Durham Bulls beat Indianapolis Indians in 11 innings: Justin! or Justice? | Sports
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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Durham Bulls beat Indianapolis Indians in 11 innings: Justin! or Justice?

Posted by on Wed, May 11, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Justin Ruggiano keeps delivering wins for the Durham Bulls
DBAP/ DURHAM—BABIP! By my count, the Durham Bulls and Indianapolis Indians combined to hit 13 balls on Tuesday night that had every right to think of themselves as hits—10 of them were struck by the Indians—and all of them wound up as outs. The fellow most unjustly treated was Indy shortstop Pedro Ciriaco, who smoked not one, not two, but three line drives more or less right at his counterpart, Bulls shortstop Ray Olmedo, plus a fourth lineout to Desmond Jennings in center field. The irony there was that Ciriaco drove in the Indians' only run of the game, on a meek foul-out down the third base line that twisted Durham third baseman Felipe Lopez completely around in his pursuit of it; by the time he unwound himself after catching it and turned to make a throw—he seemed surprised for a split second that the Indians' speedy Corey Wimberly tagged up—he couldn't get much on it, and it was up the first base line. Wimberly scored rather easily, given how close Lopez was to home plate when he made the catch.

That play, in the top of the sixth inning, tied the score, 1-1. (The Bulls had scored the game's first run in the fourth inning on an RBI single by Leslie Anderson.) It stayed that way for the next five innings, the tie score ducking and dodging hard line drives all over the ballpark, until red-hot Justin Ruggiano, the reigning International League Player of the Week, hammered a bases-loaded, 390-foot single to the center field wall in bottom of the 11th inning—yet another liner that, this time, no one was going to catch. That gave the Bulls a 2-1 win, their 20th of the season against 13 losses. They maintained their two-game division lead over Gwinnett.

Was it fair? Maybe not, and it doesn't matter. Baseball, it seems to me, is more prone than other sports to outcomes that don't match the work done. Sure, the Indians whacked the ball repeatedly off of Durham starter Edgar Gonzalez and two relievers, where the Bulls were generally silenced by Rudy Owens, whom they'd blistered for two homers, a double and five runs in just 2 1/3 innings a week ago in Indianapolis. After the second homer, by Brandon Guyer, Owens hit Chris Carter, who had hit the first home run, with a pitch, and was ejected. That prompted an apparently retaliatory hit batsman on the part of the Bulls' Dane De La Rosa—on the very first pitch he threw in relief—who was also ejected. After the league reviewed Dane's derring-do, he was suspended for four games. The longish intervening layoff he took between appearances (10 days, if you don't count his one-pitch ejection game) could very well have had something to do with his horrific return to action against the Indians on Monday at the old DAP, when he allowed five runs in two innings, blew Durham's lead, and took the loss. What goes around comes around.

Or does it? Isn't the point that baseball, like life, isn't fair? That baseball is indeed more like life than any other sport—dominated by failure; anchored by inert stretches of time that are suddenly un-moored by fast-moving action; both limpidly simple and extraordinarily complex; organized around who controls home; often transitively rather than reciprocally punitive; and resistant to the march of time? Isn't that why this after all rather bizarre sport occupies a central, formative place in our mythology?

Yeah, well, maybe I shouldn't show up at the DBAP with an issue of the New York Review of Books, not least because it contained a long and potent attack on the recent slimy doings of the right-wing faction of the U.S. Supreme Court (justice, indeed). Fact is, the Indians may have hit into 10 hard line-outs, but they also committed four errors and hit a batter. One of the errors helped set up Ruggiano's game-winning hit. For what it's worth, their pitching staff also issued the game's only leadoff walk, to Chris Carter in the fourth inning, and Carter eventually scored.

Edgar Gonzalez is fun to watch on the mound. There is the hex-caster follow-through he sometimes does, which I have noted here before, and to that we can add what I will call the "Half-Heisman": a turning of the torso and a raising of the facing leg, a pose he will sometimes strike after a close pitch has been called a ball. He will twitch and freeze after pitches, follow them plateward with a step down off the mound. His fourth-inning sequence versus the Indians' dangerous John Bowker (who eventually grounded out) was almost like a little dance performance between pitches—a series of almost Indonesian choreographic gestures. E-Gon also exchanges words often with his catcher and occasionally with his infielders. He's easily the most colorful Bulls pitcher, especially with the operatic Winston Abreu gone to the Pacific Coast League.

Hard to say if Gonzalez had a good night. He allowed only three hits and just the one run, but there were all those line drives hit to his fielders and only one strikeout. To head off an objection at the pass: Yes, of course you can argue with results, given that Gonzalez still has about 20 more games left to start, and he's unlikely to have that many scorching line drives land in fielders' gloves again.

But say this for him: He threw strikes—for a good while, anyway—and because of that he cruised through the first five innings on just 52 pitches. That allowed Charlie Montoyo to stick with Gonzalez through his rocky sixth and seventh innings, when his control wobbled—fewer than half his pitches were strikes in those final two frames, and he threw first-pitch strikes to just two of 10 hitters. Still, he made effective pitches when he had to, and kept Cory Wade, who got up and threw warmup pitches in both the sixth and seventh, out of the game until the eighth. The Rays almost certainly signed Gonzalez to be the workhorse of this year's starting rotation in Durham, and sure enough he leads the team in innings pitched. His 3.26 ERA ranks 19th among 55 qualifying starting pitchers in the league—nearly in the top third. He's earned the right to do whatever dance he wants on the mound.

As for the Bulls' approach against Owens, it seemed rather mystifying. He threw a fastball in the 89-91 range (it touched 92 a couple of times) that looked pretty hittable, and didn't mix it up very much—I'd guess that 85% of his pitches were his straightforward fastball. The Bulls chased a few of them out of the strike zone, but mostly it just seemed like they didn't hit them hard, for whatever reason. The only excitement of Owens's outing came when brushed back Chris Carter—the guy he'd hit on May 3—with a high-and-tight heater. Otherwise, he gave Indianapolis six good innings, pitching out of bases-loaded trouble in consecutive frames (the third and fourth—he allowed only one other baserunner) while giving up just the one run.

Cory Wade and Mike Ekstrom survived their combined four innings of relief, with Wade getting two deep, well-hit fly-ball outs and one of Pedro Ciriaco's three line-outs to short, and Ekstrom (who got his third win, which, oddly, ties him for the team lead) allowing four singles and two line-outs of his own to center field. By then, it was the bottom of the 11th inning, and it was as if the gods decided to up the pressure on the two teams to get it done—just as well, because there is an 11:00 a.m. game today, and the night was in danger of getting not merely long (which it already was) but dreadfully so.

That's because, in the middle of the 11th inning, a storm was headed right for the ballpark—menacing thunder and flashes of lightning took over the sky down the left field line. The DBAP groundskeeper checked the radar and informed his team that not much time remained before an unavoidable rain delay, and had Justin Ruggiano not come through we could very well still be playing baseball rather than reporting on it.

With the winds blowing and the storm bearing down on the ballpark, Robinson Chirinos led off against Indianapolis reliever Justin Thomas with a single into the left field corner. J. J. Furmaniak pinch-ran. Leslie Anderson laid down a sacrifice bunt—not a very good one—and Thomas had a play on Furmaniak at second base. But he threw the ball into center field, and now there were runners at first and second with no one out. Omar Luna then followed with another sacrifice bunt, this one so good that he might actually have beaten the throw to first base—but he was called out, and now there was one out with men on second and third. Ray Olmedo was walked intentionally (a phrase that is perhaps unique in the English language) to load the bases for a force out at home, and that brought up Desmond Jennings.

Jennings hacked at Thomas's first pitch but fouled the ball back and out of play. He never quite got a good swing in the at-bat, and on 2-2 flied out to shallow center field. Furmaniak held at third.

And that brought up Ruggiano, who told us later that he was still unhappy about an earlier at-bat, when he struck out against the Indians' Cesar Valdez with two on and no one out in the seventh. "I've kind of had my struggles against Valdez," he said, and Valdez got him out with what appeared to be some mischievous cutters and a sweeping slider. (Just before that at-bat, Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor had come out to argue a call at first base, at great and unnecessary length—perhaps, Ruggiano thought, to freeze him a bit—and Ruggiano toyed with trying to lay down a safety squeeze bunt. That's how diffident he felt about hitting against Valdez.)

Three innings before that, Ruggiano had faced Owens with the bases loaded and two out, and hit a drive to deep right-center field. But Indianapolis center fielder Alex Presley was playing very deep, and he ran it down for the inning's final out.

"This game's gonna end one way or the other," a guy a few rows behind me said, with the storm now just a few minutes from touchdown at the DBAP. Ruggiano, certainly due to come through, took a fastball for ball one, and then Thomas threw a changeup—"I was sitting on it," Ruggiano said—and not a very good one. For one thing, it arrived at 85 mph, not much slower than his heater. For another, it hung, and thus resembled a batting-practice fastball. Ruggiano pounced on it. Presley was playing shallower now, but it would have made no difference had he been where he was in the fourth inning. Finally, a liner that deserved to fall in for a hit did so, almost 400 feet away—in the sightline of the under-construction Justice Department building, appropriately enough—and the Bulls had a walkoff win, justly or not. Given that it was delivered by the team's hottest hitter, who had already been denied by fortune once, I say we back out the Indians' 10 line-drive outs with their four errors, pronounce Owens and his 90-mph fastball a little lucky, and call it even.

And then it rained.


Brief notes:

* Three unlikely Bulls showed (and one of them did) bunt in non-sacrifice situations last night: Anderson, Chirinos and Brandon Guyer. We'll have to see if this inaugurates a trend, or if they were just trying to get something going on a night when hard-hit balls seemed destined for outs.

* Is Felipe Lopez's problem simply a slow bat? Hitting right-handed, the switch-hitter fouled five of the lefty Owens's 90-mph fastballs off to the right side. He grounded out four times and struck out on a curveball in the dirt once.

* Charlie Montoyo has made visits to the pitcher's mound two nights in a row. In neither case did he have anyone warming in the bullpen. On Monday at the DAP, he was clearly trying to galvanize the sagging Dane De La Rosa, who looked listless, with an animated speech full of emphatic gestures. It didn't help. Last night, he visited Gonzalez after Gonzalez walked Matt Hague to put two men on with a run already in in the sixth. This seemed a calmer meeting; I had guessed at the time that Montoyo was telling Gonzalez that the next man up, Bowker, would be Gonzalez's last hitter regardless. But after Gonzalez got Bowker to hit into an inning-ending fielder's choice, Montoyo rewarded him with a seventh and final inning. Montoyo has generally seldom visited the mound except to make pitching changes, so we'll keep an eye on this and see if it's an indication that his style is getting more hands-on.

* Rehabbing J. P. Howell will pitch in relief on Wednesday and then again on Thursday, in order to give him back-to-back days to see how his arm responds. Assuming all goes well, he'll then head to Tampa Bay (whose bullpen had a major malfunction on Tuesday). It seems likely that Rob Delaney will return to Durham—or rather, to Syracuse, where the Bulls go on Friday—but you never know with the Rays, who often make surprising roster decisions.

* Remember that today is Education Day, an 11:05 a.m. start. Finish up your work and head over to the DBAP! I hope the players hit their coffee bar of choice beforehand. (For an imaginative pick-me-up, I recommend the very scrumptious and not too sweet lavender-infused latte at nearby Scratch Bakery, although I note they now also offer a lightly sweetened iced coffee doctored up with rosemary and lemon zest, which I may have to pick up on my way.) Alex Cobb starts for Durham—on MLB TV, if I'm not mistaken. Cobb has been the Durham rotation's ace so far this season, and he will take on Indians lefty Brian Burres, who beat the Bulls last August at the DBAP and has made 54 big-league starts (100+ appearances in all) over the last few years with Baltimore, Toronto and Pittsburgh. Burres has been all over the place so far this season: he followed seven scoreless, four-hit innings against Louisville with a pair of ugly duds against Columbus and Norfolk, and he has allowed a whopping eight home runs in just 32 innings pitched.

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