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Monday, June 22, 2009

Durham Bulls Lose Eighth Straight: The Longest Day

Posted by on Mon, Jun 22, 2009 at 12:25 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM—So much attention is paid to Father's Day that it was easy to miss the other red letter stamped on Sunday: June 21 is the summer solstice. The ballgame ended right around 8:00 p.m., and there was still plenty of daylight left. It wasn't fully dark until after 9.

But solstice or no, it's getting late early, as Yogi Berra once said, for the Durham Bulls these days. Sunday was another dispiriting game, shadows creeping ominously across the infield as the day waned. Even though the Bulls mounted a late uprising, which failed due to catastrophically bad luck (more about that below), they never really seemed in it, losing their eighth straight game, 5-3 to Pawtucket. The loss dropped them two games behind first-place Norfolk, and in fact Durham surrendered second place to Gwinnett. They're now third in a four-team division.

Here was the play of the game: In the last of the eighth, down two runs, the Bulls loaded the bases with one out. Henry Mateo came to the plate, patiently waited for a pitch he could hit (the selective Mateo saw 23 pitches in five at-bats), and then stung a line drive---right at Pawtucket shortstop Gil Velazquez. Velazquez gloved it and flipped to second base to double up Ray Olmedo, ending the inning and, for all practical purposes, the game. What looked like a sure game-tying single turned into the Bulls' latest misery.

Naturally, the first question posed to Charlie Montoyo after the game was about that play. But Montoyo disregarded the prompt. He had something else on his mind.

Walks! That was the first thing out of Montoyo's mouth. Bulls pitchers walked nine men today, including six in four innings by starter James Houser, one with the bases loaded. Yesterday's starter, Carlos Hernandez, also walked six in just 4 2/3 innings, and the bullpen added two more. On Friday, Joe Bateman issued two crucial free passes to start the PawSox' game-winning rally in the eighth. The Bulls walked six Lehigh Valley IronPigs on Thursday. Two days before that, Houser walked four batters in four innings---three of those came around to score---and Bateman walked two more to fuel another big inning. The Bulls pitching staff leads the league in bases on balls allowed. "This whole losing streak is walks," Montoyo said.

I've written before about the abjection of bases on balls. In and of themselves they're bad enough, but they ramify to other elements of the game. For one thing, they slow it down, and not like a beautiful sunset but like rush-hour traffic. Sunday's game clocked in at 2:51 but felt like 3:30, and for a 5-3 outcome it took far too long to play. They call poor control wildness, but there's nothing wild about a game plagued with walks. The whole affair yesterday was like a long, giant yawn, and Houser began the sedation immediately by throwing six straight balls (and nine out of 10) to start the game, walking the first two hitters he faced.

For another thing, as Montoyo reminded me again today, the position players have to stand around on the field, which on Sunday was baking under the late-afternoon sun, watching their pitchers throw balls. That boredom makes it harder for them to keep their concentration when it's time for them to hit; and although Montoyo wasn't using ennui as an excuse for his players' recent problems scoring runs, it would be pointless to argue that it doesn't hurt the cause. That's one of the few ways in which team pitching actually does affect team hitting.

Another way, perhaps, is a more mysterious one, and it has to do with luck. The Bulls actually received a fair amount of good fortune on Sunday: their pitchers put 19 men on base and only five scored. Houser must still be at least partially under contract with the devil, because he could easily (and perhaps should) have allowed more than the four runs that wound up on his tab. Pawtucket's Jed Lowrie, on a rehab assignment, took Houser to the wall for a long out in one at-bat, and two other PawSox hit lasers to the outfield that happened to be caught. Houser recorded zero groundball outs and 11 in the air, while striking out just one batter. He is the exemplar of the Scary Fly Ball Guy, and he was lucky that the flies he allowed on Sunday stayed in the ballpark.

On the other side of the ball, though, the Bulls weren't so fortunate. They knocked out 11 hits on Sunday, two of them charitably donated infield grounders, and had men on base in every inning but two. But they scored only three runs, and when it counted the bats went into their cave. Durham stranded 10 runners and went 2-10 with runners in scoring position, a familiar and sad refrain. You make your own luck, as they say, and the Bulls' pitchers had gobbled up too much favor by leaving the bases full of hitters they'd walked. That's why it seemed appropriate that Henry Mateo's eighth-inning line drive was caught: it was a late, final balancing of the karmic ledger.

Some of us were scratching our heads in the press box during that inning when Charlie Montoyo sent lefty John Jaso to pinch-hit for light-hitting catcher Craig Albernaz with two men on. The puzzling thing was that the PawSox pitcher, Billy Traber, was also left-handed. Although it made sense from one standpoint---Jaso would stay in the game behind the plate, replacing Albernaz---the lefty-lefty matchup seemed a poor one in both theory and practice: Jaso is just 6-32 against southpaws this year. And a double-switch was plainly available. Right-hander Ray Sadler could have batted for Albernaz and then stayed in the game, replacing Rashad Eldridge in left field, and Jaso could have entered the game the following inning.

As it happened, Jaso drew a walk from Traber, making the bases F.O.B. in advance of Mateo's heartbreaking lineout. But I was curious about the choice to keep Sadler on the bench, especially since PawSox starter Kris Johnson was also left-handed. So I asked Montoyo if he was just giving Sadler the day off. "Sadler's got one hit against lefties in 40 at-bats," he said, a disgusted look on his face as if he were describing not Sadler's hitting but oozing sores all over his body. Sadler is actually 1-37 versus left-handers, still truly dreadful, with an astounding 20 strikeouts, and like righty Justin Ruggiano---who was in the lineup as the cleanup hitter (he went 1-5 with an infield single)---he has reverse splits: both of them hit righties, oddly, much better than they do lefties. Given that Reid Brignac, Jaso, Matt Joyce, Chris Richard (and Richard's injury substitute, Rhyne Hughes) and Jon Weber are all lefthanded, and that all except Richard hit right-handers much better, the Bulls are a team with little to recommend them against southpaws. I can't find the Bulls' team record versus lefties, and perhaps it contradicts what the numbers suggest, but this is a team that ought to pray to face right-handed pitchers.

It's tempting to think that the prolongation of the Bulls' awful losing streak has had something to do with the lengthening of the days as we've moved toward the solstice---tempting because the diurnal clock has reached its zenith (or nadir, for the Bulls), and you'd like to think that the slump will end tomorrow when the earth reverses course and begins its tilt away from the sun. And wouldn't you know it, Durham gets a shot of luck on Monday when Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Scott Kazmir pitches at the DBAP on a rehab start. Kazmir is generally regarded as the ace of the Rays' staff.

But if you make your own luck, or even if it just has a way of balancing itself out, then it should come as no surprise that Kazmir's opponent will be Clay Buchholz, who held the Bulls to one run in five innings at Pawtucket a couple of weeks ago. It was no fluke. Buchholz is the best pitcher in the International League.

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