Durham Bulls take third straight from Columbus Clippers: watch what you're doing | Sports | Indy Week
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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Durham Bulls take third straight from Columbus Clippers: watch what you're doing

Posted by on Thu, Jun 2, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Marilyn Monroe, reading James Joyces Ulysses
  • Marilyn Monroe, reading James Joyce's Ulysses
DBAP/ DURHAM—One of the fashionably renovated shopfronts in downtown Durham is now occupied by one of those mover-and-shaker type companies—the kind that like to move into fashionably renovated shopfronts—a consultancy or ad agency or marketing group of the sort whose actual work and purpose is not very clear to business-deaf people like me. "When data moves, retailers win," asserts a logo decalled onto the shopfront window: it's the sort of catchy phrase that, when you think about it (or when a writer like me thinks about it, anyway), eventually reveals itself to be either completely opaque or so obvious that it shouldn't need to be said at all. One or the other, it's hard to say. And that adds to the opacity—if opacity is what it is.

The other day, the company, whose name I haven't quite descried among the decals, was having a team meeting. Intelligent faces around a conference table; a dry erase board markered with punchy diagrams and text; bottles of water; "brainstorming"; "thinking outside the box"; "proactive": these are the images and words and phrases that irresistibly spring to and linger in the mind when confronted with such a scene.

The meeting, going on behind that shopfront window right there on Chapel Hill Street, in broad daylight, in the middle of a weekday, in the triple-bypassed heart of the Dirty D., looked like a shot composed for a TV advertisement for, say, FedEx, or IBM. It gave off that stagey, vague and generic dramaturgy of smart and affluent people strategizing and implementing ways to get things done, quickly and efficiently, for the convenience and support of smart, affluent people like, say, you and me. For all I know, the team members behind that glass were, right there in the middle of the day, having a profound affect, perhaps even a good one, on the life of the people on the street side. But it was hard to shake the feeling that what the participants wanted more than anything was, simply and desperately, to be observed having their meeting.

I've thought about this shopfront scene quite a bit since seeing it, especially as it pertains to the Durham Bulls, who beat Columbus last night, 5-4, their third straight win over the league-best Clippers, and the Bulls' sixth in their last seven games. Chris Bootcheck, at 32 the Bulls' oldest player, made his third start since stepping into the rotation from the bullpen. He excelled, going 6 1/3 solid innings and leaving with a 4-1 lead. Cory Wade cost Bootcheck two more runs, and the win, when he allowed a three-run homer to Wes Hodges—a good bit more about that homer after the jump—but Durham broke right back in the bottom of the inning with the game-winning run on an RBI single by Russ Canzler, who is currently the team's—and arguably the league's—best hitter.

In the top of the eighth, Jake McGee bailed Wade out of a two-on, no-out jam, and then blazed through the ninth inning to earn his second save in three nights. The Bulls moved four games ahead of slumping Gwinnett in the IL South Division.

Last year, in an interview, the pop music hero Elvis Costello explained himself this way:

I'm just doing things because I want to do them. Not even because I want to do them but because I am doing them. I'm not doing them thinking about how I look doing them. People who don't create anything think like that. "What do I look like doing this?" Well, you look like a f***ing idiot, actually. I'm not looking at my own reflection doing this—I'm actually doing it.

Is sports a form of entertainment or is it news? Is it a thing that happens, like history, or is it just a spectacle, like a circus—does it need to be looked at in order to exist? Well, no, not technically. They could play baseball games with no one watching, record the results, and pass them on to news outlets for distribution. (One of my favorite childhood baseball books, Noonan, imagines a world in which precisely that happens. T'anks a lot, Noonan!) But would the ballplayers still want to show up and play to an empty house—even for money? What would be the point if they did? Would they just be contributing to the company's inscrutable bottom line, fabricating a shift's worth of its products? What does Durham Bulls, Inc. produce anyway? Wins and losses? Major-league baseball players? Funnel cakes and seats in which to eat them? Meetings conducted in public, pushed into view atop a mound—kind of like those shopfront folks from When Data Moves Retailers Win, Ltd.? If no one had walked by that downtown Durham meeting, presumably it still would have happened anyway. (Actually, I'm not sure about that.) What if nobody takes anyone out to the ballgame, thereby supplying no crowd, which is supposedly as necessary to the baseball industry as Cracker Jack and root-root-rooting for the home team?

Two years ago, one of the Bulls' hitters spent the whole season struggling to hit breaking balls low and away. If a pitcher got ahead of him in the count, he could throw the Bull a slider down and out of the strike zone, and he'd swing over it and miss just about every time. The swing looked kind of good, and ended with a handsome upward flourish of the bat, but it seldom resulted in actual contact with the ball. "He looks like he's posing," someone said, after the 357th iteration of this attractive, empty swing. And there we all were, a ballpark full of fans, media and all the rest, watching this pose and commenting on it, voicing our disdainful opinions, listening to ourselves talk, putting our little 140-character thoughts on Twitter and our freshly scrubbed statuses on Facebook. (Social media is where we can watch ourselves do what we do—or, if you're feeling less charitable about it, to quote Mr. Costello, where we can "look like a f***ing idiot.")

Then we reporters add more layers of look-at-me-while-I'm-doing-this by going down into the locker room and asking the players to assess their work for the night, as they peel off their sweat-drenched, dirt-caked uniforms—that is, by asking them to watch themselves doing what they do, or have just done. That's why we so often get unrevealing or commonplace or downright inert answers: We may be watching them, but they're not watching themselves do what they do. They're just doing it—most of the time, anyway. Sometimes they are watching themselves, as we shall see, and it seldom works out well for them.

Which would you rather be, a poseur or a voyeur? How would you like it if people came and basically spied on you at work from the anonymous distance of a paid seat—people who couldn't possibly do what you do for a living, not the most basic parts: throw from first to third, slide into second base, hit a fastball, throw even the lamest 85-mph fastball. What if they booed you when you messed up? How would you like it if a newsman or a blogger reported on, analyzed, picked apart your performance and quoted the things you said about it just to get the reporter to leave you alone? I get slightly uncomfortable when Heather, who is the person I like being around more than anyone else, sits at the bar while I'm bartending. Last night, Brandon Guyer's wife (I presume) moved down to just behind the plate for his first-inning at-bat, and took pictures of him in his stance. He struck out. I don't think I would like to break a glass while Heather was sitting at the bar.

Still, sure, ballplayers want to be watched. They're entertainers. (They call the big leagues The Show, after all.) And I kind of find myself "performing" the service of bartending sometimes, even when Heather is watching. I must want to be watched doing it, as do ballplayers, to a degree. Yet what they do is as real as the gin in a martini, and as potent, and if they don't do it well for long enough, they get sent to the minors, or worse, released, and lose a lot of money. What we're at the DBAP to be entertained by is how those guys make their living. It almost makes you want to leave them a tip.

Speaking of tips, and of most of the above, here's a tip for Columbus first baseman Wes Hodges as regards his game-changing at-bat against Cory Wade in the top of the seventh. With two men on and one out, and the Clippers down 4-1, Hodges blasted a game-tying home run to left field. It was a long booming no-doubter, arcing majestically over the Blue Monster and landing emphatically on the far part of the aluminum roof of Tobacco Road Cafe's outdoor patio, which overlooks left field. An admirable shot.

Hodges must have thought so, too, for he admired it as he walked—not ran, or even trotted—down the first base line. Walked. Then, satisfied with his work as the ball landed, he flipped his bat with some little flair and then began to jog contentedly down the line toward first base. He was posing: look at me being that guy, Guy Who Has Just Hit Clutch Three-Run Bomb to Tie Ballgame. T. S. Eliot, near the beginning of the great "Burnt Norton," puts Hodges' momentary double-awareness best: "The roses had the look of flowers that are looked at."

One of the people looking at this Hodges-flower was Cory Wade, who had allowed the homer. As Hodges rounded first base, Wade glared his way and barked a few angry and pointed words at him. We couldn't hear them, but I imagine they partook of (or at least seconded, paraphrased) the part of the line in the above Elvis Costello quotation that has the asterisks in it.

You can call what Hodges did showboating, or showing up the pitcher, or showing off. You can also call it watching himself doing what he does. Preening. Posing. He happens to be fortunate that last night's game was too close for the Bulls to retaliate—i.e., by hitting the next guy, potentially jeopardizing his ability to do his job and make money—without putting the go-ahead run on base. (The Bulls' Dane De La Rosa did just that, you may recall, against Indianapolis in late April. He earned a four-game suspension for it, without pay.) Or hitting Hodges himself in his next at-bat.

The tip, of course, for Hodges, is: Don't do that! Baseball has plenty of "unwritten rules" that have to do with etiquette, convention, etc. Not admiring your homers or flipping your bat is one of them (see this post for more elaboration). Still, as Brandon Gomes noted later, "it's part of the game." Players can't help watching themselves and, at moments like this one, doing a little dance when they see what they've done. (Charlotte's Clevelan Santeliz did one last season, and paid for it.) None of us can. It's unseemly, and in Hodges' case unsportsmanlike and offensive, and an unwise move for a 26-year-old who has fallen off the Indians' top-prospects list and has never played a day in the Show. Who was he showing off for? Himself, of course: He watched himself do what he does. In a different sense of the phrase, he should watch what he's doing, because eventually it will get him hurt.

But instead of hitting him, or anyone else, with a pitch, the Bulls went back to work and didn't watch themselves do it. Clippers reliever Joe Martinez, who started against Durham at Columbus last week, walked Desmond Jennings to lead off the bottom of the seventh, with the game now tied. Ray Olmedo sacrificed Jennings to second. After Brandon Guyer flied out and Dan Johnson walked, Canzler hit his game-winning single, a grounder that just got under the glove of Columbus third baseman Luis Valbuena. After the game, Canzler, asked about a critical fielding play he made in the eighth inning, his game-winning hit in the seventh, and his general being-really-good lately, kept going to three words: "keep it simple." He must have said that four or five times. The phrase seemed to mean, on this night, more or less: Don't watch yourself do what you're doing. Just do the thing.

Wade allowed singles, one a bloop, to the first two batters of the top of the eighth—here we go again, one started to think. The game threatened to become one of those late-inning (or extra-inning) back-and-forths that keep you at the ballpark all night. I was actually a little surprised that Wade had come back out for the eighth after his unsettling failure (and angry words) in the previous inning, although I appreciate that Charlie Montoyo was probably just trying to show Wade some respect—which he has certainly earned through his excellent work so far this year—and to get some more outs out of him before calling on McGee, who was warmed up and ready in the bullpen.

But Montoyo waited until Wade allowed the tying and winning runs to reach base, and then went to McGee, who has turned a corner and has recently started to look dominant again, as he did late last season after his callup from Class AA Montgomery. Kipnis sacrificed the runners into scoring position, but McGee struck out Jerad Head for the second out. Head's at-bat was a good challenge for McGee. McGee got ahead, 1-2, but then Head fouled off three straight mid-90s fastballs. So McGee went to his slider, which is still not a "plus pitch," as they say, for him by any means. This one, though, was a good one, knifing down and in toward the ankles of the right-handed Head, who swung over it.

What was revealing, later, in talking to McGee about the at-bat, was that McGee was actually thinking ahead of Head. "I kept staying away, away, away. I didn't want to go middle-in. He kept hitting them foul. I said, Alright, if I throw a slider it's got to be down and in"—he landed hard on the word down: "down and in," vocalizing the action he wanted to get on the pitch—"and even if it's a ball, I can go fastball away [again] and change the speed he's looking for." That foresight helps illustrate the difference, which I sometimes like to make, between control and command: McGee, in planning ahead, was commanding the at-bat against Head. His mere control, i.e. simply throwing the pitch where he wanted it to go, was only part of that command.

With two outs, the next batter, Luke Carlin, hit a grounder to third that backed Canzler up on a drop-step and then took an obnoxious hop, trying to sneak into left field. Canzler gloved it, barely—he had a baseball sno-cone when he came up with it ("my eyes just got wide," Canzler told us later: "stay in the glove, stay in the glove")—and threw out Carlin to strand the runners and preserve the lead. McGee had an easy, 1-2-3 ninth inning, starting it with an emphatic strikeout, on high heat, of none other than Wes Hodges. And the Bulls had their third straight win over Columbus.

***

Couple of notes relating to the aforementioned Jerad Head and Columbus catcher Luke Carlin (whose Twitter feed serves up a "Word of the Day." Recently: "Conniption." "Nixie." "Faustian." Also, this is the guy who tried to blow—as in, put-your-lips-together-and—a Justin Ruggiano roller foul last season. Kinda brainy? Kinda wacky? I think he should be a Bull.) So far in this series, Head has misplayed three balls (on my watch, anyway) into a single, double and triple, via two awkward routes and one via a combination of a failure to a) hustle all the way and b) communicate with his third baseman. Do you think he could misplay a flyball into a homer, Canseco-style, and field for the cycle?

As for Carlin, he was at the center of a dodgy moment in last night's game, one that didn't change its outcome but dramatically altered the path to that outcome. Carlin had been called out on strikes in his first two at-bats, and was visibly displeased with home plate umpire Chad Whitson's supervision of the strike zone. In his third at-bat, in the top of the seventh, Bootcheck threw at least three pitches that were very, very, very close to being strikes—in fact, Whitson had been in the habit of calling wider pitches than those strikes earlier in the night. His strike zone had suddenly grown much smaller, inexplicably. Bootcheck could barely hide his disbelief at ball four. He was lifted after Carlin's borderline walk (also known as a bordwalk) for Wade—who promptly gave up Hodges' game-tying home run. Had Bootcheck gotten the strikeout call on Carlin—for the third straight at-bat—he might well have been permitted to face Hodges himself. At the very least, the homer Hodges hit would only have brought the Clippers to within 4-3. I have no idea whether Whitson remembered Carlin's first two at-bats and was reluctant to punch him out a third time, or whether, perhaps, Carlin used his influence as a catcher (who spends much of the game right at the plate umpire's feet) to squeeze Bootcheck's strike zone a little. I do know that this controversial at-bat not only radically changed the game but also, thanks to Hodges' homer's plating of two runners Bootcheck had put on base, re-inflated Bootcheck's ERA.

***

The Bulls would probably love nothing better than to complete a sweep of the Clippers, who broomed the Bulls out of Columbus last week. In order to finish the job, they'll have to do it without a bona fide starting pitcher. Ryan Reid, the closest thing to a swingman swinging in the bullpen these days, will start for Durham. Reid threw 50 pitches in a Double-A game against Mississippi in late April, but hasn't thrown more than 39 in a game since then. If he goes three innings, that will have to be counted a success. From there, it's "Johnny Wholestaff," as one Bulls employee put it.

Whether or not Wholestaff includes the newly returned (from Tampa) Brandon Gomes remains to be seen. Gomes threw a whopping 52 pitches in big-league relief of a dreadful and early-exiting Wade Davis against Texas on Monday night, and although he said he feels fine and could pitch tonight, the Rays may have other plans for him. The bullpen is fairly well rested, but I would expect helpings of Dane De La Rosa and R. J. Swindle in relief of Reid.

I had wondered the other night whether Jeremy Hall might take off the Hudson Valley sweatshirt and start tonight's game, but that's not happening for a rather unimpeachable reason: Jeremy Hall retired this week. Wha...? Apparently, he had been considering doing so earlier this season in Class AA Montgomery, where he was toiling as a nearly 28-year-old afterthought; but he probably got excited by his first-ever ascension to Triple-A, just one tantalizing step from the majors, and that excitement delayed what was perhaps inevitable. Hall's wife recently discovered she was pregnant, and he may have decided, rather than continue to pose as a pitcher—with a Triple-A ERA of 8.47, he wasn't very convincing—he preferred to be at home with her. Can't blame him for that. Take a silent moment to wish the man and his expecting wife well.

***

Three personnel notes:

* 1) Chris Carter has been out of the lineup for two straight nights. He apparently, according to Charlie Montoyo, has a problem with his fingernail. Seriously. When an injury isn't anything major, Montoyo goes to this quip: "He's day-to-day, and today wasn't the day." He used it for Carter's, which means Carter should be back in the lineup very soon. J. J. Furmaniak and Omar Luna have been getting reps in the outfield, and although no harm has been done there, it isn't their natural habitat. Also, you have to think the Bulls would like to get Carter's bat back in the lineup.

* 2) Dirk Hayhurst will come off the disabled list and start for the Bulls on Saturday against Pawtucket. Assuming his arm remains attached to the rest of him, he'll reclaim his spot in the starting rotation. When that happens, it would seem likely that Ryan Reid puts on the sweatshirt, but I've gotten very good at predicting roster moves with unwavering inaccuracy.

* 3) Rays starter Jeff Niemann, a former Bull who will be familiar to any serious fan, is recovering from an injury and will begin a rehab assignment with Class A Port Charlotte on Friday. He will then make two starts for the Bulls, one on Wednesday against Lehigh Valley in Allentown, Penna., and then (as long as there no setbacks) at the DBAP on June 13 against Norfolk. Mark your calendar!

***

A few thoughts about pitching that arose from speaking with Chris Bootcheck and Jake McGee on the same night, consecutively (their lockers are nearly adjacent, too): Bootcheck has just gone from relieving, which he has done pretty much exclusively since 2005, to starting; McGee, meanwhile, has made the opposite transition, having pitched in 129 minor-league games from 2004-2010 and started every single one of them until the Rays moved him to the bullpen when they assigned him to Durham from Class AA Montgomery, well into last season. Making this transition is hard enough circumstantially: suddenly you are expected to throw either far more or far fewer pitches than you are accustomed to; suddenly you have to change your mindset depending on whether you're setting the game's tone early or trying to change it later.

But there's much, much more going on here than just that. Really, even though you're still pitching, your whole occupational life changes; it's like you have an entirely different job. In Bootcheck's case, he now has to recall what sorts of routines he used to go through—bullpen sessions, stretching, and so on—in the four days he had off between starts. He has to recalibrate his mentality to working only every fifth day, which means finding ways to stay focused during the long layoff between outings. He no longer sits in the bullpen during games. He has had to start mixing his pitches more cannily, increase the insertion of his splitter and slider in his four-seam fastball- and cutter-dominated repertoire. Now that he has finally had a really successful start—and against a very good Columbus lineup—"now the work begins," he said, chuckling.

Bootcheck is soft-spoken and thoughtful. I'm guessing he was well-liked by Joe Maddon when Bootcheck and Maddon were with the Angels organization, and that that affection is what brought Bootcheck to the Rays organization. I have no idea if there is room for him in the Tampa bullpen, but Bootcheck, a former first-round draft pick, certainly has the intelligence and maturity to help the team should they run short of viable relief arms. He could be especially valuable as a swingman, a "utility pitcher" of sorts.

McGee, for his part, has to be ready to jump up and pitch at any moment. The effects of that workplace uncertainty, he said, and lack of regular, regimented work—which starters need in order to maintain their mechanics—may have contributed (he speculated) to the bizarre inconsistency in his fastball's velocity for the first part of the season. He wasn't achieving full arm extension each time he finished his delivery. "At the beginning of the year I was cutting everything off," he said, and that sometimes left his fastball short at 90-91 mph. The Rays didn't dig it: Throw harder, they ordered, as he recounted to us. He was trying to, he said, but he needed to get comfortable with his delivery. "I feel like I'm back now," he said, and the 94-96 mph he has regularly been hitting over his last two outings supports that claim.

"I'm focused more on the pitch I need to make," McGee said of his transfer to the bullpen. "Because if I make the wrong pitch it could change the whole game." (Just ask Cory Wade.) Then he talked about staying sharp by doing a rather common reliever routine: Throwing a towel, rather than a baseball, off of a mound, in order to keep his mechanics sharp. That very silly-looking, almost Monty Pythonesque drill is very I-don't-care-what-I-look-like-doing-this.

Speaking of practice, pitchers (well, all ballplayers) tend not to divulge what it is they've been specifically asked to work on by the big-league bureau when they're sent to the minors. Sometimes that's because there isn't a particular assignment, but I suspect they also don't want to reveal the secrets of their training. So it was refreshing to hear both McGee and Brandon Gomes talk more openly about what they're trying to do in Durham. Obviously, McGee was commanded to throw a faster fastball! But also, he needs to work on throwing his slider for strikes. Right now, it's an out-pitch, something he throws to right-handers, mostly, out of the strike zone, in order to get them to swing and miss. But if he can bend it in over the inside part of the plate to lefties, and also back-door it over the outside corner to right-handers, he'll really have a weapon.

Gomes was told that he needs to be able to get lefties out, and to that end his splitter is the key. Look for more of that pitch. Also, Gomes said, the Rays want him to do a better job of holding runners on base. It was interesting to hear Gomes talk about the immensely detailed scouting reports prepared for him by his team's coaches (and against him by other teams' coaches) in the majors. Minor-league spectators (and sportswriters) tend not to think much about scouting, because there doesn't seem to be much of it here. Minor-league teams don't have the personnel resources for that study, so players are on their own, and work an informal system (psst! hey! what's that guy throw?). This is yet another way in which the big-league game is not only harder and better but tangibly, provably so: they've got almanacs, charts, the whole enchilada. The minors barely have the basket of chips. You scrounge for information just as you scrounge for food.

One more little note: Brandon Gomes and Wednesday night's starter for Columbus, Corey Kluber, were roommates last year in San Antonio, when both were in the Padres organization. When we approached Gomes to talk to him, he was texting Kluber to make postgame hangout plans. Here's hoping, out of respect, that they sat with their beers (or ginger ales) in civilian clothes, a couple of guys in the same business relaxing after a long, hot day's work, and that no one in the bar watched them at all.

The Bulls' Johnny Wholestaff (featuring Ryan Reid) versus the Clippers' Jeanmar Gomez at 7: 05 p.m. at the DBAP. One-dollar goodies at the concession stand.

And speaking of flowers that are looked at: Happy birthday, Marilyn Monroe, who would have turned 85 yesterday.

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