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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Bulls Win in 11: The Comeback Kids

Posted by on Wed, Jun 3, 2009 at 2:19 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM---Enlightened baseball commentators in the blogosphere will tell you that there is no such thing as chemistry, no such thing as clutch hitting, and no such thing as momentum (I'm guilty of the latter denial myself). Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team game; clutch hitting stats tend to regress (or progress) to regular stats overall; and every at-bat is a fresh start for pitcher and hitter. There is no carryover, no sum greater than its parts in baseball.

So what to make of the Bulls' current run? They fall behind early and win late so often that it's starting to seem like a deliberately cultivated habit. They lose players to Tampa or to injury, call up guys who shouldn't be as good as the ones they lost, and win anyway. Their starters are inconsistent and put them in holes, and their bullpen keeps the hole from getting deeper until the bats rouse.

Last night the Bulls went into the 9th inning trailing Toledo by three runs, so of course they scored three times---twice down to their final strike---and then won the game in the 11th, 6-5. So many Bulls did so many important things to help win the game that it's ludicrous to try to say that baseball isn't about teamwork. Sure, each effort is individual, but the cohering of energy and belief is a team phenomenon. Even at a remove, watching from the dugout while a teammate hits, or marking time in the outfield while a pitcher labors, there is group focus, group intensity, and a sense that any guy who does something good is the hero of the moment, the only player who matters, all of the competitive energy funneling into him---no matter how distant he may seem, no matter how recently he may have been called up from Montgomery or plucked out of obscurity in Bridgeport.

But as usual, it didn't look good early.

Matt DeSalvo, acquired last week from the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs (in the independent Atlantic League), made his second start. He went seven innings, which Charlie Montoyo said after the game was key. "He battled with no command," Montoyo remarked of DeSalvo's outing, the longevity of which saved the bullpen.

DeSalvo didn't have great stuff---but then, he never has great stuff. He's a breaking-ball specialist who picks around the plate like a nervous eater. Of his 104 pitches, only 58 were strikes, and his overall ratio will probably not deviate much from that. DeSalvo's fastball is perfunctory; his assortment of offspeed pitches wiggle but don't whip; and when he makes mistakes, he's susceptible to unhappy results. He gave up a pair of home runs last night, one to Toledo's all-time leader, Mike Hessman (he also leads the International League in strikeouts by a wide margin---Justin Ruggiano need not worry). Hessman's HR may have in fact been a ground-rule double; it wasn't clear whether the railing over the centerfield wall was in play or not, but the umpires---who generated ample controversy tonight---called it a round-tripper.

DeSalvo totally lost his control in the fifth inning, throwing 27 pitches, only 11 for strikes, but he somehow allowed no runs and went two more scoreless frames. When he left the game after seven innings, he had managed to hold the Mud Hens to four runs. The Bulls were never out of shouting distance of the lead. Charlie Montoyo was quick to point out that Durham's superb bullpen has kept the team close in almost every game. Tonight, Joe Bateman wasn't perfect---he hit the leadoff man with a pitch in the ninth, leading to what seemed like a crucial insurance run for Toledo---but he kept his fingers in most of the holes in DeSalvo's bucket for 2 1/3 innings.

It is Winston Abreu (pictured above), who spelled Bateman with one out in the tenth inning and the game tied, to whom major props are due. Abreu has always had a nasty slider, Montoyo told us, but now he's throwing his fastball with great purpose and accuracy. He faced five hitters last night and fanned four of them. He threw 18 of 21 pitches for strikes, mostly heaters. But when he needed the slider, it was there. Abreu struck out the dangerous Hessman with four sliders to end the top of the 11th.

Jon Weber had another big hit for Durham---he seems to have a knack for it (although he denied it after the game). After Chris Nowak's two-run homer brought the Bulls to within one run at 5-4, Brandon Chaves worked out a tense walk on a very close ball four. (Toledo reliever Casey Fien was so unhappy with the call that he got himself ejected from the game by arguing about it at the end of the inning with home plate umpire Jason Klein, who is rapidly establishing himself as the International League's least favorite man in blue. He tossed Montoyo from a game a couple of weeks ago. Klein's strike zone was mobile tonight.) Weber came up needing an extra-base hit to tie the game, and you could feel his determination to get one. Sure enough, he looked at three pitches before lashing a drive to the right-centerfield gap that scored Chaves.

And so, when Justin Ruggiano came up with the bases F.O.B. and two outs in the bottom of the 11th, you knew---even though he had flied out weakly on a 3-0 count with the tying run on second in the sixth, even though he hasn't hit a homer in a week and a half---you knew he would do something good. Sure enough, The Roodge bashed a 2-2 pitch off the Blue Monster for a 385-foot game-winning single. Durham is now 34-18, just a half-game behind Norfolk in the IL South Division.

Despite the exciting rallies, the event of the night was a near-catastrophic play by Ray Sadler. In the top of the fourth inning, he chased a fly ball into foul territory in right field, steaming toward the Durham bullpen. Sadler glanced at the railing there, seemed to time his reach for the ball shrewdly, made a fine catch---and pitched over the railing, buckling at his midsection. He lay on the ground for several minutes while teammates and the trainer gathered around him, but he got up and stayed in the game---and, naturally, blasted a home run in his next at-bat. (It was the first hit of the game off of Mud Hens' starter Chris Lambert, who retired the first ten Bulls he faced.) After the game, Sadler showed me a pair of nasty gashes on his shins: he ran into the stiles first, rather than the rail, which, though painful, probably saved his innards, because his shins took the first impact.

And the team spirit of the night occurred well after the game was over, as I was preparing to leave the clubhouse following my postgame interviews. The TV was showing sports highlights, and when the recap of the Rays' game came on, several players clustered together to watch. They were just in time to see Matt Joyce, who was their teammate just four days ago, blast a home run to right field. (Joyce added a double and had four RBI in the Rays' 6-2 win over Kansas City.) A cry of esprit de corps rose up. "That was in the major leagues," one player noted, with the same emphatic pride as Jeff Spicoli saying, "That was my skull!" in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. And then John Jaso added, in appreciative understatement of Joyce's night in Tampa, "I think he's gonna stay up there."

Players in AAA are just a single tantalizing step from the majors, and many of them must be carrying with them a tremendous amount of anxiety over each at-bat, each chance in the field, each pitch they throw, knowing that their prospects change daily depending on their lines in the box scores (which aren't trustworthy to begin with). There has to be a certain amount of invidious envy in watching a guy you were just playing with succeed at the top level without you. But the players' reaction to Joyce's breakout success in Tampa was a moment of remarkably generous and sincere support, a toast to an absent friend. You got the feeling that, even hundreds of miles away, Joyce was a part of the Bulls' win last night.

I miscounted my fingers when I said that Wade Davis would be starting last night's game, having failed to account for the one where David Price had been. But I swear that, barring injury---and speaking of injury, Mitch Talbot's shoulder stiffness has landed him on the 7-day disabled list---I swear that Davis is the starter on Wednesday. The game is at 1:05 p.m. Ditch work and see what further magic the Bulls may have in store.

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