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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Durham Bulls beat Syracuse Chiefs again: El Tiempo

Posted by on Sat, May 7, 2011 at 12:06 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM—The Bulls beat the Syracuse Chiefs, 3-1, thanks mostly to strong pitching from Alex Cobb, who threw 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball in his first start since returning to Durham from Tampa, where he made a spot start on May 1. The Bulls won the game with a tense two-run rally in the bottom of the seventh inning, and sealed it with scoreless relief from the Durham bullpen.

The Spanish word tiempo can mean either "time" or "weather," among other things, depending on how it's used. The latter was very much on everyone's mind yesterday. The Triangle had a day of strangely changing tiempo, weather, that didn't seem, for a while, to belong in this part of the US. After a partly cloudy morning brought a few sprinkles of rain, the day turned northern Californian in the late afternoon: breezy, sunny, golden, and a little volatile. Then, just before the scheduled 7:05 first pitch, a thunderstorm rumbled over the DBAP, drenching the tarp-covered field and delaying the start of the game by 1:12. After it passed, a huge, vivid rainbow arced from center field to right.

Once the game started, the air cooled quickly in the wake of the storm, and it was quite chilly by the third inning. It seemed we had changed not only from morning to night but from one season to the next in a flash—like a time-lapse film. That's where the other meaning of tiempo comes in—and it kept coming to mind, in many ways, before, during and after the game: time compressing, time expanding; time slowing down, time creeping up.

Just before the rains came, I tried to get the guy next to me to take this bet: 20-1 says Brandon Guyer, just called up from Durham to Tampa for his first ever big-league action, hits a homer in his first at-bat in the majors. I just had a feeling. But I didn't push very hard, and the bet didn't happen, and guess what Brandon Guyer did? He hit a home run in his first at-bat in the majors, off of Baltimore's Zach Britton—better known to Bulls fans as the Norfolk Tides starter you saw pitch at Durham twice in just over a week toward the end of last season (here and here, for reference).

In the Press Box, we watched a replay of Guyer's homer, on a pitch down below the knees that he went down and got—Alex Cobb told us after the game that that's where Guyer likes it. His home run "trot" was a rather brisk one—okay, he basically tore around the bases. (Chris Richard told me he did the same thing when he, like Guyer, homered in his first big-league plate appearance—on the first pitch he saw, no less, back in 2000. Guyer's was on a 3-1 count.)

Although Guyer tried to keep a straight "baseball" face, it was pretty obvious that inside he was totally freaking out with excitement, and that's why he was unable to slow down his circling of the bases and enjoy it. I bet he doesn't remember a second of it. It all happened so fast for him—and now it will never happen again. You only get to hit your first major-league home run once.

Speaking of time, how long will Guyer be with Tampa Bay? Tough to say. His callup was a bit of a surprise at first—why not Desmond Jennings, one might wonder?—but in one light it made sense: The Rays' B. J. Upton is probably going to be suspended for a run-in with an umpire the other night, and the team will need a backup for a few days. Rather than burn one of Jennings's options, the reasoning might go, better to give Guyer, currently the Bulls' hottest hitter, a few big-league reps, or just have him sit on the bench and absorb the atmosphere. By that logic, you'd expect Guyer to come back to Durham as soon as Upton serves out his suspension—five days, something like that. Meanwhile, Jennings continues to get regular, everyday playing time in preparation for what promises to be a long-term tenure in the Rays' outfield.

It's not out of the question, though, that the Rays might be wondering if the Legend of Sam Fuld will turn out to be much shorter than they might have hoped. I doubt that they planned for him to come charging out of the gate as he did—electrifying the listless Rays after their 1-8 start with hot hitting and highlight-reel catches in the outfield—when they got him along with Guyer and three other players in the deal that sent Matt Garza to the Cubs. Guyer, after all, was the Cubs' Minor-League Player of the Year in 2010; Fuld was a nice pickup, but at 29 years old, and in Class AAA for much of the last four years, he certainly wasn't the centerpiece of the Garza deal—in many ways he was more or less the same player as Justin Ruggiano, about whom more a bit later.

In essence, Fuld was swapped straight-up for Fernando Perez, whom he has outperformed. By that measure, the trade has been a very good one for Tampa, who have probably already gotten more out of him than they expected. But after his extraordinary, legend-making start, which saw him batting .350 on April 27, Fuld has had just two hits in his last 35 at-bats. His batting average has plunged 89 points, his OPS 224. Guyer started in his place last night. If Guyer gets more playing time and capitalizes on it, it isn't out of the question that he could nudge Fuld out of the fold and start creating his own legend. Only time will tell—the question is, how much?

Guyer's homer was the buzz in the clubhouse after the game—because the Bulls had been delayed, they got to watch their teammate's homer on TV. Cobb said it gave him goosebumps when he saw it, and Dane De La Rosa, who seems to revel in playing mock-reporter, shoved a mimed voice recorder into Russ Canzler's face and asked him how it felt watching his roommate hit a home run in his first major-league at-bat. Something along the lines of no-comment was Canzler's reply.

(Canzler, by the way, made his eighth error of the year last night, this one at first base—he couldn't handle a grounder hit just to his left—and it led to the (unearned) Syracuse run that briefly tied the game, and kept Cobb from getting a decision.)

***

Once the game started, Alex Cobb picked up rather close to where he left off before he, like Guyer, was called up to Tampa. Cobb made a spot-start against Anaheim last Sunday, informed before he he was promoted that he'd be headed right back to Durham after the game. "My outing in the big leagues, I had some command issues," he said, Cobb did well enough, though not brilliantly, through three innings or so, then made a mess in the fifth inning and blew what had been a 5-0 lead. "So I wanted to go out there today and work a little on my fastball command, and be able to throw my offspeed (pitches) for strikes." He did that, especially on the first count: He was able to locate the fastball pretty well, although it seemed to take an inning or so for him to get into a groove—perhaps the delayed start and the rapid cool-down after the rain had something to do with that.

Nonetheless, he was more than a little effective, and some comments of his after the game were revealing: "The way I pitched tonight is the way I've pitched my whole career: Pick the corners, get away with my offspeed (pitches) out of the (strike) zone because I'm locating my fastball, and that's going to be my approach in the big leagues: Spot up the fastball and get some chases with my offspeed pitches." In other words, he knows what kind of pitcher he is—although he didn't mention that he actually throws his curveball for called strikes most of the time, it seems to me—and he sounds almost stubbornly committed to being true to himself from now until the end of his career, no matter how long it lasts. He isn't going to blow anyone way, and he knows it. He's going to succeed, if he succeeds, by being precise, cagey, methodical.

No wonder, then, that he said he "felt cheated" in his major-league start against Anaheim. "I cheated myself. If I would have just slowed it down a little bit, I would have been a lot better off": that elastic time thing again, like Brandon Guyer's home run trot. "I let things speed up a little bit, and that's where I got in trouble." Was it nerves, he was asked, that caused him to rush? "I was just excited. I had a five-run lead in the first, cruis[ed] for the first three innings. Fourth inning I had a real quick inning, maybe got too comfortable, too excited"—interesting that "comfortable" and "excited," which seem to be oppositional adjectives, came at once: He was looking ahead (speaking of elastic time) to getting his first big-league win in his first big-league start, and he needed to complete only one more inning in order to secure it.

But in the fifth inning, "walk here, walk there, base-hit, before I know it [Rays manager] Joe [Maddon] is coming out to get me. I needed to be able to slow things down, which I've been able to do throughout my career." Tiempo also means "tempo."

(Nonetheless, asked to supply a one-sentence summation of his big-league debut, Cobb one-upped the questioner with a one-word response—"fun"—which immediately put me in mind of his Triple-A debut for the Bulls last September. Well, time flies when you're having it, I'm told.)

Cobb gave up a one-out triple to Syracuse's Corey Brown in the top of the first inning last night, but after he got Chris Marrero to hit a broken-bat flare-out to second base, he bounced a splitter to Tug Hulett (a name that would seem to destine the bearer either for life as a utility infielder or a mid-level country singer). The ball got away from catcher Jose Lobaton, and Brown tried to score, but Lobaton chased it down quickly and threw to Cobb covering home, where Cobb tagged Brown out.

That seemed to be all he needed to get going, and although the "split-change" that has already been the subject of much fretful bloggery wasn't consistent last night—it didn't always have that downward plunge that it needs in order to be truly effective—the fastball was there, as was the curveball, which Cobb dropped in for called strikes often. I myself am not yet sold on the split-change—until Cobb can control it better—and Cobb struck out only four batters in 6 1/3, a dropoff from his usual K-heavy performance; but even on a night when not absolutely everything was working (most of it was, though), and he had only one 1-2-3 inning, the results don't lie: Cobb gave up only five hits and should have had, probably, a seven-inning scoreless outing.

Instead, leading 1-0—thanks to a homer that Desmond Jennings hit on Syracuse starter Craig Stammen's very first pitch of the game—Cobb had both the win and the shutout taken away. Marrero led off the seventh inning with a single—another broken bat, if my ears heard right—and Hulett followed with a grounder to first base that could easily have led to a double play. But Canzler couldn't glove it, and it bounced away for an error. Jeff Frazier came up, squared to bunt, and took ball one. On the next pitch, he swung away (surprisingly) and flied out to right field. Marrero tagged up and advanced to third base. Runners on the corners, one out.

The next hitter was Chiefs' catcher Carlos Maldonado, a likely candidate for a double play if Cobb could get a ground ball from him. He got one, on a 1-2 curveball, but it went cleanly through the shortstop hole for an RBI single, tying thegame. Cobb was done after 95 pitches, and Rob Delaney came in and did a fine job pitching out of what was still a two-on, one-out jam, getting Alex Valdez to fly out to shallow left field and striking out Adam Fox looking to end the inning. He sat in the dugout for a long, long time during the bottom of the inning (see below), then walked Chris McConnell to start the eighth. Delaney struck out Boomer Whiting, but it was a somewhat laborious six-pitch at-bat, and he gave way to Jake McGee, who struck out Brown and Marrero to end the inning. (Delaney, by the way, has been quietly excellent so far this season. He hasn't allowed an inherited runner to score, has allowed no runs of his own in his last five appearances spanning seven innings, and has lowered his ERA to 1.50.)

Much has been made of the apparent decrease in McGee's velocity this year. He has only been hitting around 90 mph after routinely throwing 95-mph fastballs last year. Last night, he started at around 90-91 but ticked it up to 93-94 in Marrero's at-bat, hitting the outside corner (or maybe just off it) with three of those 93-94 heaters to get Marrero looking. After the game, Charlie Montoyo seemed quite pleased with the upswing in McGee's velocity. I'll try to get a chance to talk to McGee, who was out of the clubhouse soon after the game, during the homestand.

Let's rewind from that eighth inning and return to the seventh, the game's pivotal inning. After Canzler's error in the top of the frame led to the tying run, J. J. Furmaniak led off the bottom of the seventh against Stammen with a fairly routine looping fly ball to shallow right field. Jeff Frazier came in and over toward it and I looked down at my scoresheet to notate the putout, the first ball hit in the air off of Stammen since Jose Lobaton's pop-out to lead off the second inning. Stammen, in his own way, pitched even better than Cobb did, pounding the lower half of the strike zone with an 89-90 mph sinker (a two-seam fastball, I think), mixing in what looked to be a slider, and getting ground ball after ground ball, almost none of which was hit hard. But one night after his teammate, Tom Milone, was dominant, striking out 11 Bulls, but robbed by his bullpen of a victory he deserved, Stammen suffered a similar letdown.

While I was looking down at my scoresheet to write in Furmaniak's out, Frazier apparently lost the ball in the lights, I was told after I looked up and saw the ball on the wet grass next to him, where Frazier had dropped it. (Right field at the DBAP can be hazardous that way; I've seen Matt Joyce and Justin Ruggiano both lose balls in the lights out there). Furmaniak, running hard all the way, wound up at second base with a gift double. The next batter was Omar Luna, who dropped down a sacrifice bunt so perfect that there was no chance to throw him out, and he had an infield single. Furmaniak moved to third, and the Bulls were in business, tied 1-1.

Syracuse manager Randy Knorr replaced Stammen with Cole Kimball, his closer. That showed how hard Knorr was trying to win this game—he was going to his ace in the seventh inning. Kimball throws hard, harder than Stammen, and his first assignment was to retire Ray Olmedo. A mismatch, it seemed, and indeed he got Olmedo to ground out to shortstop with the infield in, preventing Furmaniak from scoring.

But here's the thing: Olmedo's at-bat lasted 10 pitches, as he fought back from an 0-2 count and fouled off seven or eight of Kimball's offerings. Olmedo wound up making an out, but he slowed down the out, and slowed down Kimball's pace and rhythm. "Time is this rubbery thing," the neuroscientist, writer and general dreamer David Eagleman says in a fascinating recent profile in the New Yorker. "Time stretches and compresses, skips a beat and then doubles back," as Eagleman's profiler puts it. That's an apt description for how baseball often seems to work. (Eagleman's interested in more extreme sports, though: He likes to conduct experiments like having people plummet 110 feet into a safety net, looking up at the sky the whole time, after which he asks them how long they think the 50-mph fall took: then he shows the poor, freaked-out, trembling test subjects a chronometer that always lets them know it was much shorter than they thought. Time crawls when you're scared to death.)

Olmedo not only slowed Kimball down; his groundout—with Luna breaking from first base, if I recall—put runners on second and third with one out. The Chiefs walked Desmond Jennings intentionally, loading the bases and setting up a potential inning-ending double play. Justin Ruggiano, who had already hit into a double play, was up next, and his at-bat against Kimball seemed both sped-up—because of the excitement and anxiety of the situation—and slowed-down: Kimball threw Ruggiano a pair of curveballs, slow ones, with his first three pitches; both looked high, both were called strikes. It was 1-2. Ruggiano had never faced Kimball before. He grimaced at both strike calls by home plate umpire John Conrad. ("I asked the catcher"—a former teammate of Ruggiano's in winter ball in Venezuela—"what he thought, and he just laughed," Ruggiano said.)

But, Ruggiano said, "I like when they throw their best pitch first, so at least you get to see it." From there, Ruggiano dug in, looking for something he could hit. Instead, the next two pitches were balls—one very close to the strike zone. The crowd, quite lively after having waited out the rainstorm and the five and a half scoreless innings after Jennings's leadoff homer in the bottom of the first, got very loud, its decibels increasing during the rubber-time pause before the payoff pitch—which was low and inside for ball four. Furmaniak trotted home, and Ruggiano had the game's biggest at-bat, a pivotal bases-loaded walk issued by a pitcher who wasn't missing all that far out of the strike zone.

The next batter, Chris Carter, stung a line drive right up the middle—it almost hit Kimball in the head—but the Chiefs' infield had been putting a shift on for Carter's at-bats, moving the shortstop just a few steps from the second-base bag and the third baseman way over toward the shortstop hole. (Charlie Montoyo said after the game that no other team this year has played Carter that way; I'll try to ask Carter if he's had the treatment before.) Syracuse shortstop Chris McConnell fielded it on a hop and flipped to second base to force Ruggiano, but Carter beat out the relay throw and Luna scored to make it 3-1. That made Mike Ekstrom's somewhat rocky ninth inning a little less worrying: He put two men on with a walk and a single, prompting Cory Wade to get up and start throwing in the bullpen, before getting a rather lucky, shattered-bat lineout double play to first base, ending the game and giving Ekstrom his first save of the season.

That gave the Bulls their third straight win; coupled with Gwinnett's fourth straight loss, the win extended Durham's IL South Division lead to two games. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye—or some other time-compressing motion—the Bulls, who looked so iffy in Louisville just last weekend, have the third-best record in the league.

***

The story is always the young guys, the prospects—the Cobbs, the Guyers, the Jenningses—but I spent some time after the game talking with Justin Ruggiano, first about his game-winning walk, and then about his place in general. He is so far having an excellent season, with an OPS of .947. His strikeouts are down from the last couple of years, and his walk rate is up. His outfielding has been excellent, too—he had a small gash on his leg from where he'd run into the low wall near the right-field bullpen trying to make a very difficult catch of a foul fly ball. I asked him what's different so far, and he said "experience. I think I know for the most part what teams are going to try to do to me, and so if I can avoid swinging at the ones they want me to swing at and swing at the ones I want, that's kind of the idea." It's the slow accrual of information over time, in other words, that has given Ruggiano his in-game wisdom.

He was in a free-associative mood as he peeled off the bandage that he had applied to his leg wound and looked for his shower sandals. "It's a grind," he continued. "You know, I've been here [as a Durham Bull] for five years, that's the hard thing"—a healthy expanding of one's sense of the passage time on a night when it had been in the habit of compressing. "I will be a free agent next year. I come to the field every day, and I'm playing for next year." (That's got to be one reason why his performance has been so strong thus far—his livelihood in 2012 depends upon it.) "Next year, nothing's guaranteed. I have to self-motivate right now. I want to keep playing," said the 29-year-old. "I'm not ready to coach." So he has to make himself into a version of what the optimistically agnostic neuroscientist Eagleman calls himself: a "Possibilian."

"Hopefully, something works out in the States," Ruggiano said. "If not, maybe something will work out overseas." To that end, Ruggiano expressed an interest in playing in Japan. His manager, Charlie Montoyo, has expressed that same interest on Ruggiano's behalf, and I've noticed more Japanese scouts than usual at the DBAP this year. (Last night, they appeared mostly to be watching Stammen and Cobb, but they tend to track multiple players.) He mentioned that two of his current teammates, Chris Bootcheck and J. J. Furmaniak, have both been to Japan already, as has his teammate from last year, Dan Johnson. Reminded that Johnson hated his season in Japan, Ruggiano teased him in absentia for being "a negative nancy" and pointed out that "it's top-notch over there"; not only is the quality of the baseball "the closest thing to the big leagues," but "you're playing in sold-out, loud stadiums every night," he added. (Lest you think that ballplayers don't notice that, ask any of them to compare that to what it's like to play in front of a few thousand inattentive minor-league fans. It makes a huge difference for them.)

Ruggiano also pointed out that Johnson made $1.2 million guaranteed that year in the Land of the Rising Sun, and he and his family were housed in the upper reaches of a well-appointed high rise. "How bad could it be?" he asked, rhetorically—or perhaps in the spirit of a Possibilian.

Ruggiano's success so far this year owes not only to the pressures and opportunities promised by free agency, but also to the more basic fact that he's healthy. You may recall that Ruggiano also started out strong last season. On May 2, he was batting .330 with the very same .947 OPS he currently sports. He then tore a biceps muscle and missed about two weeks. "I kind of rushed back," Ruggiano admits. "I wanted to get back in there because I was still on the 40-man [roster, meaning he could have been promoted to Tampa on the spot if needed]. I figured if I was hitting the best, I had a chance to get called up. I definitely would have stayed on the disabled list longer," he said, if he had it do over again. He wore a brace on his arm after that, to protect it, but it hindered his flexibility. After that "I was hesitant to let it go, swing-wise; I really didn't feel good until August, when I took the brace off." But by then it was a mostly lost season for him.

None of this is to downplay or excuse any of the reasons Ruggiano hasn't been able to crack and stick in the major leagues, and I doubt Ruggiano would want to do anything other than take responsibility for himself and the results of his efforts in Durham since 2007. He seems comfortable, at ease, unworried even about his results—all he can do is try to ignore what opponents want him to hit and swing at what he likes instead; all he can do is run after fly balls and get lacerated against bullpen walls. He could get hurt again, and that, too, ultimately falls on him to surmount. Players get injured all the time, and unless the injuries are major, they have to play through them. Desmond Jennings had to do it last year, and the resulting decline in his performance is why he's still a Bull, even though the underachieving B. J. Upton hasn't nailed down the center field position in Tampa—he's often rumored to be on the trading block, but the Rays have to feel comfortable with Jennings's readiness to take over.

Ruggiano was called up to Tampa for 45 games in 2008. He didn't thrive there, batting under .200 and striking out a lot; but his former teammate and "negative nancy" Dan Johnson, who also earned a big-league job out of Durham, is doing worse so far this year (hitting a horrific .129 with a miserable .383 OPS) than Ruggiano did in 2008. The key to pushing through the ranks of minor-league baseball is not just playing well, it's playing well at the right time (that word again), no matter how quickly or how slowly time moves. Just ask Sam Fuld or Brandon Guyer—or Jake McGee, who gave the wrong performance at the right time, and now finds himself back in Durham from Tiempo Tampa Bay.

***

If you're going to Saturday's game, note that it starts at 5:05 p.m. rather than the usual 7:05—barring a rain delay, of course. The Bulls send Alex Torres to the mound. Torres has had only one problem this season, and it's the same one he's had before: walks, an unsupportable 16 of them so far in only 25 1/3 innings pitched. Everything else has been excellent: 33 strikeouts, only 18 hits, no homers, and that has helped keep his ERA under 2.00 (and has helped offset the walks in the FIP formula). His opponent is the Chiefs' Yunesky Maya, a 29-year-old Cuban who has steadily improved in nearly all of his starts so far this year, and is coming off of a scoreless, three-hit, eight-inning win over Rochester on April 30.

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