday—good timing, as it gave the Bulls a 1-0 win over Miranda's former team.... The Rays signed Ryan Garko to a minor-league deal. Once the Indians' starting first baseman, Garko's production waned and his fielding at first base didn't do anything to help his case. He's been in indy-ball and Korea the last season-plus. A righty with power, he will probably be in Durham soon as yet another guy who can stand near first base and hit home runs.... The Bulls still have the fewest extra-base hits in the International League. Nine of their active players have an OPS under .700.... Rays (and former Bulls) starting pitcher Jeff Niemann had his fibula fractured by a line drive yesterday and will be out a while. Expect the Bulls to lose a pitcher to the majors today or tomorrow.
And Triangle Offense will see you at the DBAP all week long.