Durham Bulls beat Norfolk Tides again: close up | Sports
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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Durham Bulls beat Norfolk Tides again: close up

Posted by on Tue, Jul 28, 2009 at 5:00 AM

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DBAP/DURHAM---I am in the general habit of watching the first few innings of each game at the DBAP from the press box, and then moving down behind the plate to get a closer look at the pitchers and hitters. I did that last night and found myself sitting in front of Norfolk Tides' pitcher Troy Patton (you can read an interesting piece about him here). Patton started Sunday's game for the Tides and was charting pitches and working the radar gun for Monday's pitchers. This is common practice, by the way: Jason Cromer of the Bulls (well, technically of the Hudson Valley Renegades for three days until his next start) was a few seats to my right, doing the same for the home team. I was always amazed that David Price wasn't besieged by fans each time he took his turn.

I chatted on and off with Patton during the Bulls' 7-5 win over Norfolk last night. It was revealing to watch baseball through his eyes. "Why'd he throw that pitch there?" Patton wondered aloud when one of his teammates left a meatball up and out over the plate ahead 0-2 in the count. He was quite impressed by Julio DePaula's slider and couldn't believe it when the Bulls' reliever abandoned it in the eighth inning for his fastball, which he couldn't throw for strikes and got himself in trouble with. When Joe Bateman failed to get a strike call on a slider that was so good it seemed to fool home plate umpire Derek Crabill, Patton noted that the hitter, Tides' right fielder Melvin Dorta, had lifted his hands when the pitch went by him, making it look as though it was inside. "Major league hitters do that all the time" to get a ball called, Patton added. (Dorta, by the way, wins the 2009 prize for Weirdest Cause of Leaving a Game: he had so much earwax buildup on Saturday afternoon that he got dizzy and had to be removed. The ear wax had to be removed, too.)

Patton has suffered from some bad luck in his career (read that article linked above), as well as in the game he'd pitched the previous night, but he seemed in remarkably genial spirits despite the setbacks. You see this over and over again in baseball: there's an enormous amount of misfortune and failure you just have to shrug off. From the first inning to the last on Monday night, the Bulls did that---and it paid off with a win.

A couple of quick roster notes before I move into a very long post (the closer you get, the more you're forced to see):

1) Dale Thayer should rejoin the team on Tuesday in Scranton. Brian Shouse was activated after his rehab assignment and Thayer returned to the herd. (Shouse was promptly Swishered and Damonized by the New York Yankees).

2) Justin Ruggiano's wife is expecting and due any day now. Ruggiano will take a leave from the team during the series at Scranton and will return on Saturday at the DBAP. No word on whether an official move will be made (i.e. a temporary add of someone like Rashad Eldridge).

Wade Davis didn't have his best stuff last night. He tried to establish his fastball early, but Joey Gathright led off with a single, and Brandon Pinckney lined out to left. Then, with Jeff Fiorentino at the plate, Bulls' catcher Craig Albernaz picked Gathright off of first base. It was a poor throw, catching first baseman Chris Richard with an in-between hop, but Richard scooped it and tagged Gathright, who was taken by surprise. Albernaz has a good snap-move to first right from his crouch, and he can occasionally get away with a bad throw because it beats the runner to bag by so wide a margin. After Albernaz erased Gathright, Davis fanned Fiorentino to end the top of the first.

The bottom of the inning began with a single by Elliot Johnson, just promoted to the leadoff spot by manager Charlie Montoyo, who dropped the struggling Henry Mateo to eighth. (Mateo was hitting .360 on June 16. He's now at .263.) But Reid Brignac lined the next pitch right back to Norfolk starter David Pauley, who doubled Johnson off of first. Then Pauley fanned Justin Ruggiano looking. End of that threat.

Davis continued to struggle with his fastball in the second. Michael Aubrey hit the first pitch he threw deep to right-center field. Atop the wall is a short railing that is supposedly in play; a ball has to clear it to be counted as a homer. (I say supposedly because at least once this year a ball has hit it and been declared a home run anyway.) Ruggiano and right fielder Matt Joyce converged as the ball disappeared somewhere around the spot where the railing meets the wall. Aubrey's fly was ruled a home run, but Ruggiano and Joyce were adamant that the ball hadn't cleared the railing. Ruggiano came all the way into the infield to make his case. A few minutes' delay occurred. Finally, two umpires acceded to the importunity of Ruggiano and Joyce, and, like masters following their dogs outside to some urgent situation, they trotted out to the outfield to see... what? Evidence? The ball was gone. Did the Bulls' outfielders want the umps to ask the fans just on the other side of the wall for their opinion? The replay we watched in the press box was inconclusive. The umpires looked at the wall up close for about five seconds, saw nothing to change their minds, and stuck with their call.

It was the seventh homer of the year for Michael Aubrey, who played for Columbus until the Indians traded him to the Baltimore Orioles, Norfolk's parent club, in June. Three of Aubrey's homers have come off of Wade Davis, who has allowed only nine of them all year.

Brandon Snyder followed Aubrey's homer with another long drive, but this one stayed in the park. Justin Turner then lined a single to left. Fastball, fastball, and I was thinking, Davis is about to start throwing his breaking stuff. Sure enough, that's what he did, and it worked for him: he got out of the inning with no further damage.

In the third, though, there was another long out to center field off of the heater, and then Reid Brignac and Chris Richard collaborated to throw out Gathright on a difficult 6-3 groundout. But Davis was having success with his breaking pitches, even if he needed Albernaz to gun down Fiorentino trying to steal second base in the fourth inning to conclude a strikeout-throwout double play.

The fifth inning nearly undid Davis. A walk, a long RBI double, and another walk, and the Tides were making Davis labor very hard: there were four full counts in the inning, and Davis threw a whopping 37 pitches, more than half as many as he threw in the rest of his five innings combined. But he limited Norfolk to a single run, and one thing you have to say about Davis is that he competes really hard on the mound, even---especially---when he doesn't have his good stuff.

The key moment came in the sixth inning, Davis's last. The Bulls had batted around in the last of the fifth, scoring five runs off of Pauley in an inning that seemed to take half an hour to play. Davis came out for the top of the sixth after his long sit-down while the Bulls scored (Troy Patton told me that it's really hard to sit that long, even though your guys are scoring runs for you: you lose your rhythm, he said). He walked Fiorentino, the third hitter he'd lost in the last six. He'd needed 40 pitches for those six hitters, and 18 had been balls. He then went to a full count on Aubrey, his nemesis, his sixth full count to the last seven hitters. But then he induced Aubrey to hit a grounder to Henry Mateo at second base, and Mateo started a double play, which was aided by Aubrey's extreme slowness on the basepaths. Davis himself was then aided by Reid Brignac, who made a dazzling play on Brandon Snyder's grounder to the shortstop's left and threw him out to end the inning---and he made it look easy.

"That's a good sign of a kid growing up," Charlie Montoyo said after the game of Davis's performance. Davis earned his team-leading ninth win, and really earned it, fighting himself and the opponent pitch by pitch, inning by inning. It was almost a surprise to see, when he left after six innings, that he had allowed just two runs. But that's what he did. And he also left after taking over the league lead in innings pitched, with 120 2/3.

From where I sit, the Rays would be wrong to trade Davis now, which they are rumored to be considering. With Andy Sonnanstine demoted, Scott Kazmir still struggling, and Jeff Niemann and David Price still inchoate major-league entities, giving Davis a chance to work his way into the rotation makes a lot of sense going forward. The Rays might be better off flipping Reid Brignac, largely because they have options in the middle infield, especially with the emergence of both Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist. To my eyes, Brignac's ceiling is a bit lower despite his slick fielding. A solid middle-of-the-rotation starter is hard to come by, and it seems to me that Davis, who is still just 23, has a chance to be that. Mainly, he just needs to cut down on his walks: he still averages nearly four per nine innings.

Speaking of growing up, Rhyne Hughes is getting manlier by the at-bat. He ripped two more doubles and a single to improve to 12-15 (with six doubles and a homer) over the last four games, and he was rewarded with an intentional walk during the Bulls' five-run outburst in the fifth. (The Tides' tactic didn't work. Mateo knocked in a run with a fielder's choice groundout, and then Albernaz banged a single up the middle to score another run.) The seventh-inning single was Hughes's best at-bat of the night. Norfolk reliever Bob McCrory brushed Hughes back with a high and tight fastball that appeared to graze Hughes's jersey. Some players might have appealed to the umpire for the free base, but Hughes wanted to hit---and he wanted to let McCrory know that he wouldn't be cowed. He stepped back in and ripped McCrory's next pitch to center for a base hit. After McCrory threw a wild pitch, Mateo singled to score Hughes with what at the time appeared to be merely an unnecessary insult of a run. (It turned out to be extremely helpful, if not essential.)

After the game, the loquacious Hughes (we finally got to him for an interview after he'd been unavailable on Saturday and Sunday) said that he wasn't just battling McCrory for the sake of the at-bat, but also because "he's a Mississippi boy"---just like Rhyne Hughes, who hails from way down in Picayune. Nice to get a little extra---dare I say?---up-close insight into why Hughes made a point to dig back in and get a hit off of McCrory. "Little battles," Hughes explained.

Hughes also said he'd spoken the night before with Ben Zobrist, with whom Hughes worked out in the offseason around Nashville. You could tell how much respect Hughes has for Zobrist, a former Bull who has taken full advantage of his opportunity to play every day in Tampa and is having a stunningly good season. Hughes is trying to do the same with his promotion to Durham from Double-A Montgomery.

I asked Hughes if he'd been told that his callup was intended as a temporary move back in June when Chris Richard went on the disabled list with a hamstring strain, and Hughes responded that he'd asked his hitting coach the same question about why exactly he was going to Durham. "He said, 'You're going to play.'" And play he has. He only needs to stop blowing so hot and cold with his streaks ("I would like to be more consistent," Hughes said twice).

A little more bad luck: In the eighth inning, with the Bulls up 7-2 and Julio DePaula in his second inning of relief, Gathright reached on a little bouncer past the mound that Mateo mishandled, although it was scored a hit. After DePaula fanned Brandon Pinckney for the second out, he bewildered Troy Patton by eschewing his more or less unhittable 79-mph slider and trying to survive with his fastball. He walked the next two hitters and loaded the bases. DePaula then got Brandon Snyder to hit an easygoing grounder to the right side, but it just eluded Chris Richard's reach and trickled off his glove into shallow right for a two-run single. I mentioned DePaula's bad luck to Charlie Montoyo, and Montoyo jumped all over it: "After [Gathright's infield single], he walked the next two guys. No excuses." And at the very end of the interview several minutes later, Montoyo put a fine point on his general feelings: "I just don't like walks." He said it like he was talking about cockroaches.

Joe Bateman came on in relief of DePaula and gave up an RBI double to Justin Turner before fanning Dorta to end the inning. It was now 7-5, and Bateman walked the leadoff man in the ninth inning (the Bulls' sixth cockroach of the game) to force Montoyo to get Jorge Julio up and warming in the bullpen. Gathright flied out deep to right before Pinckney slapped a grounder back up the middle that Bateman flung his bare pitching hand at---Don't do it! I wanted to shout to Bateman (but by then I was back in the press box, no longer up close). The luck favored Bateman here: not only was he unhurt by the ball, but it caromed right to Elliot Johnson at third base. Johnson calmly threw out Pinckney to end the game. (By the way, speaking again of up-close: "Pinckney"---how about that awesomely improbable "NCKN" letter sequence right in the middle of his last name? Sometimes I just can't help digging stuff like that. But you're probably thinking, "Seriously, Sobsey, you just noticed that? Don't you even read the scorecard?")

Anyway, DePaula and Bateman found a way to make it interesting (and to get Bateman his third save of the season). The first thing out of Charlie Montoyo's mouth after the game was, "What, did you guys think we were gonna win by five?" Montoyo can be disarmingly funny when he's in the mood for it. But the quip showed that he well knows how close the Bulls like to cut it. They haven't won a game by more than two runs in over two weeks, and they have the league's best record (tied with Pawtucket) in games decided by fewer than three runs. It makes perfect sense that they're also in a division that's likely to go down to the wire before the winner is determined. We may need a close-up on the last day of the season, which is the final game of a three-game set at---guess where?---Norfolk.

A final up-close moment to end the game. Justin Ruggiano came up for what turned to be the Bulls' final plate appearance. He had already struck out three times, and Crabill gifted him with the golden sombrero by calling him out on a slurve-like pitch from sidearming left-hander Alberto Castillo. (Castillo is a 34-year-old Cuban defector with quite a story.) Ruggiano flipped his bat over his head, turned and said something unprintable to Crabill (yes, I know this isn't print journalism; no, I'm not going to print it), and Crabill immediately ejected him. Ruggiano continued to say unprintable things, only louder and three inches from Crabill's face. From my seat about six rows behind the plate, I got quite a show, however brief. Montoyo came over and led Ruggiano to the dugout.

Ruggiano is second in the league in strikeouts and added six more on Sunday and Monday. You wouldn't think that he'd fly off the handle so quickly and so fully over a single whiff, even on a bad call (the pitch was too close to take, as I saw it). But Ruggiano may have more on his mind than strikeouts: his wife is going to bear their first child any day now. Ruggiano's teammates are on a bus to Scranton, Penn. as I write this, but he is preparing to go home and be with Shelly Ruggiano and, soon, their baby. He has to take his golden sombrero with him to Texas and wear it for four days: he'll miss the entire Scranton series. But the strikeouts, the bus ride and all the rest of it must seem pretty insignificant to Ruggiano compared to the ever-closer arrival of his child. Montoyo agreed with that assessment, and his inner comedian emerged again to deliver the punchline: "And when he sees how much diapers cost, he ain't gonna relax anymore, either."

In a locker room abuzz with frantic preparation for an overnight bus ride to Scranton, which was scheduled to depart in less than an hour, I walked right past Ruggiano at his locker near the exit door as I left. I should have wished him luck and a healthy baby and---why not?---fewer strikeouts when he returns to the team on Saturday. If nothing else, I hope he's taking advantage of the sodality of the clubhouse, leaning on his teammates for support and, in the case of experienced fathers like Jon Weber and Jason Childers, getting some tutelage in what to expect when the baby arrives.

It's easy for me, in the comfort of the press box or the sixth row, to concentrate only on the baseball part of a player's life, and that's really all I'm there to observe. At times, though, if you get up close, you can inadvertently see things that you or the players might prefer you didn't: errors, ejections, emotions, imperfections. The road trip will be a good time to step back.

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