Thursday, September 8, 2011

Columbus Clippers shut out Durham Bulls, take first game of Governors' Cup playoff series

Posted by on Thu, Sep 8, 2011 at 6:00 AM

DBAP/ DURHAM—Last night's game was set up as a pitchers' duel: Durham's Matt Moore versus Columbus' Zach McAllister. It came close to its billing. Columbus beat Durham, 3-0, behind six excellent innings from McAllister, who was backed by Chad Huffman's solo homer and booming RBI double. The Bulls went hitless after the fifth inning against McAllister and two relievers—and two of the five hits they got up to that point were bunt singles; a third was a chopper past the mound that went about 90 feet.

There's no question that McAllister pitched well. He kept his sinking fastball down, mixed in his slider and changeup, and made a team that has had a painfully hard time scoring runs look totally feckless. (Personal to DeMargel: is that what you wanted?) In the deathly quiet ninth inning, the heart of the Durham order—Matt Carson, Dan Johnson and Russ Canzler—all struck out swinging in lame sequence against Columbus closer Zach Putnam. As the teams left the field following the 2:23 game, it felt as if the Bulls would never score another run ever again.

They will, though. But will the bedeviled Bulls score enough to win a game?

And is there some other game being played on the DBAP field that's been keeping them from doing it?

Got stats in pocket, and I'm gonna use them. In the current 22-game stretch starting August 16, when the Bulls shut out Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, 2-0, Durham has scored 76 runs. That averages out to 3.45 per game. The lowest scoring team in the International League this season, the Buffalo Bisons, averaged 3.99. In other words, the Bulls have produced at far below the lowest level for 22 games. Give them a few more games, back further into August, and they have still averaged only 3.68 runs per game for the last quarter of the season. It's a minor miracle that they made the playoffs.

The meager production is what has made the Bulls so dull to watch. Last night's game had the makings of an exciting one. There were two disputed umpiring calls—one cost the Bulls a run; the other saved one; and they both got managers out arguing and fans shouting—and there was a thrilling bases-loaded, no-outs situation that Matt Moore escaped in heroic, manly fashion. There was some very fine glovework in the field, by both teams. There was a lollapalooza of an at-bat between Moore and Jared Goedert, 13 pitches of muscle on muscle, brain on brain (Goedert finally singled to right-center field). There was a scintillating first look at highly regarded reliever Chen-Chang Lee, who threw two scoreless innings. The Bulls played some exciting small-ball in the fifth inning, bunting for consecutive singles to load the bases with one out.

But none of it made a lick of difference, to tell it true. After the bunts by Robinson Chirinos (his first for a hit in three years, he admitted rather sheepishly after the game) and Ray Olmedo made the bases F.O.B., J. J. Furmaniak struck out to end an eight-pitch at-bat, and Travis Buck made a fine diving catch in foul ground on Tim Beckham's fly wide of right field. Inning over.

That was the Bulls' only legitimate threat, but it was really not all that legitimate: it took two surprise bunts to get it going—both of them, by the way, coming from the players' own rather desperate volition, not a call by Charlie Montoyo in the third-base coaching box. That's like trying to get a bonfire going with nothing but twigs. The Bulls had no heavy timber in this game. They hit three balls hard, by my count, all evening.

Last night's outcome seemed all but decided by the end of the first inning, or, "It's getting late early for {insert team} these days." The first two Columbus hitters of the game hit little opposite-field dink singles to left field. After Matt Moore got Goedert to hit into a force-out, retiring the lead runner at third base, Beau Mills got a 3-1 fastball up and out over the plate and drilled a double off the Blue Monster (another opposite-field hit) to score a run.

Moore got out of the inning without another run scoring, and in the bottom of the inning Stephen Vogt lined a one-out double into the right-field corner. The crowd, pitifully small (tiniest of the season, 2,023) but playoff-lively, started making a lot of noise. They came to the ballpark to get into it. OK, it's on. Here we go. Playoffs. Mano a mano, tit for tat, run for run.

Or so it seemed. Matt Carson flied out to shallow center field and Dan Johnson popped out to third. End of inning. Crowd silenced.

They stayed quiet until the Bulls' bunt-kindled rally in the fifth inning. By that time it was 2-0, Clippers. Leading off the fourth, Moore got ahead of Chad Huffman, 1-2, getting him to swing over an offspeed pitch for the second strike. He went up and in with a fastball—exactly the pitch and location he wanted, Moore said later—and Huffman surprised him by getting up on top of it and belting it over the left-center field wall for a solo homer. It was quite appropriate that, immediately afterward, the sirens of emergency vehicles could be heard racing by the DBAP. The home team was in bad trouble.

After the Bulls failed to score in the F.O.B. fifth, Columbus added its third run in the top of the sixth. Goedert led off with his 13-pitch single, and Mills followed with his second hit of the night, a single to left. Huffman then bashed a 1-0 pitch to deep center field. The runners had to hold halfway between bases to see if it would be caught. It wasn't. Carson fielded it off the wall and hit the cutoff man, Ray Olmedo. Olmedo made a good throw to the plate, which beat Goedert. But umpire Fran Burke ruled that Goedert managed to get his hand on the plate before Robinson Chirinos tagged him. Chirinos argued. Moore, backing up the play, argued. Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo argued. Replays were inconclusive.

The call stood, of course, and although Montoyo later observed that there is a noticeable difference between a 2-0 deficit and a 3-0 deficit, these days Durham often looks incapable of overcoming even a 1-0 deficit. On the infrequent days when they do get hits, it doesn't lead to wins. They whacked 18 hits on Labor Day at Norfolk, but scored just five runs and lost. (The penultimate of the 18 hits was a routine popup by Russ Canzler that two Tides fielders couldn't negotiate catching; it scored a run in the top of the ninth inning. The Bulls should only have scored four runs in the game.) Two days before that, they gave the bullpen a comfortable 6-1 ninth-inning lead, but the bullpen blew it and Norfolk won in the 10th.

Those games lost despite a show of improved hitting get at something that may be more important than the Bulls' sheer lack of run production. Since the 22-game drought began on August 16, Durham has been better than you might expect given their woes at the plate: an even 11-11. The thing is, they have won only one game easily in all that time, a 5-1 victory over Scranton/Wilkes-Barre back on August 18. They haven't won a game by more than three runs since. Every night is a trial. They need to have a walk in the park (and they need to draw some walks in the park), rather than yet another forced march. They need to be able to relax on the field (as they constantly claim to do off of it). They need an explosion, a rout, a laugher.

They would seem to be good enough hitters, most of them, to pound out one of those. The current pasture of Bulls are no powerhouse, but they are a better hitting team than the one they've been since mid-August. Every team is a better hitting team than the Bulls have been since mid-August (well, except the 2010 Seattle Mariners, but they deserved it). The problem is that time is running out for them to start showing it. In fact, if they don't do it tonight, they're probably steak, with the big fork in them.

That's not only because of the frightful prospect of taking an 0-2 series deficit to Columbus, the league's best home team, and where the Bulls haven't won a game since, ahem, 2009. It's also because they'll probably have to put up even more than the 3.45 runs they've been averaging over the last three weeks. Chris Archer is tonight's starter for Durham, and although he called his last start at Charlotte the best he has had this season, the Knights' hitters were really not all that good. Columbus had six left-handed batters in its lineup last night and will probably add a seventh, switch-hitting catcher Luke Carlin, tonight. They are patient hitters, but canny enough to pounce on hittable fastballs early in the count. They got to Matt Moore for nine hits on Wednesday night. Moore hadn't allowed that many since his second start of the season, on April 13 with Montgomery.

Opposing Archer will be the Clippers' Mitch Talbot, the longtime former Bull who started 67 games for Durham from 2007-09. After a decent 2010 season in the big leagues with Cleveland, Talbot has had an injury-plagued 2011. He posted a dreadful 6.33 ERA in 11 starts for the Indians and was finally outrighted to Columbus not long after Ubaldo Jimenez came over from Colorado. Since then, Talbot has been generally pretty good, but what's the point, really, of trying to assess how the Bulls are going to do against any given pitcher? Watching them night after night recently has been torture—and it isn't the torture, really, of punchless innings; it's how they seem to turn every game into an aimless trudge, an empty sigh, a hopeless slouch; fingers pinching the bridge of the nose.

***

If Columbus goes on to win this series, we have already seen its emblematic moment. After the seventh inning of every Bulls game at the DBAP, Wool E. Bull speeds his little (but surprisingly zippy) go-cart around the perimeter of the ballpark. The crowd always digs it when, just before he completes the circuit and drives off the field, he spins out 180 degrees and kicks up an impressive dust cloud on the warning track at the right field foul pole.

Last night he did something different. Among the traditions of Wool E.'s victory (or loss) lap is the opposing team's occasional habit, about once every dozen games or so, of tossing water on him as he zooms by their dugout. Sometimes, as a series goes on, Wool E. will arm himself with a squirt gun and take some preemptive shots at the offending visitors in the second or third game against the same team, drive-by style.

Last night, the Clippers dugout indeed sprayed a little water on Wool E. He continued to drive down the left-field line until he reached the visitors' bullpen—and then, shockingly, turned his go-cart around and headed back toward home plate. As he passed the Columbus dugout again, Wool E. appeared to toss a small handful of dirt at the visitors. They, in turn, soused him again with more water.

As a metaphor for the Bulls-Clippers rivalry over the last couple of years, this little narrative can hardly be improved. The Clippers have bullied the Bulls, especially in the playoffs. They strike first and they strike last. And even when the Bulls try something different, Columbus prevails. Whatever spark Durham lights, Columbus extinguishes it.

A killing silence followed Wool E.'s exit. And as if to reinforce the point, the Bulls' media masterminds then showed on the big screen a little video they like to play sometimes, maybe once a week. It's a one- or two-minute paean to Dodger great Sandy Koufax, with talking heads rhapsodizing about the great left-hander and some brief footage of his perfect game, which he threw for the Dodgers almost exactly 46 years ago (9 September 1965). For most of the season, I have failed to understand why Koufax would appeal particularly to the Bulls. He never played here, to my knowledge, and I don't think any of the guys in the booth are attempting to celebrate a Jewish ballplayer, although that would be cool.

But after last night, I think I got it: every pitcher the Bulls face these days seems like Sandy Koufax.

***

To their customary between-inning promotions and contests this season (Sumo, Bugs in the Bucket, Newlyweds, etc.), the Bulls added a new one that they cooked up with a new sponsor, a car dealer called Durst. It's simple: They set up a big sandwich board with a softball-sized hole in it and drive a shiny car onto the field. A guy who is, I think, not actually Mr. Durst but might as well be, in a sort of Dread Pirate Roberts way, takes the mike and tells a contestant that, if he or she can throw a baseball through the softball-sized hole, from about 60 feet, six inches away (the distance from the piitching rubber to home plate; sometimes closer, especially if it's a woman), the car is his or hers to keep.

The thing is, you have to do it three times in a row. That is basically impossible, and to date I have not seen anyone do it even once. No one is ever going to win the car. After the inevitable miss, the Dread Pirate Durst marches the contestant closer and offers a cash prize from that distance—$500, or maybe even $1,000, something like that. It's a makeable shot from there, but nor is it an easy one, and no one has hit that one either, on my watch. Finally, the contestant is brought up to point-blank range, drops the ball through the hole, and gets $100.

Amazingly, last night's contestant actually nailed the long shot on his first try, causing me to gasp. But then he missed the next two and eventually wound up with his $100—not a bad consolation prize, but nothing like a sports car. It's sort of like watching the Bulls play baseball these days: The big prize is gleaming just a few tantalizing feet away, and they're good enough to get close to it; but actually achieving glory seems as impossible as throwing a baseball through a softball-sized hole three straight times.

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