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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Durham Bulls lose a wild one to Syracuse Chiefs: Some kind of wonder-full

Posted by on Sat, Aug 8, 2009 at 5:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM---And by "wonder-full," I mean full of wondrous things. If you're one of those quick-and-dirty types who stops reading at the jump, let me dispense with the summary:

The Bulls battled back from a 6-2, sixth-inning deficit. They scored three times in sixth inning and twice in the eighth inning and took a 7-6 lead into the ninth against Syracuse. Joe Nelson, the fifth Bulls pitcher, came in to save the game, but he put two men on with a single and a walk. With two outs and a full count on Justin Maxwell, he threw a fastball that tailed back toward the middle of the plate, and Maxwell tattooed it. His long, high drive sailed over the Blue Monster---just foul, it appeared to us, up in the press box. But home plate umpire Fran Burke, the only one of the three officials with a straight-on view of the play, called it fair.

Things went nuts. The Bulls all argued. Charlie Montoyo charged out of the dugout to join them. We watched two replays in the press box, both of which seemed to show the ball crossing in front of the screen that extends from the foul pole---which would indicate a foul ball. Charlie Montoyo implored the umpires to watch the replay on the big screen behind them. They didn't. The call stood. Montoyo was so mad, he threw not only his hat but also the photos of his kids that he keeps in his back pocket. He went into ultra-argue mode, which is manager-code for Eject Me Now, Please. Crew Chief Kevin Causey complied and ejected him. Montoyo, as if only now realizing just how mad all of this had made him, then had to be held back by one ump while he yelled at another. Finally he departed, but not before picking up the photos he'd thrown. A fan threw beer on the field and was escorted from the ballpark. After the game, which the Chiefs won, 9-7, Bulls' General Manager Mike Birling had a brief, heated exchange with with one of the umpires.

And that was only one exciting sequence in a game full of them.

The Bulls---more specifically, Justin Ruggiano---left the bases loaded in both the fifth and sixth innings. After the fifth, I all but announced that the game was over. After the sixth, in which the Bulls scored three times and cut the Chiefs lead to 6-5, I was sure the Bulls would win. And so I felt vindicated when Matt Joyce, who had driven in the Bulls' first run with a sacrifice fly way back in the first inning, plunked a single into center field to give the Bulls the lead going into the last inning of the game.

They had battled. They had struggled. They had failed to get big, timely hits and then redeemed themselves by getting big, timely hits. The bullpen had almost completely locked down the Chiefs in relief of Jason Cromer, who had his first unimpressive start of the season (poor command, lots of outs in the air, back-to-back homers allowed, done after 4 2/3). Newly repatriated reliever Winston Abreu had thrown a scoreless eighth---after the Bulls' DJ had serenaded him during his warmup tosses with the theme song from Welcome Back, Kotter---and was in line for the win. Ruggiano's clutch chokes would be forgotten. The Bulls' failure to score in the fifth after loading the bases with no outs would be forgotten. The Chiefs' two balks would be a footnote (there had been only one other balk at the DBAP all season). Rhyne Hughes---full name: John Rhyne Hughes---had extended his hitting streak to 13 games, waiting out an eight-pitch at-bat and singling to center in the sixth. The Bulls' failure to capitalize on a rare catcher's interference call, an error, and a pair of potentially disastrous walks by Chiefs' reliever Jack Spradlin, would all be lost in the glow of a win that the Bulls, all failures aside, deserved. They clawed back, they were the resilient Bulls of May and early June, they had charged back again for an unlikely victory. What's more, Gwinnett and Norfolk both lost; the Bulls would increase their division lead.

Twenty-three of the Bulls' last 28 games have been decided by less than three runs. You just can't show up and phone it in when they play. You've gotta watch closely, and you've gotta stay till the end.

***

You could point retrospectively to the fifth and sixth, if you felt like it, and say that that's where the Bulls failed to take control of the game. In the fifth, the young Syracuse starter Shairon Martis found himself in big trouble through little fault of his own. John Jaso reached on catcher's interference to start the inning, when plate umpire Fran Burke ruled that his swing had been obstructed by the Chiefs' backstop, Gustavo Molina (no relation, amazingly, to major-league catching brothers Bengie, Jose and Yadier---oddly, Jaso was also the beneficiary of an even rarer umpire's interference call earlier this year). Ray Olmedo walked, and Elliot Johnson followed with a potential double play ball that Ian Desmond muffed, loading the bases with no outs and the Bulls trailing 6-2.

There were rumors on the interwebs that Shairon Martis had upped his velocity to the 93-94 range, but he never topped 91 last night. He kept the Bulls mostly rounded up early, but they kept hitting a lot of balls in the air for outs---eight of the first 13 outs he recorded were airborne---a sign that they might be on the verge of figuring him out. Sure enough, just when I was expecting a surge, Jon Weber homered off of Martis in the fourth inning.

Now here we were in the sixth and Martis was in his first jam: bases F.O.B., no outs. The obvious strategy in this case is to take a few pitches. Instead, Reid Brignac, Matt Joyce and Justin Ruggiano swung at seven straight offerings from Martis. They missed five of them (Martis got only two other swings-and-misses all night). The other two swings resulted in a foul-out to third (by Joyce, his second in a row) and a fielder's choice groundout (by Ruggiano, to end the inning). Brignac started the swingers' party by striking out on three pitches, including two that were well out of the strike zone. Before those three outs, in fact, Elliot Johnson had swung at the three previous pitches, for a total of ten straight swings against a young pitcher who was in his first real trouble of the evening.

Next inning. With one out, Martis gives up singles to Rhyne Hughes and Henry Mateo. Syracuse manager Tim Foli replaces him with Little Jack Spradlin (6-foot-2, only 170 lbs). John Jaso hits a sacrifice fly. Ray Olmedo singles. Then Spradlin balks. Runners on second and third.

Elliot Johnson hasn't shown that he's got the skills to stick in the major leagues yet, but he plays hard all the time---Charlie Montoyo praised him for that quality after the game---and he's probably the most tenacious Bull at the plate: aggressive, unafraid, determined. Here he is, an inning after what should have been a double play, with a chance to redeem himself. He falls behind 0-2, takes a ball, and then rips the next pitch into the right-center field gap. Two runs score, and Johnson digs hard for a triple, just beating the throw.

Spradlin walks Brignac and Joyce. Foli replaces Spradlin with someone who has the unlikely name of Zechry Zinicola. But there's nothing unlikely about what Zinicola proceeds to do: he strikes out Justin Ruggiano swinging to end the inning. 6-5, Syracuse. It's already been a weird one and a thriller, and we're only through six innings.

I felt like Anthony Michael Hall when he's pulling out in that convertible in Sixteen Candles and looks right at the camera (scroll to 2:36): "This," he says, "is getting good."

From the seat I'd moved to, about halfway down the third-base line among one of the liveliest crowds of the year at the DBAP, it seemed obvious to me that the Bulls had the Chiefs right where they wanted them. It was the Durham bullpen versus the Syracuse bullpen, and I don't mind suggesting here that Durham now has the league's best relief corps. Julio DePaula threw a perfect seventh. Winston Abreu worked around a walk and struck out two in the eighth. Reid Brignac and Matt Joyce finally redeemed themselves in the eighth, after Tim Foli stuck with Zechry Zinicola too long. On his 37th pitch, Brignac doubled home the tying run. Yunior [sic] Novoa came on and Joyce greeted him with the go-ahead single.

Ruggiano strikes out again. Who cares? 7-6 Bulls through eight innings.

And then there was the ninth. "Bad pitch," Joe Nelson was man enough to say after the game. And it was. He knew it. Bad pitch. Bad call. Bulls strike out on a pair of controversial check swings in the last of the ninth. Bad vibes. Bad loss.

Some notes:

* Nelson was otherwise not displeased with the way he threw. The single he allowed to Ian Desmond was a cheap bloop, and his location to the other hitters was where he wanted it---including the four balls to Norris Hopper, who waited out Nelson's changeups and drew a walk. (Nelson did wonder, as did Jason Childers, why infield umpire Al Porter was stationed at second base with runners on second third; as a result, Porter had no clear look at Maxwell's fence-clearing drive.) "It ain't on the umpires," Nelson added. "I made the pitch."

* Three more roster moves: Matt DeSalvo and Jorge Julio were released to make room for Winston Abreu and---surprise (sort of)---Calvin Medlock. The release of those two was not a surprise. Neither had pitched well for the Bulls, despite Julio's late revival. They were really just placeholders while the early-season injury shuffle worked its way out of the system. Although Abreu is actually older than DeSalvo and Julio, he's much better than either of them; I guess the Rays' thinking is that, if you're going to have older guys in the bullpen, they might as well be really good older guys. Also, Abreu still shows signs of being major-league-worthy.

One thing you have to say in the Rays' defense, despite all the changes: they're making the Bulls a better team as the season goes into late overdrive. It's nice to see the organization show that it cares how its minor-league teams fare. Last night's bizarre loss aside, this is a team that looks poised to make the playoffs barring a contagious slump virus.

Also, John Meloan, whom the Rays had originally acquired for Abreu in their deal with the Indians last month, was designated for assignment. This was, on the face of it, a rather perplexing move. Meloan is several years younger than Abreu, has good raw stuff, and would have been under the Rays' contractual control for six years (unlike Abreu, who can basically call his own shots). Seen in the context of another move, though, the jettisoning of Meloan (unless he clears waivers, which is unlikely) makes more sense. I suppose you could say that he'll look pretty in pink slip.

* That move relates to this one: Shawn Riggans has gone on the 7-day disabled list. Apparently, his rib cage tweak isn't healing quickly. Craig Albernaz was added back onto the roster, just in time to enter last night's game in the ninth inning after Desmond Jennings, who had gotten a scheduled Ferris Bueller's day off, pinch-ran for John Jaso and scored what at the time was the tying run. It's got to be frustrating for Riggans, who hasn't really been healthy for something like a year. It's got to be more frustrating for the Rays, who keep waiting for one of their catchers to quiet title to the major-league job. Neither of the current Tampa backstops, Dioner Navarro and Michel Hernandez, has been very impressive, so the Rays traded for yet another catcher yesterday: Baltimore veteran Gregg Zaun. That means that the Rays now have six catchers on their 40-man roster. That logjam, worsened by the acquisition of Zaun, made it necessary to drop someone, and Meloan's name came up in the lottery.

This all turns out to mean that the Rays had Winston Abreu, then they didn't, then they did again. Meloan becomes a footnote. Weird science.

* I tried to run down Winston Abreu and ask him for his thoughts on the long, strange trip of his 2009 season---which has included a major-league suspension for intentionally throwing at a batter in one of his three appearances for Cleveland. But when Abreu finally appeared in the clubhouse, he was scarfing down his dinner. "After," he said, mouth full of chicken. I had to leave. Maybe Saturday instead.

Abreu is quite a drama queen out there. When he gets the call to warm up, he starts by making big, exaggerated windups with his glove in his throwing hand. Then he makes some more exaggerated throws to the catcher from flat ground. When he comes into the game, he crosses himself and points to the sky. He takes big, theatrical breaths between warmup pitches on the mound, as if everything---pitching, life, being named after a cigarette, being traded for yourself---is just a bit too much to bear sometimes. Then he crouches behind the mound in an I'm-saying-my-mantra way just before he faces his first batter. While he pitches, he often paces menacingly off the mound to receive throws back from the catcher, stalking about like Stanley Kowalski. It's a bravura performance. He backs it up with strikeouts.

* Weird things were in the air around baseball last night. There was also a catcher's interference call in a major-league game (Jorge Posada, Yankees versus Red Sox); also, three big-league managers were ejected: Bobby Cox (who holds the all-time record, if I'm not mistaken), A. J. Hinch and Ron Gardenhire. So it seems that Charlie Montoyo was in good company on Friday.

* And speaking of Montoyo, he was in generally chipper spirits after the game. He was drinking his fourth bottle of water, both to hydrate his body and rejuvenate his vocal cords after his ninth-inning ejection tirade. He re-asserted that he thought Burke made a bad call on Maxwell's disputed home run, but mostly he was upset that it marred his team's resilient comeback. As for the ejection, which seemed quite deliberate: "My team battled. You gotta get thrown out. That's an easy one."

You might think that Montoyo would be feeling a bit drained: he had to release two players the night before (he was informed about DeSalvo and Julio during the seventh inning of Thursday's game), put an embattled catcher on the disabled list, and lose yet another pitcher (Meloan) to extra-curricular roster shuffling; and then, after a wild, tense game, that controversial, outcome-deciding call. A rough 24 hours, all told. "They're not that rough," Montoyo interjected. "When you think about it, it could be worse." The look on his face was that of a father who knows what it's like to worry about his son's survival every day. An exasperating loss? That's all you got?

It was a tribute to Montoyo's equipoise, and to the even, veteran, salty keel of his team, that they weren't beside themselves in the clubhouse. There was mostly animated chatter over the weirdness of the whole thing. These things happen; you move on. The Bulls have batting practice in about 12 hours; then Wade Davis looks to rebound from his rough outing earlier this week, and no one on either team will care anymore what happened on Friday night.

* Rest in peace, John Hughes.

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