Monday, August 29, 2011

Durham Bulls sweep Charlotte Knights in doubleheader: Upright

Posted by on Mon, Aug 29, 2011 at 6:00 AM

DBAP/ DURHAM—The Durham Bulls pulled off a doubleheader sweep of the Charlotte Knights yesterday, beating them 4-3 and then again, 3-0. The two victories gave them a five-game series win over Charlotte, three games to two; more importantly, the Bulls won three straight games in less than 24 hours, nearly setting the Bulls upright after an ugly four-game slump that had slowed their march toward the playoffs to a crawl.

Two wins, so Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said it twice: "Great day, man. Great day."

Most importantly, the Bulls nudged their IL South Division lead over the Gwinnett Braves (who beat Norfolk again) to 3 1/2 games with eight left to play, reducing their so-called "magic number" to clinch the division to an almost-comfortable five games.

What an insulting phrase, "magic number." Yes, it of course refers to the "magic" that awaits teams that make the post-season—if magic is really what it is (ask the 1960 Yankees, the 1941 Brooklyn Dodgers, or best of all the 1919 White Sox). But A) you get there by playing the fiendishly hard, unforgiving, body-grinding game of baseball just about every single sweaty mundane day for five months; and B) the number itself is calculated by a very unmagical process known as math: Any combination of Bulls wins and Gwinnett losses totaling five gives the Bulls the division title.

This is not to take the romance out of it, but only to honor what Class AAA ballplayers do 144 times in a season, with a grand total of 10 days off. Yesterday's doubleheader was an especially strong reminder of the repetitive nature of the season: the Bulls and Knights played a game of baseball, took a 30-minute break to change uniforms while the grounds crew freshened up the field, and then came right back out and played another one.

Watching two games in a row helped dispel the hocus-pocus that the term "magic number" implies. The game of baseball itself is magical—methinks its very repetition is what makes it magical, along with its precision and its relentless dailiness. Wins and losses are not magic. They are the cumulative evidence of how much magic your hard work, your discipline and your patience with failure have created. If the Bulls make the playoffs—which they probably should, given the circumstances—they will have gotten there not by sleight of hand but by handwork; not by trickery, but by uprightness.

The Bulls' starters in yesterday's doubleheader were two guys named Matt. If you were told that one of them pitched six scoreless innings in a shutout win, you'd probably assume that it was Matt Moore, the left-handed super-prospect who has pitched wonderfully since his promotion to Durham about six weeks ago.

You'd be wrong. In the first game of the doubleheader, Moore had the rockiest outing of his Bulls career so far—a whopping eight games, so let's not jump to any conclusions. It's a measure of how good Moore's raw material is that "rockiest" meant allowing three runs in six innings in Game One of the twinbill. It happened that those three runs left the Bulls in a 3-1 hole with just two at-bats remaining (minor-league doubleheader games are a regulation seven innings).

It took the heroics of a guy playing in his 474th career Bulls game to erase the deficit. Justin Ruggiano tied the score in the sixth inning with a two-out, two-run, opposite-field homer—tying former teammate Chris Richard for the Bulls (Class AAA) franchise RBI record with 299. Two innings later, Brandon Guyer tripled—he just missed a home run with a long drive to right-center field—and after Ruggiano walked, J. J. Furmaniak's safety squeeze bunt scored Guyer to give the Bulls a 4-3 "extra"-inning win.


Matt Torra, walking tall.


Ladies and gentlemen, with nothing up my sleeve, I present Matt Torra. The righty stepped into the Bulls' limelight yesterday, blanking Charlotte for six innings en route to a 3-0 shutout in the nightcap. Torra mixed pitches, threw strikes, changed speeds and needed only 69 tosses to baffle the Knights. Rob Delaney, who was presented with the team's Best Pitcher award between games of the doubleheader—if you guessed in April that he'd win it, please come get your prize—closed it out for his team-high 11th save. (Just for fun, to show how different this year's bullpen has been than last season's: Winston Abreu saved 23 games for Montoyo's Bulls in 2010. This year's bullpen has been a comparative patchwork in the late innings.)

Through his first 14 2/3 innings pitching for the Bulls, which comprised three starts plus the first inning of a fourth, Torra had allowed 20 hits, six walks and three home runs, and had an 8.59 ERA.

Since the second inning on July 26, it's 2.04.

Magic? Hardly. Torra set to work on "a lot of mechanical stuff that was off just a little bit," he said after last night's game. Enough little bits can make a lot of difference in a pitcher's results, and in fact Torra had already been trying to fix the glitches in Reno, where he spent the first half of the season pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks' Class AAA affiliate.

Torra was just starting to make progress in Reno, he said, when he was traded to the Rays organization. A guy who had been pitching in the desert for a year and a half suddenly found himself on the sweltering east coast. Torra is from Pittsfield, Mass., and although he pitched in Class AA Mobile, Ala. in 2008, he had little exposure to the midsummer humidity of places like Durham and Norfolk. What's more, he had been trying to figure out how to get good results in Reno, where the high desert air and elevation are murder on pitchers. That surely demanded artificial adjustments which may in fact have contributed to the mechanical corruptions he then had to go back and try to purge while still in Reno, where he was finally divorced from the Diamondbacks after six years of marriage.

So he was making all kinds of adjustments: to his mechanics, to Reno, after Reno, to Durham—and to a new organization. Torra had been a Diamondback his whole professional career until early July.

Fortunately, Torra became the latest Bulls hurler to find pitching coach Neil Allen a valuable mentor. "He made things comfortable," Torra said. "Neil was able to pick right up" on the adjustments that Torra had just begun to make in Reno—he was literally working on some of them in his final bullpen session before the trade—"and within two starts we started getting right back on track. I started to feel good again."

In addition to continuing the remodeling Torra had just begun in Nevada, Allen "added a couple of other things that have really been beneficial for me," he said. One, he suggested that Torra move from the third base side of the pitching rubber to the first base side. That got immediate results. "The lefty [hitter] isn't seeing the ball as long," Torra said. "It doesn't have to cross all the way over. And it's allowed the changeup"—Torra's best pitch—"to get more action."

Simply moving to the other side of the rubber isn't going to reduce a pitcher's ERA by six runs—it sounds like magic. There were other adjustments, and one of them, also suggested by Allen, was getting Torra to stand more upright when pitching from the stretch. He had been slouching, which slowed his delivery down and reduced the amount of downward action on his pitches. The evidence suggests that Torra's uprightness, plus his relocation to the first base side of the rubber (and whatever other changes he has made), have dramatically improved his control. After walking six batters in his first 14 2/3 innings as a Bull, Torra has walked that same number in his last 39 2/3 innings pitched, right in line with his excellent career rates—in fact, a little better.

The upshot of all of this mechanical stuff is that Torra, with last night's start, finally earned Charlie Montoyo's trust. For one thing, Montoyo hates walks—hates them. Pitchers have to prove to him that they won't put guys on base. For another, Montoyo simply didn't know Torra. "At the beginning, we didn't know what to expect with him," Montoyo said; so when Torra struggled right out of the gate, he immediately put himself in suspicion under Montoyo's gaze.

Montoyo loves Ray Olmedo, who is really just an average player, and part of why he loves him is that he knows exactly what Olmedo's ballplaying life is like: Olmedo is an undersized middle infielder with little power, just like Montoyo was. Montoyo doesn't identify with pitchers at all—he relies, wisely, on his pitching coach to do the necessary work with them—and he had a preternaturally good batting eye as a player: He is the rare hitter who walked more than he struck out. (Way more: 744 BB/459 K in his career.) Presumably, he would like pitchers to be as discerning about the strike zone as he was, since they are the ones throwing baseballs at it. Torra had some control problems in his third and fourth starts as a Bull, a sure way to alienate Montoyo.

Torra made three very good starts in a row from August 6-16, but didn't reach 90 pitches in any of them. In the two that bracketed those three starts, at home against the Knights on July 31 and at Norfolk on August 21, Torra wasn't quite as sharp. Nonetheless, he was keeping the Bulls in both of those games when Montoyo lifted him after very, very low pitch counts (the Bulls won both of them). Montoyo has often allowed other starters to pitch much deeper into games, even though they were struggling worse than Torra ever has since July 31.

Take Matt Moore yesterday afternoon, for example. Moore walked four batters, matching a season high set on May 10 when he was with Class AA Montgomery, allowed six hits, including a home run and two doubles (one of which would have been a homer in most other parks), and got some very loud outs. His fastball command was erratic, and he appeared to labor progressively harder in every inning after the third.

Yet "he kept us in the game," said Montoyo, who let Moore go back out, after a two-walk fifth inning, for the sixth. Moore couldn't put away leadoff man Dallas McPherson after getting ahead of him 0-2; McPherson fouled off a bunch of pitches, including a couple of not-great curve balls, then smacked a single up the middle. The next batter was Lastings Milledge. With the count 1-1, Moore came way inside and nearly hit Milledge, but the ball hit the handle of his bat as Milledge tried to get out of the way—you could hear the wooden sound, which made it so that Milledge couldn't try to sell the umpire on a hit-by-pitch. Shaken up nonetheless by the close call, Milledge wandered out of the batter's box for a minute or so, stepped back in, and promptly crushed Moore's dreadful 1-2 changeup for a go-ahead, two-run home run. Two outs later, Gookie Dawkins just missed another homer, banging a ball up off the left field wall for a double. Moore got Adam Ricks to fly out to left field to escape further damage.

Now: Moore is a prospect, and he gets star treatment. Torra is, basically, a suspect, and has twice been yanked early from games he was keeping the Bulls in. Last night, it happened again. Torra was done after just 69 easy-impact pitches. But this time happened for a different reason: Pitch count and inning count aside, the "save" inning was next, and the savior—or Rob Delaney, anyway—was almost certainly going to pitch if the Bulls had a lead. I mean, the guy had just gotten a plaque.

And where Torra was a suspect two weeks ago, now he is, in Montoyo's post-game words, "kind of the key." You can bet he'll be allowed to pitch deeper into games, including—especially—playoff games, from here on out.

***

As for Moore, I can't help but wonder if he's getting a little tired. He has looked off in each of his last two starts, which have pushed him up to a new personal season-high for innings pitched (148 2/3, four more than last season). It just looks like he isn't getting up on top of his pitches consistently—upright enough, perhaps—simple as that. It will be interesting to see if he can regain his form in his next start.

For now, it's worth repeating that, even on a night when he was less than sharp, Moore allowed three runs in six innings—what is known as a "quality start." That term is about as silly as "magic number"—a "quality start," as conventionally defined, produces a 4.50 ERA, which is in fact the virtual definition of average rather than "quality." It's even less "quality" in a seven-inning game, because if your team is trailing when you leave, they have little time to recover.

So thank Justin Ruggiano for (up)righting the wrongs of the 3-1 deficit Moore left the Bulls in Game One. With Ray Olmedo on first base and two outs in the bottom of the sixth, Ruggiano got the benefit of the doubt on a very close 1-2 pitch that was called a ball, and hit the next one over the right-center field wall to time the game. It was a canny at-bat (as well as a slightly lucky one), because Knights reliever Brian Omogrosso was basically forcing the Bulls' right-handed hitters to hit the ball to the opposite field. Tim Beckham and Brandon Guyer had both lined out to right field ahead of Ruggiano's homer, and surely Ruggiano noted Omogrosso's pitch location. The Roodge has good opposite-field power. He showed it again.

And he got a little more luck in the eighth inning after Guyer's own (bad) luck left his long drive short of home-run distance by about two feet—he wound up with a one-out triple. (Guyer would set that right in his next at-bat: He led off Game Two with a solo home run over the Blue Monster.) Then, on a 1-2 count to Ruggiano, Charlotte reliever Shane Lindsay threw what appeared to be a strike almost right down the middle, but catcher Adam Ricks allowed its tailing action to drive his glove off the plate, and it was called a ball. Lindsay couldn't believe it. Ruggiano took advantage, eventually drawing a walk.

Another bit of what seemed like luck but was really the residue of earlier tactics by Charlie Montoyo: J. J. Furmaniak was up next, in the cleanup spot. That's because he had come into the game as a pinch-runner in the sixth, not long after Ruggiano's game-tying homer, when Dan Johnson followed with a single.

You wouldn't think Furmaniak-for-Johnson was a swap of promise: Johnson's OPS is more than 200 points higher than Furmaniak's, and what's more—and more relevant to the situation—Furmaniak leads the Bulls in grounding into double plays. Doing so here would have ended the inning without scoring Guyer.

But Furmaniak is also the team's best bunter, by far, and a safety squeeze was in order with the fleet Guyer on third base. Shane Lindsay throws hard, and throws high, making him hard to bunt on. Furmaniak announced his intentions by showing bunt on two straight fastballs, both of which were indeed high, and 95+ mph, and he wisely pulled the bat back and took them (a less savvy hitter might have offered, and probably popped out). The third time, Furmaniak did just what he needed to do: He handled another high fastball and pushed his bunt past the mound, making the second baseman come in and field it, and Guyer beat the throw and scored the winning run easily.

Game One, over. And then: Matt Torra. Brandon Guyer hit Jhonny Nunez's second pitch of the game for a solo homer, and nothing else was needed. Game Two, over.

The Bulls did score a pair of insurance runs in the third, though, both with two outs. For the day and night, they scored four of seven runs with two outs: an upstanding sign for a team that has been leaving many ducks sitting on the pond lately.


The Bulls J. J. Furmaniak reaches first base after his squeeze bunt drove in the winning run in the Bulls 4-3 win over Charlotte, August 28, 2011.
  • Photo by Leah Sobsey
  • The Bulls J. J. Furmaniak reaches first base after his squeeze bunt drove in the winning run in the Bulls' 4-3 win over Charlotte, August 28, 2011.

When Charlie Montoyo is making in-game moves, you know he means business. In addition to calling for a safety squeeze and pinch-running for Johnson, he also made a late-game defensive substitution (Ray Olmedo for Daniel Mayora—Olmedo promptly made a diving catch of a grounder) and ordered an intentional walk. I couldn't remember a single one of those issued by Durham pitching this season, and was shocked to discover that they've actually recorded nine of them. The league's lowest total is seven (Louisville, surprisingly, under micro-manager Rick Sweet.) The highest? Why, Joe McEwing's Charlotte Knights: They've done it 43 times.

It's that time of year: the time of tactics, situational managing, games that are tense not only because they're close but because of what their outcomes mean. The 2010 Durham Bulls were so good that there was really no suspense to the season whatsoever, except in the taut first round of the Governors' Cup against Louisville, a series that lasted the full five games. This is the first time the regular season has had that exciting, hopeful, worrisome energy since late in 2009, when the Bulls clinched the IL South Division title just four days before the season ended. They could very well do just that again this year.

But there's no need to wait till Thursday to be hopeful, excited or worried. You should really be in that condition for the next two nights, because the Bulls host the Gwinnett Braves tonight and tomorrow. These are the last two games No. 1 and No. 2 play against one another this season. If the Bulls win both of them, they're practically the champs—they'd need only one more win or one more Braves loss over the season's last six games (seven for Gwinnett, which has to complete a suspended game with Norfolk on Wednesday before playing the regularly scheduled game).

If the Bulls lose both games, their lead in the division will shrink to a perilous 1 1/2 games, and the ride will get very, very scary indeed for Bulls fans. A split would leave the Bulls' posture facing forward awkwardly indeterminate, sort of slouched.

So you should get yourself out to the DBAP tonight, and not just because a playoff atmosphere and exciting baseball are likely (you'll probably find yourself sitting upright in your seat). You should also come because the Bulls have only two regular season home games remaining, and the playoffs are no certainty. Durhamites, come out and support your proud and peerless team, and help keep them that way. All the Bull City's upright citizens will be doing it.

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