Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Durham Bulls edge Gwinnett Braves: Guts, Pt. 2

Posted by on Wed, Aug 31, 2011 at 6:00 AM

DBAP/ DURHAM—Yesterday I was wondering whether the Durham Bulls had guts. Let me direct you to the top of the ninth inning of the Bulls' exciting 4-3 win over the Gwinnett Braves last night, a huge step toward getting Durham into the post-season.

There was one out and the score was 4-3, Durham. The out was secured by left fielder Russ Canzler, who was named league MVP earlier in the day, drove in the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth with a clutch two-out single—after striking out in his three previous at-bats—and had just raced to the retaining wall in foul territory and caught Wilkin Castillo's foul fly ball. Not a great play, by any means, but a good one, especially for a guy who takes flak for his fielding.

The next batter was the Braves' other Wilkin, the one named Ramirez. He goes around singing to himself, "With the thoughts I'd be thilkin' / I could be another Wilkin." Ramirez singled to left field off of Rob Delaney.

I am psychic. I've said it before and will have cause to say it again. This is not a boast. We are all psychic, but our minds are over-cluttered with stimuli and so we can't hear the messages that the future sends us. What I like about watching baseball games is that their deep but thrumming quiet, and their extraordinary, head-clearing equilibrium, push out all of the mental obstructions and allow you to see the future.

I thought to myself: Someone is going to make a diving catch to decide this game.

I didn't know who, nor even for which team. I just saw a diving catch.

Ramirez has good speed. He has stolen 17 bases this season. Delaney threw over to first once to check him, then threw a slide-step strike to J. C Boscan, a slider. On the next pitch, Ramirez broke for second. A hit-and-run was on, and Boscan did what he was supposed to do: He hit the ball to the right side.

The looper was to shallow right field. In came Bulls outfielder Matt Carson.

He dove. If the ball gets by him, Ramirez scores easily and the game is tied for the fourth time, headed for the bottom of the ninth.

Carson made the catch. Ramirez was somewhere around third base. He was doubled off easily. Game over.

Diving catch like that? In those circumstances? Guts.

"You know it had to end like that," Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said of what he called "the biggest game of the year," which it was. "He either misses it and they score..." Everyone laughed, including Montoyo, and it was unnecessary to complete the sentence. The media, the players, the manager—there's not a soul who didn't know how important this game was for Durham, and how gut-churning the rivalry with Gwinnett really is.

Here is the wide pendulum swing of last night's game. Had Gwinnett won, they would have reduced Durham's division lead to just 1 1/2 games, its smallest since August 14, and gained major momentum going into the season's last seven games against slovenly Norfolk and Charlotte. But because the Bulls won it, they now need a combination of only three Durham wins and/or Gwinnett losses to win the division. The two teams have a total of 13 games left to play, all against Charlotte and Norfolk. Certainly anything can happen over the final week of the season, but the Bulls would have to have a full-blown collapse to lose this thing.

Given that they recently had a pretty bad stumble, losing five of six games to the Tides and Knights in ugly fashion, including four in a row, and then dropping the first of two games to Gwinnett, it sort of seems like last night's win, with its clutch Canzler hit, its superb bullpen work (more on that below) and Carson's game-ending catch, might have kicked most of the jams out of the Bulls' traffic.

***

Everything about the game had that sort of tense yet rollicking energy that the best late-season games between contending teams generate. There was a big crowd on hand (8,787), along with International League President Randy Mobley—who was in town to announce earlier yesterday that the DBAP will host the 2012 Triple-A Championship Game (more on that below). A repeat of the announcement, made by Mobley right on the field after the fourth inning, drew a big ovation from the fans.

There was also some afterglow surrounding Canzler's MVP Award—the second straight season a Durham Bull has won it, and the fifth in the last 14 seasons. That afterglow contributed to a pregame atmosphere of hope and pride. The Bulls prefer their dark blue mesh jerseys, because they breathe better than the other uniforms they wear; but last night they wore their traditional home whites. A foursome called "Fire For Him" from the Well Fellowship Church sang a rousing National Anthem, gospel-like but with complex and bracing harmonies that vibrated the spine. Emergency starter Lance Cormier's walk-up music was "Sweet Home Alabama," which always gets people going and has its own sense of local pride, of course. You got the feeling that Durham and the DBAP, plus the award-giving (to Canzler) International League, were doing everything in their power to give the Bulls that winning feeling again.

It was a gutsy game, on both sides, like one of those prizefights in which the combatants keep exchanging heavy punches. Norfolk scored in the top of the first inning off of Lance Cormier, pressed into starting duty when Brian Baker was scratched. Charlie Montoyo had said on Monday that Baker was injured—except that he didn't really say it. He sort of more agreed to it when asked, and I am here to tell you that I smell a 50-pound rat. Baker has been on the Temporary Inactive list since Saturday, which happens to have been the same day Chris Archer arrived in Durham from Class AA Montgomery and was added to the roster. It couldn't have been more obvious that Baker was simply transferred there (rather than the customary, sweatshirt-wearin' Hudson Valley roster) to make room for Archer. Had he been injured, he might just as easily have been put on the disabled list. But Baker just came back from the disabled list and told me less than a week ago that he feels good. He hasn't pitched since.

I bring this up because it's sort of fun to watch the silly and secretive games that are played up in the front office. I'm sure there is some head-shaking or eye-rolling reason why Baker wasn't activated that has nothing to do with being hurt (because he isn't.)

So there was Cormier in the first inning, walking the leadoff hitter, Matt Young and then, one out later, giving up a run-scoring double to Mauro Gomez—the 10th straight time Gomez, the reigning IL Player of the Week, had reached base dating back to Sunday.

The Braves kept swinging, loading the bases on an infield single by Stefan Gartrell (just named to the All-Star team)—on which Gomez was unable to advance, because it was hit in front of him—and a single to right-center by 35-year-old veteran Wes Helms—who played for the Bulls way back in 1996 (!) when they were a Class A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.

There was still just one out, and Gwinnett had Cormier on the ropes. They were on the verge of practically winning the game in their first at-bat, what with thee way the punchless Bulls have been hitting lately, which is punchlessly.

But Cormier fought himself out of it. He struck out both Brandon Hicks and Wilkin Castillo to keep the Braves to just the one run, and the Bulls punched back in the bottom of the first, on a two-out RBI single to right field by Dan Johnson that scored Justin Ruggiano, who had doubled.

The Braves took another swing, scoring a run in the top of the second inning when Ruben Gotay singled to score Ramirez, who had poked a leadoff double the opposite way to open the inning. Already the game was getting punchy and tense: first baseman Johnson dove for Gotay's grounder, which was hit hard and got under his glove and into right field for a hit. It would have been a tough play to make, but Johnson knew he could have had it, and he smacked the dirt in frustration after he came up empty.

Gotay was then called out stealing second via one of the worst bits of umpiring I've seen at the DBAP this season, courtesy of Kevin Bultron. Gotay was so clearly safe, by such a wide margin, that even the kids in the Bulls' media room (which is adjacent to the press box) were laughing in disbelief.

The Bulls counter-punched again in the third inning. With one out, Tim Beckham singled to right field, and Brandon Guyer doubled him to third, Stefan Gartrell basically freezing and watching Guyer's line drive sail over his head to the Blue Monster.

Both runners scored when Helms muffed Ruggiano's easy grounder to first. It went right through his legs. It seemed, perhaps, that Helms looked up to see if he had a play at home on Beckham before actually fielding the ball.

Ruggiano got credit for an RBI (you can't assume the out at home), breaking Chris Richard's franchise record at the Class AAA level. He celebrated, when the milestone was announced over the PA system, by standing still and showing no sign of having heard.

The error was a bad one, of course, but Dan Johnson made it academic by lining another single to right field, to virtually the same spot as the first one. Both singles were first-pitch hits. The second one would have scored both runners, so the runs were earned against Braves starter Yohan Flande.

A mid-game lull ensued, much like the kind you see in heavyweight fights, when the boxers are just trying to pace themselves to go the distance. Much of the lull had to do with Jay Buente. Buente tossed three scoreless innings in relief of Cormier, who had to leave after two innings because he needed 31 pitches for the first inning. Buente threw 31 pitches in all three of his innings combined.

Buente was really the Bulls' hero of the game, despite the late derring-do of Canzler and Carson. The Bulls had fought back for the lead, and Buente kept the Braves from doing much of anything to regain it. He allowed a one-out double to Gartrell in the fourth, and then hit Helms with a pitch, but the Bulls turned a nifty double play on the very next pitch when Daniel Mayora picked Hicks's hot grounder at one end, and then Dan Johnson scooped J. J. Furmaniak's low relay through at the other.

(In retrospect, maybe Dan Johnson was the other hero of this game. After his two solid singles, which could have driven in three runs, he just missed a home run in the sixth, a millimeter or two under a ball that became a fly out to deep center field; and then his dangerous presence forced an intentional walk out of the Braves in the eighth, setting up Canzler's game-winning single. Everyone crowded around Canzler for postgame comment—understandably, given his MVP award—but there was last year's MVP, sitting at his locker 15 feet away, just as deserving of attention if not more so. He also deserves more praise for his fielding at first base, where he is a solid player, Gotay's elusive single notwithstanding.)

It's hard to claim that last night was Buente's best outing of the season, and Buente himself wouldn't declare that afterward—results don't necessarily have anything to do with quality of work. But it was almost certainly his most important outing of the season. Lately I've been giving the Durham bullpen a bit of a hard time, questioning whether their jokey collective demeanor has contributed to their uneven results. It was interesting to have this little suggestion reinforced, inductively, by Buente's postgame remarks.

"I had the idea that I was going to be the first one out there after Lance," Buente said. "It makes it a little bit easier, knowing you're going to throw. You can get prepared a little more, mentally and physically, between innings."

Sure enough, that "mental and physical preparation" resulted in a superb, focused and thrifty performance—but Buente wasn't about to join the Boy Scouts. Asked whether there had been any clubhouse tension mounting as the struggling Bulls saw their six-game lead over Gwinnett shrink to 2 1/2, he replied, "We're such a laid-back team, [losing a game] doesn't affect us very much. Obviously we want to make the playoffs, and we want to win the championship, but we don't feel pressure at all. Skipper, Charlie [Montoyo], he does a good job of not putting it on us. At this point in the season, every game is do or die, but we don't feel that way. You just try go out there and have fun, and let things happen."

There was a little feint in that commentary: These games really aren't quite do-or-die for Durham, which despite the mild panic surrounding the team lately has maintained a multi-game division lead. (It was surprising to see a Bulls official checking the score of last night's game in Lehigh Valley, currently the wild-card leader, as though the Bulls needed to be worried about that at this juncture.) The "laid-back" Bulls themselves haven't panicked one bit.

Buente is on the Rays' 40-man roster, and his sanguine feelings about his current team may owe somewhat to his optimism about the possibility of no longer being a Bull past Thursday, when the September 1 roster expansion goes into effect. He certainly made a case for himself last night, and in fact has been making one for most of the season. Buente has a meh 4.89 ERA with Durham, but 21 of the 27 runs he has allowed came in his first four appearances immediately after he was signed off of waivers by the Rays. All of those were as a starter, when he was pressed into duty because the Bulls really had no one else at the time.

Since his transition to the bullpen, where he has spent the overwhelming majority of his career (only four starts in 197 pro games through 2010), Buente has a 1.82 ERA with a 1.13 WHIP. He has allowed only two of 10 inherited runners to score. His fastball can reach 92 mph and he has a good splitter, plus a serviceable curve ball. He has performed under the radar, but Buente seems like an attractive September 1 callup option for the Rays.

Meanwhile, Yohan Flande was matching Buente, allowing just a single baserunner over his last three innings of work and striking out the last two batters he faced. He didn't walk a batter. The Bulls walked two, and they both scored.

The second came during Adam Russell's inning. Russell relieved Buente to start the sixth—Montoyo lifted Buente after just 31 pitches in case needs him again tomorrow—and walked Gartrell. Helms hit a fly ball single to center not long after a good Russell pitch on an 0-2 count wasn't called a strike (Russell looked angry).

Then Hicks laid down an excellent sacrifice bunt that wound up a base hit. Bases loaded, no outs: Just the situation that Alex Torres ahd pitched out of the night before; Russell came close to doing the same himself, close enough to give the Bulls a chance to win—guts, in both instances. Russell limited the damage to just one run, and was praised for it later by Montoyo. A soft groundout to second by Wilkin No. 1 scored Gartrell to tie the game, but with the infield in and still one out, Wilkin No. 2 hit a grounder out to shortstop and the runners had to hold at second and third. Russell fanned J. C. Boscan to end the inning.

More punch and counter-punch: Peter Moylan, the sidearming Aussie on a major-league rehab assignment with Gwinnett, struck out the side in the seventh, getting the bottom of the Durham order easily with his slider. It was like watching a man pitch to boys. Mayora, Nevin Ashley and Furmaniak swung 11 times at Moylan's 13 pitches, and whiffed on seven of them.

In the top of the eighth, Dane De La Rosa punched right back, striking out the side himself: Gartrell, Helms, Hicks. His fastball was electric to Hicks, as De La Rosa dialed it up from 94 mph to 95-96

In the bottom of the eighth, Beckham laced a leadoff double to left off of Anthony Varvaro. Brandon Guyer sacrificed him to third. I can't stand sacrifices about 90% of the time, and this was not part of the 10% exception. Guyer is a good bunter, but he's also a really good hitter, and although it's nice in theory to have the go-ahead run at third base with one out, in practice the Bulls haven't been scoring him very often lately.

Sure enough, Justin Ruggiano struck out on a 95-mph fastball from Varvaro, who was recently up in the majors.

Johnson got his intentional walk. Canzler, who had looked bad in all three of his previous at-bats, each one a strikeout, fell behind 1-2 before punching a single to right field. Montoyo joked afterward that, had he not come through with that single after the three straight punch-outs, Canzler might have to give his MVP award back to International League President Randy Mobley. "End of trophy!" he cracked. ("Couldn't have happened to beter guy, he then added, in all seriousness.)

Mobley was in town to announce, earlier yesterday, that the DBAP will host the 2012 Triple-A Championship Game, and it was he who personally bestowed the MVP hardware upon Canzler immediately after the game. Canzler also got his media-given Good Guy Award, as well as a symbolic bat that represented yet another prize whose exact nature now escapes me. When it was all over, the almost dazed Canzler was laden with all of his goodies like a guy who has shopped for groceries without a cart.

***

Oh, so the DBAP is going to host the 2012 Triple-A All-Star Game. ("We fully expect it to be another home game for the Bulls," General Manager Mike Birling quipped during the afternoon press conference.) This is sort of a no-brainer for the league, which had initially intended to try to settle the fanfare game permanently in Oklahoma City, where it was played for its first five years of existence. But it didn't quite take—I wonder if the arrival of the NBA Oklahoma City Thunder drew interest away from what is essentially just a minor-league exhibition game—and the game will be played in Albuquerque this year. That begins what is expected to be an annual movement of the game from city to city.

Not only most of the Bulls' front office staff but a number of Durham boosters were in attendance at the press conference, from places like the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Durham Inc., etc. This was a pretty big deal, helping to reaffirm Durham as a legitimate tourist destination and the Bulls as the minor leagues' most recognizable franchise—and perhaps most reliable, too. The biggest compliment paid the team in the luncheon of praise came from Mobley, who said of bringing the game to Durham: "It's one of those situations that you don't have to worry about. You know things are going to be done right."

***

As for Canzler's MVP Award, I've got thoughts but will hang fire for now except to congratulate him. He has had a marvelous season, the best of his career in his first year at this high a level. I'll be back with more about this, I hope, soon, but I need to pace myself—in the wake of a trip to Norfolk a fortnight ago, followed by this eight-day, nine-game homestand, which has seen the Bulls rise from the guts to (nearly) the glory, I'm going to head down to Charlotte to watch them play two games against the Knights. The Bulls could very well clinch the division down there, and if no one's there to see it, does it really happen? Probably, but I want to be sure.

Andy Sonnanstine faces Charlotte's Dylan Axelrod at 7:05 p.m. tonight in Charlotte Fort Mill, S.C. This is a rematch of last Friday's game at the DBAP, in which Axelrod pitched five one-run innings and Sonnanstine was bombed for eight runs and was gone after the fourth. The impact of last night's scintillating win may not be felt until tonight, when we'll find out whether the Bulls carry the momentum with them to Knights Stadium or come down with another case of lethargy and losing. In other words, when it's over we'll know more about not just the strength but the length of their guts. I'll be back tomorrow with a report.

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