by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM—There are suddenly many more things to observe than usual at the DBAP. There is the riveting preoccupation of witnessing the difference—ineffable yet undeniably profound—between great major-leaguers like Hideki Matsui and Kevin Youkilis, and minor-leaguers like, well, almost everyone else on the field last night. There is the sideshow of the two dozen or so Japanese media members at the ballpark, doting on Matsui's every at-bat and word. There is the vexing surprise of attending to a team that, after five years of success, is quite simply bad—and attending to its manager, who is in a very unfamiliar position.
But after the Pawtucket Red Sox beat the Durham Bulls, 5-4, last night—the PawSox' sixth straight win over Durham in less than a month—a simpler, quieter, more fleeting observation offered the most useful perspective on the way things are in the Bull City.
After we reporters—the three of us local, Triangle-based reporters, that is—did our customary postgame interview with Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo, we were extended an offer to interview Hideki Matsui. Matsui, as you probably know, just became a Durham Bull on Tuesday, less than three years after becoming the MVP of the World Series as a New York Yankee.
Of course we accepted this offer, and we were happy to wait a few minutes while Matsui went to his locker, peeled off his uniform, and then hit the showers. After he got down to a base layer, Matsui sat for a few head-clearing moments in the chair before his locker—silent, still, meditative.
What was most arresting about this moment was Matsui's posture, which was upright yet comfortable, like a yoga pose. Ballplayers tend to be slouchy and curved-spine. They throw themselves around like big puppies, are often loud and surprisingly ungainly when not engaging in the elegant beauty of playing baseball, are in each others' space and, it often seems, not really in full possession of their own.
Yet there was Hideki Matsui, composed and straight, calm and self-knowing, and it seemed in that moment that therein lay the change from major to minor, between winners and losers.
It is wearying to write about a losing team. There are so many things wrong with the Bulls that it's hard to know where to start. Last night the Bulls walked 11 (!) PawSox and went 2-12 with runners in scoring position. They were lucky that they only lost by a run, although they seemed curiously out of the game from about the fifth inning on—despite tying it in the sixth.
Two quotes, then, from people other than me. First, Heather, not long after Lars Anderson crushed a three-run homer in the fifth inning, basically the game's decisive hit:
"Pawtucket scored three runs easy-peasy, but the Bulls have to fight for every base."
And Charlie Montoyo, whose first words when we walked into his office after the game were these:
"Well, today was a prime example of why we are where we are [15-26, last in the IL South Division]. We're leading the league in walks. You can't do that. Against good teams, for sure no chance. And leaving guys on base. We get on base, but nobody's driving the guys in."
The Bulls are hitting .250 overall as a team. With runners in scoring position, they're hitting .203. They are not actually leading the league in walks—Toledo holds that dubious mark, with 10 more than the Bulls' pitching staff has allowed—but, when you combine the second-most walks with the second-most homers allowed (38), you get a league-worst 5.13 ERA. Oddly, the Bulls lead the league in strikeouts. So the FIP people should have some fun with that.
Only two other teams in the International League have staff ERAs over 4.00, which is to say that, on a relative scale, that 5.13 figure is even worse than it looks. The rest of the IL has posted a collective ERA of 3.57 so far this season, more than one and a half runs fewer than the Bulls.
Emblems: Bulls starter Matt Torra has allowed 12 homers. Two different teams have allowed 15 each. Chris Archer—who, to be fair, has been pitching much better lately—and Alex Torres have issued a combined 57 walks. The Indianapolis Indians, their entire wigwam full of pitchers, have issued 110.
On the other side of it: Leslie Anderson, the only Bull having what you would call a good season, is batting .346, second in the league. He has 45 hits in 35 games. Yet he has driven in only 13 runs, a pace that would result in fewer than 50 over the whole season. He's batting nearly 100 points lower than his season average with runners in scoring position. He has hit two home runs this season. He's tied for third on the team. The team-high? Three. Anderson's 10 extra-base hits lead the Bulls. The PawSox, by contrast, have six players with at least that many, one of numerous reasons why they also have the league's best record.
Anderson nearly tied the game in the ninth inning last night, but his long drive to right field was caught at the wall by Josh Kroeger. It was the last of four Durham flyouts that sent Pawtucket outfielders to the warning track last night. Juan Miranda hit two of them. He struck out looking to end the game, went 0-5. He is batting .193 with an OPS of .577, the league's ninth-worst mark among qualifiers.
This is, in other words, a team with terrible posture. It's useful to reconsider the word "slump." In sports terms, we tend to think of it as a losing streak, or an inability (in basketball) to hit shots for a while. That sort of thing. But the word also has connotations having to do with carriage. A team that is bad all year—that has a season-long collective slump—slouches, sags, bends and, finally, breaks.
It's not actually as bad as it seems. Since the disastrous 13-game losing streak that swallowed up most of April and submerged the Bulls in last place, they are actually a game over .500. Still, they're 10.5 games out of first place, have lost two in a row at home after a promising 3-1 finish to their last road trip, and are probably only one more losing streak away from giving up their ghost of a chance at the playoffs this year. It was quite apt that, almost immediately after Miranda struck out to end the game, a quarter mile away the whistle blew on a train leaving the station.
More emblems, this time of slumping managers: In the second inning last night, Bulls starter Lance Pendleton walked his fourth batter of the game already. Jhonny Nunez started warming in the bullpen. Che-Hsuan Lin, who would, an inning later, make a spectacular, diving catch to save at least one run and probably two, then lined a Pendleton pitch up the middle. He was unlucky when Pendleton snared it and started a double-play. Nate Spears followed with a ringing ground-rule double to score a run, and had the next hitter, Pedro Ciriaco, reached base, I am sure Montoyo would have brought Nunez in.
But Pendleton got Ciriaco to fly out to end the inning. If I recall correctly, Nunez resumed warming in the bullpen in both of the next two innings, but Pendleton got through them despite two more walks—he allowed six of them in 4 1/3 innings. Having escaped the need for a long man, when Pendleton allowed a one-out single in the fifth Montoyo opted to call on Romulo Sanchez instead of Nunez.
The next batter was big-league star Kevin Youkilis, who just started rehabbing a back strain with Pawtucket. Youkilis hit Sanchez's third pitch so hard that, even though it went right to third baseman Matt Mangini, knee-high, Mangini was not able to catch it. It nicked off his glove, went through his legs and all the way down the line—in a hurry—to the PawSox bullpen for a double.
Lars Anderson followed with a three-run homer.
Sanchez then allowed two more hits, to make it four in a row, before getting out of the inning.
If only Montoyo had used Nunez when he had the chance.
"This game was the story of the whole season," Montoyo said, as though the season was already over.
The fun of watching Hideki Matsui (and Kevin Youkilis) inhered in watching a hitter hit purposefully. Matsui said after the game (through a translator) that right now he feels good physically but needs time to get used to higher-level pitchers. Of interest last night was that everything he hit was to the opposite field or up the middle, which he seemed to be doing almost deliberately. In his first at-bat, he appeared to be fooled by a 1-1 curve ball from Pawtucket starter Doug Mathis—he was looking for the fastball there, he said later. Yet he lunged out and muscled the ball to straightaway left-field, where with Matsui's natural power (which seems to come less from sheer strength than from the high quality of his swing) it carried all the way to the Blue Monster and caromed away from Pawtucket's Alex Hassan for a two-run double.
After he reached base on a catcher's interference call in the third, Matsui whacked a first-pitch single, again to left field, to lead off the fifth inning. In his next at-bat, he hit a hard grounder up the middle, but the PawSox had a shift on and the ball went right to shortstop Jose Iglesias, who started an easy 6u-3 double play with the rather slow-footed Matsui running. Matsui hit a broken-bat groundout back to the pitcher in his final at-bat.
Youkilis, forever known as the Greek god of walks thanks to Moneyball, saw 13 pitches in his first two at-bats, drawing a walk and flying out to right. He, too, looked like he had a purpose in the batter's box, especially with his legendary batting stance. He and Matsui seemed to know what they were looking for, what they were trying to accomplish, which set them apart from their minor-league teammates, many of whom appeared to be playing passively, tentatively, taking good pitches and swinging at bad ones.
The manager of the Rays' rookie-league affiliate in Princeton, W. Va., Michael Johns, was in a Bulls uniform last night and will be for a week. According to Charlie Montoyo, whose own managerial career started in Princeton in the late 1990s, the front office wanted Johns to get some time in with the Bulls before the Appalachian League season begins—"to help out," Montoyo said. With the way the Bulls have been playing, though, it was hard to keep from thinking that the Rays brought the Bulls a rookie-league manager because he was closer to their current level.
That is, perhaps, rather harsh—but so, despite its beauty, is baseball. It is a game that exposes flaws and suppresses success. For evidence, you need look no further than the Bulls' current centerpiece, Hideki Matsui, who has starred under the brightest lights, on the biggest stage, but finds himself nonetheless auditioning for a major-league job at age 38, his World Series rings and millions of dollars and canonical status in his homeland lost in a Wednesday night in Durham. Yet his posture, unlike his current team's, remains poised and proper. Sometimes the best way to make it big is to start by standing tall.
If you watch enough baseball, you will see those things you think you never will. Last night, the PawSox' Che-Hsuan Lin hit a pitch that bounced first, popping out to third base. Linsanity! Home plate umpire Chad Whitson assumed that the bat hit the ball first and chopped the ball into the dirt, and ruled Lin safe at first when Mangini made no throw (because he knew he had caught it on the fly). Whitson had to consult with his fellow officials in order to overturn the call, correctly.
A rather surprising transaction: the Rays abruptly traded Kyle Hudson to Philadelphia yesterday for minor-league outfielder Rich Thompson, who has played for Triple-A Lehigh Valley for a few years now. The 33-year-old Thompson has had one career major-league at-bat, with the Royals eight years ago, and, like the 25-year-old Hudson—who joins his fourth organization in the last six months—is left-handed. Both outfielders are speedy (Thompson's stolen base numbers are eye-grabbing). The only major difference would seem to be age.
The move seems perplexing on its own, but it was in fact prompted by an injury to Brandon Guyer. Recently called up to Tampa Bay from Durham, Guyer strained his shoulder (in the batting cage, if I heard correctly) and went on the 15-day disabled list. Apparently, the Tampa brass—who, you will recall, signed Hudson only out of emergency need just two days before the 2012 season began—did not not consider him a viable major-league backup outfielder, even though he has 28 times more major-league at-bats than Thompson, which is to say 28 major-league at-bats. It seems that, in trading for Thompson, the Rays not only were skeptical of Hudson's potential but also have a similar distrust of their own potential replacements for Guyer—who was himself a fill-in. That is, they did not call upon Durham Bulls Leslie Anderson, Jesus Feliciano or Jeff Salazar, even though the latter was on the Rays' opening day roster for a day or two. This snub can't be good for the Bulls' already slumping morale and confidence.
In case you missed this news, more fame descends on the DBAP tonight. The Red Sox' Daisuke Matsuzaka joins Kevin Youkilis on a rehab assignment with Pawtucket, and he will start tonight against the Bulls and, presumably, face down his countryman, Matsui, who is 5-14 lifetime versus Matsuzaka. Dice-K had Tommy John surgery last year and is working his way back up the majors. I hope the two Matsus took a nice lunch together at Kurama. Game is at 7:05 p.m. A big crowd is expected. Be in it. The DBAP will never see the likes of this again.