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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Durham Bulls rally for amazing, 14-inning win over Gwinnett Braves: infinite monkeys, infinite improbability

Posted by on Sun, Aug 30, 2009 at 6:00 AM

DBAP/ DURHAM---You've probably heard of the Infinite Monkey Theorem, which "states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare."

If you apply the Infinite Monkey Theorem to baseball, you'll get something like the Durham Bulls' 10-9, 14-inning win over Gwinnett last night. It's unlikely that a monkey will type Hamlet, but it's also inevitable, in infinite time. And it's also unlikely that last night's game should ever happen, but last night's game did happen. You could look it up.

"No, I've never seen anything like it," was the first sentence out of Charlie Montoyo's mouth afterward, before anyone had even asked him a question.

It would take me an infinite number of words to describe everything noteworthy about the doings at the DBAP on Saturday night (and, in fact, a bit of Sunday morning; the five-hour game ended at about ten past midnight). Although I don't mind claiming that I am not a sportswriter who would ever, ever succumb to fatigue---I am a veritable dog with a bone, or better yet a monkey with an infinite number of bananas (and if you read that last clause carefully, you found the syntactical giveaway: I'm not a sportswriter)---as I say, although I don't mind claiming indefatigability, which is an eight-syllable word, the Bulls have another game fairly soon, and at some point between now and then I have to sleep, eat, exercise, and, uh, type. Like a monkey.

And in case you need more monkey stuff, consider that last night's ballgame featured mascot antics from something called Reggy the Purple Party Dude (he looks like a Sesame Street character who has somehow started growing french fries out of the top of his head). He monkeyed around in the first inning with a fake first-base coach, later with the umpire and Wool E. Bull, and then with "his inflatable nine-foot monkey," which was both exactly what it sounds like and also inhabited somewhere in its recesses by a person. During one mid-inning caper, a banana figured heavily, along with spray cans of that fake shaving cream stuff that is actually string; and although I know that this is a family Web site, the fact is that the whole Reggy act, including the "his inflatable monkey" scenes and (especially) the fake-first-base-coach antics, played uncomfortably like the preparatory scenes of very, very, very specialized pornography targeted at an extremely specific fetish market I would prefer not to know anything about.

And also, the game was full of monkey wrenches.

I'll give you all I've got if you click

Back on July 19, the Bulls lost at Louisville in 13 innings, 7-6. The winning pitcher in that game was a Louisville infielder named Luis Bolivar, who was the second position player called upon to pitch in emergency duty that night. The Bulls failed to score in two innings against Bolivar and shortstop Michael Griffin, and came away with a frankly embarrassing defeat.

One thing that that game had in common with last night's: the same home-plate umpire, Arthur Thigpen, who attracted no supporters with his officiating. Another thing the games had in common: a position player pitching in a tie game in extra innings. This time it was the Bulls' Ray Olmedo, who, after singling, stealing second, and being stranded on second base in the 12th inning, merely walked a few feet to the pitcher's mound to begin the top of the 13th. I can't remember the last time I've seen a pitcher with dirt all over his uniform.

What was Olmedo doing there? It's Tampa's fault. They recalled Andy Sonnanstine to fill Scott Kazmir's place in the starting rotation on Tuesday---and of course I botched this speculation last night, when I concluded my wrap of the Bulls' win at Norfolk by saying that Saturday might mark Sonnanstine's final start as a Bull. What should have been apparent to me was that Sonnanstine had already made his final start as a Bull. (Yes, dear reader, I am also aware that the link you clicked at the top of this paragraph took you to a scary place that said that Wade Davis was going to be promoted, too. Don't worry. I'll get to that.)

So Sonnanstine didn't make his "final" start last night; he made it on Monday. Joe Bateman started instead, and for the second straight time, he was pretty good in that role: three innings, one run, one hit, one walk, three strikeouts.

The thing was, rather than spot-starting, Bateman should have been the long man last night, if a long man was going to be needed. Instead, he gave way to Julio DePaula, who had probably his worst outing of the season. With one out in the fourth, he walked Barbaro Canizares, who has one of my favorite names in the league. Then Diory Hernandez stepped in. DePaula got ahead of him 0-2. Hernandez had been to the plate 167 times this season to that point. Guess how many homers he had? If you guessed zero, then Hernandez hit DePaula's 0-2 meatball over the Blue Monster for a two-run homer. You guessed zero.

In the next inning, DePaula walked two of the first four hitters he faced. The fifth hitter he faced was... Diory Hernandez. This time Hernandez didn't bother falling behind 0-2; he ripped the first pitch he saw for a two-run double. Then Chris Burke doubled. Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo came out to the mound and was like, seriously? DePaula had his body facing third base, away from Montoyo. Montoyo took the ball from him anyway.

Walks. Here's something about last night's game, and about walks: the two teams' pitchers---and by pitchers I refer to people listed on the roster as pitchers---combined to walk nine batters. Guess how many of them scored? You guessed nine, and you were correct.

Joe Nelson got in on the act in the seventh right after the Bulls cut into a 6-1 deficit with a pair of runs that were helped along by an infield single, a WALK, and two errors. Brandon Jones hit Nelson's third pitch of the inning for a homer. After that, Montoyo started using his tried-and-true guys: Dale Thayer, Jason Childers and Winston Abreu combined for five scoreless relief innings. So that took care of that.

Problem: the game was still going. It was still going because the Bulls got more help via WALKS from Vladimir Nunez in the bottom of the seventh. Nunez faced five batters and went to a full count on all of them, and that helped Durham score a pair of runs. The last of these was driven in by Reid Brignac. I pause to mention it because Brignac had a surprisingly mature at-bat after he fell behind Nunez with a pair of wild, overzealous swings that put him in a quick hole. Then he played catch-up, fouling off a couple of pitches with defensive, survivalist cuts, and taking three balls before he served Nunez's 36th and final pitch into left field for a base hit.

Then, in the ninth, with Gwinnett leading, 7-5, Braves' "closer" Luis Valdez (I put the term in "ironic quotations" because Valdez has blown a whopping 10 saves in 36 chances), WALKED Matt Joyce with one out. Joe Dillon fouled out, and that brought up Brignac. Brignac fell behind, 1-2, but then started fouling off pitches, four of them. He took a second ball.

And on the ninth pitch of the at-bat, he hit a two-run homer. Tie game.

Two great at-bats by Brignac, who showed that he can be disciplined and professional when he chooses to be. For all I know, he was looking to hit a homer there, and did.

Shawn Riggans, who had accounted for the Bulls' first run of the game with a booming home run over the Blue Monster, then reached on an error. Fernando Perez pinch-ran for Riggans and stole second so easily that they might as well have just started him there. Ray Olmedo stepped in. Olmedo was going to get one of his patented slap singles and the Bulls were going to end this game right here, thanks to good-ol' Olmedo, the Bulls' duct tape, the utility player who isn't really very good but is somehow very necessary to the team. I haven't been especially praiseful of Olmedo this season, and I'm sorry. Olmedo was gonna win the game.

Little did we know how.

Olmedo rapped Valdez's 1-0 pitch over first base. Barbaro Canizares, who is at least 6-foot-3, leaped and speared the liner. Inning over. Extra innings. Still 7-7.

The extra innings, which then became what I have dubbed extraneous innings, were my fault entirely, and I apologize. I started recording Gwinnett's at-bats in the top of the ninth inning down in the Bulls' half of my scoresheet. That error forced me to scratch out the stuff notated out of place in the Bulls' ninth-inning column and move it to the tenth, which meant that I had just more or less assured that we'd need the extra frames by using them prematurely. Like I said, I'm really sorry.

I owe the deepest apologies to third baseman Ray Olmedo, who---and here I finally arrive at the point---pitched the last two innings after Charlie Montoyo ran out of real pitchers. In other words, a long man was needed. (Montoyo asked Michel Hernandez, the catcher, if he could pitch in case the game went on after Olmedo's stint. Hernandez's answer: "I'm too tired." A simple, "Hey Charlie, I'm your catcher" would have sufficed.)

I was just whining the other day about how Olmedo is Triple-A duct tape. But you know, duct tape is really, really useful. So there he was, tossing low-80s fastballs in the top of the 13th inning. He got a groundout---nice play in the hole by Brignac---a walk (the only one of the game that failed to score), and then a well-struck grounder to Chris Richard that started the seldom(ly)-seen 3u-6 double play. No big deal.

Here's why it's the minors. Your roster is usually an unsettled jumble of players. Guys on rehab, guys demoted, guys who are blue-chips and have to be handled like overfull martinis. At any given moment, you've got four catchers, no one to start today's game, three second basemen, two right-handed hitters who can't hit lefty pitchers, and no left-handed reliever [ahem, cough]. Last night, Sonnanstine was gone, Bateman had been burned up four hours earlier, there was no one left. A minor-league team just isn't built to go 14 innings on most nights, any more than you can sing chorales with no tenors, or something like that.

So I was praying that the Bulls would win the game in the bottom of the 13th and get Olmedo off the hook (and, while they were at it, give him his first and probably only professional win as a pitcher). There was simply no way he could get the Braves out for another inning.

But the Bulls didn't score in the 13th off of Deunte [sic] Heath, who had recently been promoted from Double-A Mississippi.

Sure enough, Olmedo's first pitch of the 14th is hit by Wes Timmons off the foul pole that sticks up over the Blue Monster. Like Diory Hernandez, Timmons has hit his first homer of the season---in almost 380 plate appearances.

Then Brandon Jones doubles. Wheels are falling off. Bulls' pitching coach Xavier Hernandez has to come out to the mound and show Olmedo how to throw from the stretch. It's actually kind of heartbreaking, watching this. Does it have to go on? That's enough. Gwinnett has the lead. We should all just go home now.

Brooks Conrad flies to right. Jones tags up and heads for third. Fernando Perez's throw misses the cutoff man---or maybe the cutoff man is supposed to be shortstop Reid Brignac, who isn't looking for the ball, which hits him in the foot and bounces into left field. Jones scores. Brignac slumps his shoulders. Olmedo hits Barbaro Canizares with a pitch. At some point in this mess, Montoyo comes out to the mound. He said later that he was making sure that Olmedo wasn't hurt: "You can stop right now," he told Olmedo. The one thing you can be sure Montoyo will not do is endanger a player's health. He would sooner have forfeited the game, I think, than risk injuring a player, and I support his position.

Olmedo said he was fine---just, uh, not a pitcher, you know? The next two hitters fly out to left field. End of inning.

Finally. A saggy sigh. It's over. 9-7, Braves. Pity to lose to the team you're tied with for the division lead because you have no choice but to use a third baseman as a pitcher. Oh well, it's Triple A. Strictly minor leagues.

We have a 14th-Inning Stretch. Seriously. They play "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" again on the PA. (It occurs to me now to wonder: should it actually happen in the 16th inning?)

First batter of the bottom of the 14th is Reid Brignac, he of the relay-throw-what-relay-throw? and, to be fair, the two most important hits of the game for the Bulls. He singles to right. Fernando Perez strikes out, his second K in as many at-bats (he had stayed in the game after pinch running), both encouraged along by Arthur Thigpen's inflatable nine-foot strike zone..

That brings up... Ray Olmedo. Understand that, at this point, because the pitcher is now hitting, the Bulls no longer have a designated hitter. That slot was lost when Olmedo moved to the mound, which forced Perez to take over for a bewildered Matt Joyce in right field (Joyce initially wouldn't come out of the game when Perez trotted out to replace him because Joyce thought Perez was still the DH), and Chris Richard---who was supposed to have the night off because his wrist is still bothering him---had to play first base and move Joe Dillon to third, where Olmedo had been stationed. The whole thing is infinitely confusing, even to the unconfusable, and not just to me. Montoyo: "I've never done it before, so it's not like I knew what I was doing." He had to ask the umpires how to make rule-abiding changes.

I have now moved on to a second scoresheet. The first one looks like... well, like a monkey kept it.

Reggy the Purple People Eater and his Chunky Monkey are by now asleep in their hotel, perhaps even in separate beds.

Olmedo singles to right field.

In retrospect, I see that this was the point at which the Bulls were sure to win, largely because the scoreboard had Olmedo's number 13---13!---in both the pitcher's line and the hitter's line. It is a monkey-typing moment, because it is basically impossible.

When I teach playwriting, I like to get my students thinking about this line from Aristotle's Poetics: "Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities." This is how good dramatic storytelling works: the worst thing, the least likely thing, becomes, instead, and inevitably, the likeliest---the only---thing that can happen. Or to borrow from Douglas Adams's description of the Infinite Improbability Drive, "any event that is infinitely improbable"---i.e. impossible---"will, by definition, occur almost immediately."

Thus, in a game where third baseman Ray Olmedo is forced to pitch, gives up the go-ahead runs, and is doomed to take the loss, Olmedo will of course inevitably win the game.

Michel Hernandez walks. Bases F.O.B. Single ties it (which would be a big problem for Charlie Montoyo). Extra-base hit wins it.

And then, speaking of things that are just about infinitely improbable, Elliot Johnson strikes out for the fifth time in the game. That has happened about 60 times in the history of major-league baseball. Four strikeouts in a game is called the Golden Sombrero. You know what five strikeouts in a game is called? The Olympic Rings. Five strikeouts in a game! Yikes. Elliot Johnson also buys beer for alcoholics, and he invented styrofoam.

So who should step up to the plate now? What is the probable impossibility here? In a game like this---well, there is no such a thing as a game "like" this. Let me give you a hint. He's the Bulls' best clutch hitter. A few innings earlier, Heather was complaining that he hasn't had a clutch hit in a while. Honestly, she might be right. O Mr. Clutch, where art thou?

It's Jon Weber.

In the press box, Matt DeMargel calls for Weber's "King Kong" music-video thingy. On it comes. Yet another freaking monkey.

Someone else in the press box says that Weber should hit a double, because a) Weber is the Unchallenged Doubles King of the Universe and b) that would win the game, even though c) Michel Hernandez is so slow he needs four minutes to get from the sink to the shower in the morning, and therefore d) part of why Weber should hit a double has to do with the fun we will have watching Hernandez chug around the bases.

Weber falls behind, swinging over Deunte Heath's forkball. The Bulls are down to their final strike for the second time in the game.

Ball two. Ball three. Full count on Weber. (At one point earlier in the game---about, oh, two and a half hours prior---Gwinnett reliever Vladimir Nunez went to full counts on all five hitters he faced. Sounds exciting, is in fact unthinkably numbing to watch.)

Eighth pitch of the at-bat. This time it's actually exciting. Runners are going on the pitch. Deunte Heath throws something that is either a very slow fastball or an unchanging changeup---Weber's not sure after the game, when I ask him what pitch he hit---and Weber drills the ball into the right-center field alley.

It's gonna be Weber's 45th double. Brignac scores.

Ray Olmedo, who is the pitcher, the pitcher who was about take the loss, scores the tying run. He is making sure that he is not going to take the loss by crossing the plate himself.

Charlie Montoyo waves Michel Hernandez home. You know why? Montoyo has no one left to pitch. Olmedo's done after two innings. And if the inning ends with the score tied... You know who Montoyo had maybe, glancingly thought about asking if he could pitch maybe one inning? Jon Weber.

Weber was originally signed as an undrafted free agent in 1999 by the Cincinnati Reds. Guess who else began his pro career in 1999 with the Cincinnati Reds. You were right when you guessed Ray Olmedo.

Michel Hernandez rounds third, steams towards home. Like a Bull. Montoyo runs after him. Jon Weber is now standing on second base, his double completed, watching.

There isn't even a throw to the plate. Hernandez scores. "I got home before Hernandez did," Montoyo cracked later.

Mob scene at the plate, then a mob scene at second base, where Weber is standing, like the Coolest and Baddest Man Who Ever Lived. Tosses his helmet. Interviewed by Ken Tanner. Doused with water cooler.

I get into the elevator on the third floor and head down to the clubhouse for interviews. The elevator stops on the second floor. Guess who gets in? (No, not the nine-foot inflatable monkey. He doesn't fit.) It's Ray Olmedo's wife, with their baby. I tell her that her husband got his first win. She tells me doesn't speak much English. I try to tell her in Spanish that Olmedo got the win. She smiles back, either because that's great news to her ears, or because she doesn't understand.

Braves devastated? Nope. Saw four of them in a bar, having a fine time, 45 minutes later.

Some notes:

* Akinori Iwamura left for Tampa, as scheduled, and paid immediate dividends for the big-league club. He batted ninth against Detroit, went 1-2 with two walks, and scored two runs in a 3-1 Rays victory. The win went to David Price, who pitched perhaps his best game of the season.

*The Rays have a doubleheader coming up on Labor Day---which is the last day of the Bulls' regular season---and Wade Davis, the rumors go, will probably start one of those games. Will he be back down in Durham afterwards? Does it depend on his performance vis-a-vis Andy Sonnanstine's performance after the two of them are called up to Tampa? I would think so, but I don't know. Nevertheless, you can rest assured that, whatever the plans are, no matter how complicated, how shrewd, how unpredictable or exciting, no one will ever, ever tell me what they are. These matters are basically treated like state secrets, Manhattan Project-style. They should have major-league executives run the CIA. Davis was in the Bulls' clubhouse last night, is all I can tell you.

* Another pitcher, or pitchers, should arrive soon, perhaps even in time for Sunday's game. No word on who that is, but I did wonder why the Bulls' front office guys kept asking me to toss them bags of peanuts last night. Overhand. I threw a couple of splitters.

* Injuries: confirmed that Desmond Jennings and Olmedo collided on a play on Friday night. It was actually Jennings, not Olmedo as I'd guessed, who took the brunt of it, Olmedo's head ramming into his quadriceps (no juvenile jokes, kids!). He's day to day, didn't play last night. Chris Richard wasn't supposed to play due to ongoing wrist soreness. He was pressed into duty and started that nifty 3u-6 double play in Olmedo's first inning on the mound. Flied to center in his only at-bat. Henry Mateo is still on the disabled list but should be activated as soon as he's eligible, Montoyo thinks, which is Tuesday (I think). Fernando Perez wasn't supposed to do anything but pinch-run. He did that, but had to stay in the game, play right field, strike out twice and---after the game, when he overheard a couple of questions I posed to Jon Weber about his game-winning at-bat---ask me, "Is this your first year covering the team?" Why, does it show?

The Bulls won their sixth straight game, by the way, and lead the Braves by a game in the IL South Division. The Syracuse Chiefs swept a doubleheader from Lehigh Valley, and are now 4.5 games behind Durham with nine to play. Jeremy Hellickson is on the mound for the Bulls in less than 12 hours. No idea who'll pitch in relief after him. No idea who'll be awake enough to pitch after him. Batting practice, fielding practice would be a farce at best, punishment at worst. Thus, rather than leave you with additional disturbing monkey imagery/metaphors or with esoteric Infinite Improbability Theory or Aristotelian philosophy, I will type the five simple words I watched a clubhouse attendant write on the dry-erase board in the Bulls' locker room as I was leaving Charlie Montoyo's office: "Be here by game time."

That goes double for you, dear reader. If I can drag my a** there, you've got no excuse.

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