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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Charlotte Knights beat Durham Bulls: Technical Difficulties

Posted by on Thu, Apr 21, 2011 at 6:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM—Walking on Blackwell Street after the Charlotte Knights beat the Durham Bulls, 8-3, yesterday, I came upon a work truck bearing the name Fairborn near the corner of Pettigrew. It appeared that the driver had had to pull over, obstructing traffic, in order to re-rig some equipment that was strapped to his fairly large, heavily supply-laden truck. He pulled this thing thataway, clamped x strap onto y rack, was meticulous and demonstrative about a couple of other securing steps—and with that an apparently critical metal piece came loose and went clank on the road, botching the whole deal.

The driver—we'll call him the technician, for today's purposes—uttered an oath, by which I mean that he screamed out a curse word, and you can probably guess which one, for all the world to hear. The task he was engaged in looked simple but surely wasn't; there were numerous working parts involved in a rather intricate but evidently precarious arrangement of supplies. The technician's had-it-up-to-here reaction to the whole thing going totally wrong was a loud and forceful reminder that the things we attempt to do in the world are very often just like this: prudent systems, smartly arranged but hard to get right, that nonetheless make us crazy with frustration when they inevitably fail, usually via our own mistakes, and force us to pick up the pieces that we ourselves have assembled.

"One thing I'll never forget," said new Charlotte Knights manager Joe McEwing after his team downed the Durham Bulls, 8-3, on Wednesday afternoon, "is how hard this game is."

McEwing is 38 years old, young for a Class AAA manager, but he already has an old-salt presence. The former utility player (for the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals, mostly) has hair that is already noticeably part-gray, and a piercing clear-eyed stare—he looks like someone prepared to be frustrated even before anything has gone wrong.

Utility players are like that: They've had to work much harder than their peers to forge playing careers for themselves. Every play is crucial to their future. They can't relax for a second. When McEwing told us that the game is hard, you couldn't help but think about how honestly he's come by that simple understanding. Although it's sort of a cliche to say these words, from McEwing's mouth it didn't sound that way. He fought unrelentingly for his brief career as a player, and he's fighting for it again now as a young manager who has just replaced one of the premier hitters of the late 1970s and a venerable oldtimer, Chris Chambliss.

Unlike the ursine, taciturn Chambliss, McEwing is short, wiry, compact, intense—a lit fuse. On Tuesday, his starter Gaby Hernandez had shown poor focus, and McEwing could be seen (and heard) exhorting him to bear down in a difficult situation, with a reliever warming in the bullpen. When Hernandez failed, not getting out of the inning until after sustaining heavy damage, McEwing gestured angrily down toward the bullpen: You're going in next! He seems to be trying to get his players to go about their business with the same intensity with which he played—that formal, technical intensity: Do everything the right way, and do it 100%. Think, and then take a spark to the thought.

"I have three rules," he answered when asked how his managerial style differed from Chambliss's. "One: be on time. Two: play hard. Three: be a good teammate." All technical terms, really. There are technical codes embedded deep in those axiomatic (and frankly vague, undeniably rather cliched) commands: "play hard" means run out ground balls, among other things—but in fact it also means burning up effort and energy out of formal decorum. "Be a good teammate": No confronting a guy who fails to make an effort. Don't complain when Russ Canzler makes an error that winds up costing you multiple runs.

To wit:

Wednesday's game. Top of the fourth inning, Bulls up 3-1. Dallas McFearsomePherson leads off with a double to right field off of Durham starter Edgar Gonzalez—it misses clearing the fence for a home run by just a couple of feet.

The next batter is Lastings Milledge, and if there's any minor-leaguer who knows how hard this game is, it's probably Milledge. He was called the best 16-year-old baseball player in the country by Baseball America earlier this decade, and was a first-round draft pick of the New York Mets in 2003. He reached the majors at age 21, had some injuries and off-the-field problems, fell out of favor in New York thanks partially to some immature behavior, cycled through the Washington and Pittsburgh organizations, and signed this past off-season with the White Sox. He made the major-league roster, but was waived and then assigned to Charlotte just weeks into the season—that's why the White Sox decided to trade to the Braves Stefan Gartrell, another outfielder, who finished the 2010 season second in the IL in home runs to Dan Johnson. Milledge may not have made good on his immense promise, but he's still just 26, young enough to maintain prospect status. He's an upgrade on Gartrell—technically.

No matter: baseball is humbling: Milledge was called upon to lay down a sacrifice bunt. He did so, but not very well. He pushed the ball too hard toward the pitcher's mound.

Edgar Gonzalez, on the mound for the Bulls, also knows how hard this game is. He has pitched in more than 100 major-league games, mostly with Arizona, but he too has suffered injuries and ineffectiveness, spent part of 2010 not even pitching in the US, then signed as a free agent with the Rays just a month before the 2011 season started. His job is basically to eat innings, hold down an afterthought rotation spot for the Bulls while prospects like Alexes Cobb and Torres leapfrog him on their way toward the big leagues.

E-Gon, as we will henceforth call him, is listed at six feet tall, 220 pounds. Only one of those figures is correct and the other one is conservative; but he nonetheless pounced on Milledge's bunt. He fielded it, not very gracefully, and turned toward third base, toward which McFearsome was churning—McPherson, too, is a highly skilled player beset by injuries, a former second-round draftee who has never managed to fulfill his promise. (He happens also to hail from nearby Greensboro, N.C.)

E-Gon hesitates for the briefest of moments—perhaps waiting for third baseman J. J. Furmaniak to get to the bag. (Or is that really the delay? Hard to tell.) Furmaniak is basically a career minor-leaguer, a 31-year-old with 43 career big-league at-bats. He is so far hitting .104 in 2011, with just five hits in 48 at-bats, one of them on a sacrifice bunt attempt that got lucky and became an infield single. He has drawn exactly one walk—he knows, right now, today, with his .104 average, how hard this game is. He is also not a natural third baseman. He's playing there on Wednesday because Leslie Anderson, also struggling, needs a day off, and so Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo started Russ Canzler—the regular third baseman who has just missed two games due to back spasms—at first base, where Anderson usually plays.

E-Gon's throw, despite his hesitation while Furmaniak heads to the bag, beats McPherson to third. Furmaniak, though, apparently fails to get the tag down, and McPherson is called safe on a close play. Milledge gets a fielder's choice.

Instead of one out and a man on third—not a great situation—there are no outs and runners on the corners: a very bad one.

Later, Montoyo will gainsay Gonzalez's choice to go for the lead runner here. "If they give you the out, get the out," he says. He calls the failed attempt to throw out McPherson "the key play of the game."

That key play involved E-Gon making a split-second decision, under heavy pressure, just as his third baseman failed to meet him at the summit of that decision. It's a highly technical moment, and as Montoyo described it, it's a great play if you throw the runner out—and a near-disaster if you don't. Play the game "the right way."

Baseball is hard—the hardest sport, in some essential ways—to play. Unlike timebound sports, it doesn't run on flow or urgency or adrenaline. It uses cold bodies that stand around a lot watching other people fail at the very thing they're about to attempt, and then—suddenly!—demands that they spring to life. It's hard on pitchers, it's hard on hitters. It asks players to make crucial decisions in the wink of an eye, and punishes them when they choose unwisely. Nor can you design plays, repeatedly, for your best or your hottest player: Justin Ruggiano will hit every ninth time, just as J. J. Furmaniak will.

It's easy for us Press Box denizens to second-guess and assess, to make the right choice vicariously and after the fact. We couldn't hit a single 90-mph fastball. We couldn't throw one, either. We wouldn't catch 90% of the apparently easy pop flies hit to the outfield. We wouldn't know who the cutoff man is, let alone be able to hit him. We couldn't, technically, do even the easiest of things—once—that ballplayers are expected to do over and over and over again without even thinking about it. Technicalities, to them, are like miracles to us.

So it's important to remember, always, that the degree of difficulty here is very, very high, no matter that most sportswriters are taller than Joe McEwing and that it's obvious to us, well wadded with food in the Press Box, that E-Gon should under basically no circumstances, and especially not this one, throw to third to try to get the lead runner out. In the moment, you have fractions of seconds to make decisions. You have no momentum in this episodic game, no flow, no rhythm, no "feeling it." You can't really rely on the last thing that happened in order to do the next thing. Each and every play is self-contained, a potential game-changer, a chance to make a heroic or equally horrendous choice—often when the difference between those extremes involves tiny yet crucial forces, some of which are beyond your control. Pitching is hard, hitting is hard, fielding is hard.

E-Gon chooses wrong. McPherson safe. Runners on the corners, no outs, instead of a man on third and one out.

The next batter, Donnie Lucy, bloops Gonzalez's next pitch into left field for a single to score McPherson. 3-2, Bulls. After Gookie Dawkins sacrifices Milledge to third base, Ozzie Chavez chops a ball to first base. It's neither an easy play nor an especially hard one for a seasoned first baseman. Chris Richard, for example, would make it without much difficulty. But Russ Canzler—a seasoned first baseman but not a recent one; he logged more games at third last season—tries to backhand it, awkwardly. It bounds up off of his glove. Chavez is safe and Milledge scores. 3-3 tie.

Eduardo Escobar follows with a liner down the right-field line that winds up a triple, the first of three triples Charlotte will hit in the game. Two runs score: 5-3, Charlotte. One batter later, former Duke player Jim Gallagher doubles to left-centerfield. It is suddenly 6-3, and that, as it turns out, is the ballgame. The Bulls fail to put a single man on base for the game's final five innings. The Knights plate two insurance runs off of a desperately struggling Paul Phillips in the eighth. A glum game that somehow seems to take an hour longer than its 2:34 running time.

Basketball is a rhythm sport, football a strategy sport. Hockey and soccer are about high-speed finesse, as is NASCAR. Golf is about slowness and self. Baseball is about making correct decisions in milliseconds—then standing around—then making those decisions again—ad nauseam. Gonzalez ought to have gone to first on Milledge's bunt and thrown him out. He didn't. When McPherson was called safe, the Press Box murmured: uh-oh. Big inning to follow. And sure enough, it did. Yesterday I wrote that baseball redeems you. In equal measures, it punishes you, too.

You hear, over and over, costive old managers (or costive young ones) talk about "playing the game the right way." Well, what is that? The "right way" is basically a hidebound code of conduct derived from some essentially unexamined aggregation of sports morals, standards, conventions and so on. It is mostly about not taking risks—an odd thing to counsel in a competitive sport—and proceeding with caution, yet at the same "being aggressive": "attacking hitters" and "pounding the zone," for example, which Joe McEwing praised Knights' starter Lucas Harrell for doing in the last few innings of his start Wednesday. So you're supposed to be careful, but you're also supposed to be aggressive. Impossible—yet it's just about right, and that's why baseball is so hard to play—it asks you to be two minds at once.

"The right way" seems kind of ridiculous, at times, and often fussy and narrow-minded, yet that code winds up working in practice most of the time, no matter how many times you punch it in with your eyes closed or how often a forward-thinking team like the Tampa Bay Rays defies it. Recently, Felipe Lopez flipped his bat toward the mound after hitting a home run. That was perceived as a gesture of offense aimed at the opposing pitcher. Rays' manager Joe Maddon had to take him aside and tell him "we don't do that here."

Well, they don't do it anywhere. Why not? They just don't. It isn't nice. Codes of conduct, technicalities. Don't steal second base when you're winning by (7?)(10?)(more?) runs. Hit a batter if you must, but throw at his meaty midsection, preferably with a changeup; deny, later, that you were throwing at him at all. Never make the first or third out of an inning at third base. Bring in a lefty to face a lefty. So on.

Also, if a guy sacrifices, take the out he's giving you—even advanced, non-traditional stats show the wisdom of that thinking. Do the thing the way the thing is supposed to be done. Don't think too much—but think! Think! Remember your training! Field Milledge's bunt, glance at third, and think: What is the appropriate play here? You know what it is: Throw it to first. But no: Gonzalez made the wrong technical choice. That doesn't mean that the wrong choice doesn't sometimes result in the right outcome—sometimes you do throw the guy out at third base anyway. But that doesn't mean you should try to throw him out. That's not how we do things here.

Joe McEwing was asked about Jim Gallagher, because Gallagher went to Duke and so we had a local-boy-makes-good angle to pursue. McEwing talked about how he managed Gallagher a couple of years ago in the low minors, and he praised Gallagher's increasing "mental maturity" and the "professional way he goes about his business every single day"—stock explanations for Gallagher's rise to Class AAA, and rather unconvincing ones in light of this circumstance: It was this same Jim Gallagher who, in the fourth inning, took a 3-1 pitch for what he thought was ball four and started toward first base before the umpire could make a call on it.

Umps are known to hate being shown up like this, i.e. being preemptively told by a hitter whether a pitch is a ball or a strike. Given the chance, if the pitch is anywhere close to the plate, the ump will almost always call it a strike in this situation, and that is what the ump did. Still, Gallagher kept trotting toward first base even after the emphatic strike call was made—he got nearly halfway down the line before he finally decided to stop and return to the batter's box. It was a deeply immature move, and he is extremely lucky that he didn't take another pitch in the at-bat, for it would surely have been called strike three had it been near the plate. He fouled off the 3-2, then Gallagher smashed some fruit: He hit the next 3-2 pitch, a nice ripe pomelo, into the left-centerfield gap for a double.

A technical gaffe, Gallagher's, but redeemed because Edgar Gonzalez was nothing but technical gaffes—given that reprieve from ball four, he could not manufacture strike three, and he struggled from the outset. The first batter of the game, Alejandro De Aza, doubled off of him. Gallagher lined out hard to center; an out later, McPherson singled in the game's first run. Dayan Viciedo took him to the wall in the third before the wheels came off in the five-run fourth. E-Gon has a strange delivery, which he often ends by holding an outstretched arm with open palm out from his body toward the plate, as though he isn't merely throwing a pitch but casting a hex. He threw his fastball as hard as 93 mph, but at that speed it was nowhere near a strike. In fact, it was seldom clear what he was trying to do or how he was trying to do it. It's true that the Knights didn't hit a lot of balls hard, but they hit a lot of balls in the air, and that seldom results in anything good.

Meanwhile, his counterpart, Lucas Harrell, struggled early. He allowed three runs in the first three innings and was fortunate he didn't allow more. To some degree, he has J. J. Furmaniak to thank for that. With two runs in in the third inning, the Bulls now up 3-1 and two men on base—the game on the verge of breaking open in Durham's favor—Furmaniak grounded into an inning-ending double play.

That seemed to flip a switch for Harrell, who had needed 69 pitches to get through those three innings. Although he needed 22 more in the fourth, only half of them for strikes, he pitched around minor trouble without allowing another run—and then retired the final seven men he faced with just 17 pitches to last all the way through the sixth inning (without recording a single strikeout). I asked him after the game if he'd made a physical adjustment, and he told me, "No, I made more of a focus adjustment. I went back to throwing my sinker." But then, elaborating, he said that he lacked command of the sinker, which is his best pitch, and so he temporarily subjugated it in favor of his breaking balls until he got the feel for his sinker back. "Later on, it kind of came back and I started getting a feel for it again."

In other words, despite the talk about mental focus, the issue was technical not mental: Harrell had to stand by, so to speak, and wait out the technical difficulties of his sinker until they cleared up. Six of his final seven outs came on ground balls.

***

Justin Ruggiano walked in his first three at-bats after hitting four homers in two days prior. Harrell denied that he was pitching around Ruggiano, but he helped the Bulls' outfielder extend a streak in which he reached nine straight times over three games. Ruggiano's streak finally came to an end against Knights' reliever Jhonny [sic] Nunez, but let the record show that his flyout to right drove Dayan Viciedo to the warning track. Ruggiano saw 20 pitches in four trips to the plate.

***

Desmond Jennings has reached base in every single game he's started this season. His OBP is a bodacious .435.

***

Dane De La Rosa: Finally got a chance to see him work a bit. His fastball is usually 92-94 mph, although it touched 95 on the stadium gun. He's so tall that his plane alone generates a good down-and-across angle on his pitches, which vector away from right-handers. The first four pitches he threw were all swung at and missed—all fastballs—but as his outing went on, he threw his offspeed stuff more and more often. I was surprised at how many slow ones he threw, given the general effectiveness of his fastball. He's one to keep an eye on.

***

Paul Phillips: The good news—after his disastrous 10-run inning on Sunday—is that, in his second inning of work, he got his fastball up from 87 mph to 91, and struck out the last two batters he faced. The bad news is that, before that, he started his first inning of work with a lineout to center field, got a flyout to left, and then went triple-triple-single (off the Blue Monster). On the first of these triples, Ruggiano appeared not to play De Aza's fly to left well; what seemed to be a perhaps catchable ball hit the wall and bounced away for a three-bagger. Not to excuse Phillips: Gallagher's triple was driven to deep center field, and Phillips's 87-89 version of the fastball was fooling no one. With his abbreviated Spring Training, he looks like a pitcher who isn't ready for live action yet. I wonder about the wisdom of calling him up to Durham after Chris Bootcheck and Richard De Los Santos went on the disabled list. Bootcheck should be back in a couple of days; I expect Phillips to return to Montgomery then.

***

Robinson Chirinos had, by all accounts, a wonderful Spring Training, hitting very well and impressing the Tampa brass and media. That was good for him, Charlie Montoyo said, because he showed the major-league staff what he's capable of. But Montoyo also pointed out that a hot Spring Training often leads to a cold April, and sure enough Chirinos has five hits, all singles, in 39 at-bats for a .128 season average so far—which is nearly double what it was three games ago. At some point, he has to heat up.

***

A brief note about Chris Carter: He has some power numbers in his history, but so far he seems adept at "hitting the ball where it's pitched," as they say, and spraying singles around in reaction to what he's given—putting the bat on the ball. He calls up that phrase "professional hitter." He also seems to line out to center field a lot.

***

Reigning IL Pitcher of the Week on the hill today for the Bulls: Alex Torres takes on Charlotte's Jeff Marquez, who has faced the Bulls seven times in the last two seasons. It's only too bad that the Knights no longer have former Bull-slayer Carlos Torres, so we could have a Bobby Watson-like Ionescan evening of giddy absurdism. After Wednesday's glum, sluggish affair, something crisp and perhaps even non-technical—some wild or wrong thing—might be in order.

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