It was the Bulls' sixth straight victory, their longest winning streak of the year. The last five of these wins have come at the expense of the Norfolk Tides, and there is a little precedent for this. The Bulls and Tides played a home-and-home seven-game series in 2010, and the Bulls won six in a row, the first five at Harbor Park in Norfolk. The Bulls were the class of the International League that season, on their way to an impressive 88-55 record, and the Tides would finish last in the South Division.
Things are much reversed this time. Norfolk was in contention for the playoffs when the just-concluded series began. After the Bulls five-finger-discounted them, though, they're about finished. Last night's loss drops Norfolk under .500 and 5 1/2 games back of wild-card leader Pawtucket with only seven games left to play, and two other teams, Lehigh Valley and Columbus, between them.
And for the Bulls, not only have they played spoiler, but a moral victory is at hand, too. They are now 3 1/2 games better than last-place Gwinnett in the IL South. Barring a total collapse, Durham will at least finish the year out of the basement, which they shared with the G-Braves less than a week ago. It's certainly possible that the Bulls will go into a final, week-long slump and end the season on a low note, but as it stands now, they've very nearly salvaged 2012 in these last six days. The team lost 13 of 14 straight road games in April, spoiling the soup before it was even on the stove. Had they gone 7-7 on that trip, not an unreasonable outcome to hope for, they'd be a .500 team as of today. That one freakish and ruinous stretch is the scar on an otherwise decent body of work.
So how have they turned themselves around?
On Friday night, the Bulls took their third straight game from Norfolk. Afterward, when I suggested to manager Charlie Montoyo that it must have been nice to see his team enjoying a late run of success after a disappointing year. he answered, "They're showing that they're professionals. Of course we're pitching better, and that's the key. We haven't had that before, and that's why we struggled. It's not that we were not being professionals before. But they're not giving up. Everybody's having fun."
That comment contains most of what you need to know. To take the second part first, yes, of course it's the pitching. As you know if you've been following the Bulls all season, they have had the league's highest ERA almost all year long. The Bulls preceded the current six-game winning streak, during which they have allowed 12 runs, with a five-game losing streak during which they allowed 43 (!). In one game alone, last Sunday's loss to Gwinnett, they allowed 13 runs, i.e. more than they have in the last five nights combined. (And as a bonus symbol of improvement, last night's three-run effort raised them up into a team-ERA tie with Louisville.)
You'll hear from all walks of life in baseball that good pitching beats good hitting. That's not entirely true, but mostly it is. Cesar Ramos made bad pitches on Monday, leaving the ball up, up, up in the zone, where they were hammered. Last night, almost everything was down, and his fastball, which sits at a modest 87-89 mph, had good arm-side run away from right-handed hitters. Contact was mostly weak, and he struck out a season-high six batters in six scoreless innings. (Ramos hasn't been a starter since 2009, which is when he last fanned six men in a game.)
In the seventh inning, Josh Lueke made things interesting, as is lately his wont, by allowing an opposite-field, two-run homer to power-hitting first baseman Brandon Waring. Lueke did strike out the side, but that was small consolation for him. When the inning was over, he left the field talking angrily to himself and did not return for the eighth. Lueke throws lots and lots of strikes. Fifteen of his 18 pitches last night were strikes, and he has averaged 2/3 strikes for the season, which is a well above average rate. The simple problem is that too many of them are hard but flat 93-94 mph fastballs up in the zone. He has a decent breaking ball, and if memory serves it hasn't yielded a hit on this home stand (he's used it more in his last two appearances). Last night was emblematic, then: he either gave up a hit or got a strikeout.
Brandon Gomes worked an easy eighth, his fastball velocity up to 93 mph (it was around 88-90 early this year), but found trouble in the ninth. Ronny Paulino socked a one-out double (on a 92-mph fastball) down the left-field line and, one out later, scored on a Steve Tolleson single which should have been a double. Tolleson hit a looper down the right-field line that Jesus Feliciano didn't pursue very hard (inexcusable given that he just come into the game as a ninth-inning replacement for starter Chris Gimenez), but didn't appear even to think about trying for second base, which he could easily have had with effort.
Tolleson atoned by stealing the base—Gomes was barely holding him on—and so the tying run was in scoring position with two outs. Who should be at the plate but... Brandon Waring. Gomes ran the count full to Waring, and then threw a breaking ball. The pitch was very clearly high, but home plate umpire Chad Whitson stood there, thought it over for a moment, figured he still had time to grab dinner somewhere nice, and rang up Waring.
Well, as they say, to be a winner you have be lucky as well as good, and Gomes will take it. Lueke aside, which is where he's put himself with his recent work (his ERA has climbed from 4.25 to 5.40 in his last five outings), this was another solid pitching performance in a winning streak full of them.
So that's the pitching part of Montoyo's comments, and it's by way of pitching that the other part reveals itself. As we reporters were waiting to talk to Cesar Ramos, I found myself standing at Dane De La Rosa's locker. I had wanted to ask him about the season he's having (I wrote some about it the other day), and there he was. I wound up enjoying the conversation with him so much that I missed the Ramos interview. (I'll supply some quotes on Ramos' behalf: "I was able to keep the ball down better than last time out." "I had good fastball command." "It was nice to pitch with a lead." "I'm not thinking about a callup. I'm just trying to do well here. I can't control what they do." It'll be fun to see how close I am in the morning.)
De La Rosa was awful to start 2012, but he told me that in fact the bad April had its roots in March. He was trying very hard, naturally, to make the major-league squad out of spring training, and thought in retrospect that he probably overdid it a little in trying to make his case. He was assigned to Durham—which is in fact what he expected ("Guys know their roles," he said)—but was determined to do well out of the gate in order to move to the front of the line of potential bullpen callups.
That, too, led to De La Rosa "trying to do too much," as he put it, and getting into bad habits. He wasn't himself, he said. There were no mechanical issues, no injuries—I don't think De La Rosa has gone on the disabled list a single time in the last two or three seasons—it was all mental, De La Rosa said. (See this game story for a recent elaboration on the mental aspect of Triple-A.) He was in thrall to his desire to get back to the major leagues, and that's putting the cart before the horse. You gotta pull the load first, and do it right, one hoof in front of the other.
De La Rosa didn't. After four appearances with the Bulls to start the year, he had already allowed four runs in four innings, walked five batters and taken a loss. Nonetheless, the Rays needed help and called him up on April 14. He pitched one inning in the bigs, coming on in the eighth inning of a game against Boston at Fenway Park, with the Rays trailing 8-5.
When his inning was done, the Rays trailed 13-5.
Afterwards. De La Rosa tweeted a single four-letter word:
O U C H.....— Dan Della Rocco (@Daner13) April 15, 2012
(If you're interested in the gory details, I did a detailed account of this game for Baseball Prospectus, including 600+ words on De La Rosa's inning.)
And with that, De La Rosa was buried on the Rays' depth chart for, basically, the rest of the season. Gomes, Lueke and Ramos got all the calls to the bigs, and De La Rosa had to go back to work. He continued to struggle for a while until he finally found his groove. He's still walking batters at a career-high rate (5.65 / 9 innings pitched)—"that's kind of been the thing all year," he said (he knows what's what)—but his hits are down and strikeouts up. His ERA since May 2 is 1.83, and his fastball velocity has steadily increased as the season has worn on, regularly 94-95 mph this past week. He said that he feels strong and healthy. De La Rosa admitted that he has been thinking about the possibly of a September 1 recall to Tampa Bay for the last full month; I could tell from the way he said it that he's been straining not to get distracted by the thought. Rather than pressing for it, though, or succumbing to the fantasy thinking, he has stuck to what works.
He's trying, in other words, to be professional—because it's professionalism that gets you out of Triple-A and up to the bigs. Here in the last days of August, any player with his wits about him knows full well that now, more than ever, professionalism has to come all the way to the forefront—even though, as Montoyo indicated, you also have to have fun; and his players are doing just that. There is a peculiar kind of pleasure for ballplayers in that nexus where, basically, sports business and sports pleasure meet. You nearly always have to be enjoying yourself in order to do well, but you can't enjoy yourself unless you're going about your work properly. When players can get themselves into the narrow but potent space where the work and the play are working in perfect consort, the results show it.
That goes for teams, too, and it's why the Bulls have won six games in a row. You almost wish for them that Monday was not a day off. I bet some or even most of the players would rather keep the momentum going. (Oh my word, did I just say that there is momentum in baseball?!) The Bulls look like they're really enjoying what they're doing right now, largely because half of them are driven by the hope of a September 1 summons to Tampa Bay. There is nothing for it but to do what professionals, at their best, must do: invest deeply in every pitch, every swing, for the sake of each one. Do it 'cause you love it and you want your employer to know. If you want to get to the top, there's really no other way. And there's no point in doing anything anyway unless you love it—if you're doing it for any other reason, you're not a pro but a con. In true professionalism is an abundance of joy.
So while the Bulls enjoy the abundance of free time today—I suggest a nice dinner at Nana's—Bulls fans, too, can revel in the abundance of wins over Norfolk. On Tuesday, the Bulls head to—what?—Norfolk?—to make it eight straight games against one team? We'll see the Bulls only twice more this season, on Friday and Saturday night against Charlotte. By then, no matter what Dane De La Rosa and his cohort say right now, Friday is August 31, the zero hour before major-league rosters expand. By then, the 40-man men will be playing, and praying, their very hardest. Do them, and yourself, the justice of coming out to watch them try to realize their dreams.