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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Louisville Bats outslug Durham Bulls, split series: no refunds

Posted by on Sat, May 21, 2011 at 6:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM—On our way home from the DBAP last night, Heather and I were walking by a restaurant with an outdoor patio, where we happened upon a couple we know well. They had been to the Al Pacino show at the Durham Performing Arts Center and were poking at the remains of their dinners.

They hadn't liked the show or the dinner. In fact, they walked out of the Pacino show before it was over, despite the cost of the tickets. And one of them had only eaten about half of what was on the plate.

Wouldn't it be good if, having deemed your entertainment or your food of poor quality, despite having consumed it, you were entitled to your money back?

That thought crossed my mind after after the Louisville Bats beat the Durham Bulls last night, 9-8, an ugly game in which both teams played poorly much more than they played well—the pitching especially was flavorless and amateur on both sides. If you appreciate quality baseball, there was a little to admire (there always is) but plenty to deplore on Friday, right down to the very last out.

But you pays your money, you takes your chances, like the man says (although it isn't clear which man). Maybe the baseball they serve you is bad, but there ain't no refunds, and the only games good for exchange are the ones they don't play, i.e. the ones that get rained out.

Surely Brian Baker wishes this one was.

Baker was taking his warmup tosses just before the game's first pitch, and someone in the Press Box said that the Louisville Bats were going to light him up. There wasn't a word of dissent. Baker can thrown 90 mph, and last night he did a few times, but he isn't really a 90-mph guy. A soft tosser who relies on keeping hitters off balance with offspeed pitches, especially his changeup, he has to be close to perfect.

But really, even if he is, he may simply lack the raw stuff to suppress a thunderous lineup like Louisville's for long—and that's with Louisville missing Daniel Dorn, whom Bats manager Rick Sweet called "one of our hottest hitters," for the last three games of the series. (Dorn has some forearm tightness, Sweet said.) After the game, in which Baker allowed nine runs in just 3 2/3 innings, Charlie Montoyo's choice of words was revealing. Usually, when a pitcher struggles, Montoyo will say, "He didn't have it tonight." After Baker's outing, he said: "Baker"—and here he paused—"couldn't do it," he decided. It was as if the problem wasn't that Baker simply had a bad night; Montoyo's language suggested that perhaps Baker might be unable to shut down Louisville—or, at the very least, unable to do it for long: "Baker just couldn't hold," Montoyo added.

Indeed, Zack Cozart drilled Baker's second pitch of the game to deep center field, where Desmond Jennings hauled it in for a scary out. Yonder Alonso then boomed a double to right-center. All told, the first two Bats had hit the ball about 750 feet. It looked like it was going to be a long night—or rather, a short one—for Baker.

To his credit, he got Juan Francisco to roll over a breaking ball and ground out to second, and induced a foul-out to end the inning. And he retired the side in order, on just 10 pitches, in the second inning.

It was actually his counterpart who looked bad early. Like Baker, Scott Carroll pitched around a hit in the first inning, but his second inning was a total mess, and he helped make it worse than it needed to be. Russ Canzler hit an infield single to lead off. Leslie Anderson lined out to shortstop. (Hey! Watch out for Leslie Anderson! He's heating up! Over his last five games, he's 10-22 with a double and four homers—which are his only four of the year and tie him for fourth on the team. He has raised his batting average 37 points.)

Robinson Chirinos doubled down the left field line. (Hey! Watch out for Robinson Chirinos! He's heating up! He has a seven-game hitting streak that has raised his average 41 points!) That advanced Canzler to third.

J. J. Furmaniak executed a perfect safety squeeze bunt to score Canzler with the game's first run. (Hey! Watch out for... never mind.)

Carroll got ahead of Ray Olmedo, 0-2, but then hit him with the next pitch. He got ahead of Desmond Jennings, too, but then walked Jennings after Jennings fought him through a nine-pitch at-bat. Brandon Guyer, who homered and doubled off of Carroll in Louisville on April 28, doubled down the right field line to clear the bases. 4-0, Bulls. Carroll went to a full count on Felipe Lopez, made a not terrible but not good pitch, and Lopez hit a home run to right-center field. 6-0. Curtain. Check please.

Not so fast. The inning after your team gives you the lead is known as the "shutdown inning." But Baker threw the doors open instead—or, to stick with the theme: He was served a big hearty plate full of run support but he sent it back to the kitchen, by which I mean the Louisville hitters' kitchen. He got the first two outs of the third inning without much trouble, and then the lineup turned over for the first time. That favored Louisville, because the big difference in this year's team, as opposed to the 2010 squad, is that they're still just as aggressive but now they're smarter. They're like computers getting closer and closer to self-awareness and turning into Terminators: you could fool them before, but they've figured out human trickery.

Cozart, who had opened the game with that long, hard out to center field, hit a liner to deep left. The left fielder last night was Chris Carter, because [NO, I DID NOT FORGET] Justin Ruggiano was called up to Tampa Bay (congrats to him) and Carter, who has been the Bulls' designated hitter in 24 of 34 games so far this season, replaced Ruggiano in the outfield.

Left field seems like the easiest of the three outfield positions to play at the DBAP because, what with the shallow Blue Monster, there is less ground to cover and shorter throws to make. Nonetheless, you still have to read the ball and take a good route. Ruggiano (along with Guyer and Jennings) is a much faster outfielder than Carter is, and is much better at tracking fly balls. Who knows if he would have gotten to Cozart's drive, but it certainly seemed, as Carter moved back on it, that he might very well have been able simply to reach up, or leap just a bit, and glove it. Instead, he seemed to decide he couldn't, made no attempt to catch it and allowed the ball to hit the Blue Monster, whereupon it caromed right back past him and gave Cozart an easy double.

Then Alonso, Francisco and Frazier went single, double, three-run homer, all on nice pieces of meat from Baker's oven, and it was 6-4 before Baker got Jeremy Hermida to foul out to end the top of the third inning.

To their credit, the Bulls went right back to work against Carroll in the bottom of the inning. With one out, Anderson and Chirinos hit consecutive singles to put runners on the corners. But this time Furmaniak, after showing bunt again on Carroll's first pitch to him, swung away on the next one and grounded into an inning-ending double play.

And that was the moment where you perhaps should should walked out and, in an ideal world, demanded your money back. In the top of the fourth—the really shutdown inning—Baker proceeded to miss his cues, drop his lines, trip over scenery, etc. He hit Devin Mesoraco on a full count. Chris Valaika singled to left field. Corky Miller struck out, but Kristopher Negron (who really wants his stage name correctly noted—it's Kristopher, he insisted to the Bulls' media folks, not Kris!) doubled to score two runs and tie the score. Baker walked Cozart. He struck out Alonso, but Francisco hit another double to break the tie and make it 8-6.

Out came Charlie Montoyo. His Baker appetizer having been, well, baked, he called on the next course, Ryan Reid, who promptly gave up a single to Frazier to score Francisco and make it 9-6.

The Bulls got a run back in the fifth inning, but they stranded two runners to leave it at 9-7. In the seventh, Felipe Lopez led off with a single against Carroll. That brought on lefty reliever Daniel Ray Herrera, who got Chris Carter to hit an easy grounder to second base. It should have started a double play, but Valaika mishandled it. Lopez, however, wasn't running very hard to second base (shades of this incident not long ago, when Lopez was still with the Rays). Valaika had time to force Lopez out at second. One out later, Anderson singled to put two on for Chirinos.

Had Lopez made it to second base—and perhaps, even with hustle he would have been out; he doesn't run well at all—the bases would have been FOB with one out. Instead, with men on first and second and two outs, Chirinos grounded out to end the threat.

Meanwhile, looking on the brighter side, Ryan Reid managed to hold Louisville scoreless for three innings and keep Durham in the game. It wasn't exactly a command performance; but for an understudy, which Reid basically is (he was called up from Class AA Montgomery during the Bootcheck/Hayhurst/De Los Santos injury wave, as a shoring-up move), it was convincing. He pitched around yet another double—the Bats' sixth of the game—this one by Corky Miller, and a couple of pretty loud outs by Alonso and Frazier, to end with 3 1/3 scoreless innings. R. J. Swindle followed with six straight outs—if he gets his act together, it will really help the bullpen—and that allowed Durham to stage another rally in the ninth.

It started with another hit batter, this time Guyer, courtesy of Bats reliever Carlos Fisher. Lopez then singled to right field, moving Guyer to third, and the Bulls were suddenly building toward a rousing finale. Omar Luna came in to pinch-run for Lopez. Louisville pitching coach Ted Power emerged and convened a mound conference, the crowd rumbling with anticipation.

That brought up Carter, who failed to rise to the drama of the occasion: He swung at Fisher's very first pitch to him and hit into a double play, the worst possible outcome. Even a strikeout would have been acceptable here, because perhaps somewhere during it, Luna might have stolen second base. Not only would a steal have eliminated the possibility for the double play; it would have put the tying run in scoring position, too.

Mostly, though, it seemed that the veteran thing to do—Carter 28 years old, is in his eighth pro season—was to at least make Fisher throw a couple of pitches under pressure. A wild pitch, for example, would have scored Guyer and moved Luna to second. If nothing else, Carter could have given himself a chance to see Fisher cast a few reels. I don't know, maybe he doesn't like seafood.

Guyer scored on Carter's double play, and the crowd, 10,000 strong (the Bulls' largest of the year so far), cheered wildly, egged on by celebratory music from the Bulls' entertainment control tower. The crowd's involvement in Bulls games is of vestigial concern most of the time—they're just there for the junk food and the between-innings promotions and the deafening PA system—but on a night when you might want to ask for your money back, the necessary consumer here is one with some powers of discernment. Cheering for a rally-killing double play, even one that scores a run, is ignorant.

So maybe Bulls fans got what they deserved when Russ Canzler, with two outs and the Bulls needing something, anything, to stay alive, watched a Fisher fastball come right down the middle for strike three to end the game. In his previous at-bat, Canzler had watched a nice fat 82-mph fastball from Herrera go right over the plate, and right by him, before striking out swinging. Canzler has looked very good at times since becoming a Bull this season, but he often seems tentative in managing his at-bats, letting good pitches to hit go by him and swinging at bad ones.

***

Charlie Montoyo spun the 2-2 series split with Louisville as best as he could: "We battled the whole way and we split with one of the best teams in this league," he said, adding, "We were in [Friday's] game till the end." That struck me as a backwards way to assess having had a 6-0 lead early on. In fact, the Bulls squandered huge leads in both of the losses. Moreover, even after last night's defeat they still have a better record than the Bats by half a game. Acting as though it's some sort of positive reinforcement to have "hung with" Louisville is mildly abject: a series tie, at home, against an opponent with a lesser record, when you score 35 runs in four games, is a disappointment not a victory. Credit is due Durham for coming back from an early 5-2 deficit in Thursday's 12-6 win, but the Bulls otherwise let the Bats get the best of them. Louisville seemed fierier, fiercer.

Visits to the two clubhouses confirmed up-close what we saw from a distance on the field. The Bulls are a generally soft-spoken, easygoing bunch. The postgame decibels tend to be low; they're like most company men getting off work and going home. (To add, or rather subtract, from this energy, the team's biggest personality, Dirk Hayhurst, is down in Port Charlotte rehabbing.) When we interviewed Brandon Guyer last week, we had to lean in to hear his responses, so quiet is his voice.

To qualify this a bit, here's betting that the Bulls are somewhat rowdier on the road, when they don't have their front office and home fans and home media—and, perhaps most influentially, their families and friends—in close proximity. Nonetheless, they can't possibly be anywhere near as rambunctious as the Bats, who also seem physically larger than the Bulls. There's a lot of macho teasing in the Bats' clubhouse, more beer flowing, more carrying on and needling and plenty of the sort of testosterone-drenched, cock-of-the-walk banter you expect from most pro athletes. When we asked Louisville's Dave Sappelt, the Graham, N.C. resident who is currently on the disabled list with a strained oblique, when he expected to return to action, Corky Miller, the 35-year-old veteran catcher who looks like he should have been a roadie for the Allman Brothers, butted in: "When he feels better."

To some degree, this noticeable difference must reflect organizational priorities. The Tampa Bay Rays like maturity, intelligence, good humor, discipline; they prize "character," whatever exactly that is, as reflected in the oft-cited fact that Rays manager Joe Maddon has a psychology degree. And as I pointed out in my season preview, the franchise is both bookish and even a little nerd-silly at times. There are the themed-dress road trips, Joe Maddon's occasional wine talk, Sam Fuld's dad (he's the Dean of the Liberal Arts College at the University of New Hampshire) and Andy Sonnanstine's offseason training regimen of, according to one report, "yoga and kickboxing, darts and archery, sporting clays and billiards."

I don't know as much—or, really, anything—about the Cincinnati Reds, but it's easy to imagine that rough-and-ready is how they like their players. The Bats are about the same age as the Bulls, on average, overall, but they seem so much younger. You wouldn't be surprised to see their clubhouse posturing turn into an actual fight. And as for their confidence, try Bats outfielder Sappelt, talking about the relatively new challenge of Triple-A pitchers (the 2010 Southern League MVP has only played 48 games at this level so far—and is batting .332). He said that he likes to face a guy who has "got an ERA that needs to be boosted." He's out to add insult to injury. And speaking of injury, Sappelt hurt his oblique during batting practice last month, and if I understood him correctly he was trying to hit home runs at the time—a telling detail. A little showing off, muscle flexing, is what got him hurt. (It's his first injury, he said, in his career as a ballplayer. He expects to be back in about 10 days.)

The respective managers, too, are very different. Both Montoyo and Sweet are very friendly and affable, but Montoyo's demeanor is much more reserved and mild than Sweet's. Montoyo is also more sensitive to the needs of the Rays and to his functionary role in it—"If the Rays are happy, I'm happy," he often says, one of many ways in which he frequently aligns himself with the organization, on board with its mission and comfortable reserving his personal judgment; whereas Sweet often refers to his parent club as "they"—some outfit for which he is an independent contractor. He's more raffish, more opinionated than Montoyo, who is more subtle and restrained; and like his players vis-a-vis Durham's, Sweet is bigger than Montoyo, both physically and in character. Last year, when his very young team was struggling through the first half of the season—36-45, 13 games out of first place—Sweet said: "I made a total turnaround of how I usually approach this level [Triple-A]. I told my coaching staff, 'We're going back to [Class] A-ball. Simply treated [the players] like they were in A-ball, and if they were gonna play that way, I was gonna treat 'em that way. I refused to lose. They had to learn. The way we were playing"—and, Sweet added, behaving off the field—"was unacceptable."

Thus Louisville has the chain of command it needs: young players who need a bit of babysitting, and a more paternal manager (with a wisecracking pitching coach) to provide it. On the other side of the field, the Bulls have less a boss than a facilitator, someone who is there to help his players, not discipline them.

***

A few notes:

* It was interesting to hear Rick Sweet talk a bit about the DBAP's hitter-friendly design, something that is readily apparent but rarely discussed, and which I often take for granted because the DBAP is the only park I see regularly. Its coziness had been on my mind before the game yesterday, though, because of some apt commentary from Jason Collette, who covers the Rays for the valuable Process Report web site (here's their very sensitive, even wistful take on Dan Johnson, who was designated for assignment yesterday). Collette mitigated the evidence of some Bulls hitters' productivity by noting the smallness of the DBAP's dimensions. "You could make a career hitting in this ballpark," Sweet said, putting it more bluntly: "I would not like to play in this ballpark all year [...] Like Teddy [Louisville pitching coach Ted Power] said, 'This is Pacific Coast League baseball.' [Hitters] check the schedule to see when they get to come here. A six-run lead in our ballpark is a huge deficit. [Louisville Slugger field's dimensions] are very legit."

(That perspective adds extra validation to the numbers of pitchers like Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson.)

* As you probably know, Justin Ruggiano was the surprise roster addition when Dan Johnson was designated for assignment. I will limit my commentary on the move, although it was certainly time to do something about Johnson, who was having a miserable time with the Rays. If he clears waivers—which seems likely, given his $1 million salary (that's money the Rays can't ask for a refund on)—he can choose to refuse his assignment to Durham. If he does that, however, he forfeits his money, so it seems likely (to me and to Charlie Montoyo) that Johnson will accept the assignment. If and when that happens, I may have further thoughts. As for the choice of Ruggiano over Guyer or Jennings, the latter two need regular playing time because they still project as big-league starters someday, perhaps even soon. What the Rays wanted was a bench player, a role they feel comfortable assigning to Ruggiano. Why not Chris Carter, then, who can play first base, Johnson's natural position, and is left-handed like Johnson? For one thing, the Rays have another left-handed first baseman, Casey Kotchman; for another, I'm tempted to think that they'd prefer the known quantity of Ruggiano, who has been in the organization for years, over the new-blood Carter. Also, Ruggiano has speed and can steal a late-game base. It can't have hurt that he swiped four of them for the Bulls the day before his promotion.

* The Bulls fly early in the morning to Columbus, Ohio, for a four-game series against the IL-best (28-14!) Clippers, who have by far the league's best hitting team (Louisville is second, Durham third or fourth depending on how you measure). When last seen, Columbus was crushing the Bulls for the Governors' Cup trophy last September, and they have a large number of that team's players back this season. On Saturday evening, the Bulls send Chris Bootcheck to the mound against the Clippers' Corey Kluber. Kluber is the pitcher the Bulls would have faced had they been able to force a decisive fifth game of the championship series (boy, were they not). Hard to know how to call this one: Kluber has been Columbus' worst starter this year, with an ERA near 7.00 through seven outings, and Bootcheck is a reliever who hasn't thrown more than 54 pitches in a game this season and hasn't started an American professional ballgame since 2006. I can't imagine he'll last more than three innings or so. Look for an appearance in relief by Rob Delaney, who was back in the Bulls' clubhouse last night.

* Looking ahead, in the series finale on Tuesday (at 10:35 a.m.!), the Bulls' Alex Torres will face off against old friend Mitch Talbot, who played for the Bulls for three seasons and led the team in wins in two of them. Now a Cleveland Indian, Talbot is recovering from an injury and is starting a major-league rehab assignment with Columbus. No telling how many pitches he'll be allowed to throw, but it ought to be an odd sight for Charlie Montoyo—and for Ray Olmedo, who, remarkably, with Ruggiano gone to Tampa, is the only remaining player from the 2009 Bulls, the last year of Talbot's tenure with the team. There may be no refunds, or crying, in baseball, but there seems to be more exchange than it sometimes appears.

Following the Columbus series, the Bulls visit Toledo. I'll be back with an update or two during the Bulls' trip to the Buckeye State.

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