Kevin Millwood and Pawtucket Red Sox' rout ends Durham Bulls' homestand: Resurfacing | Sports | Indy Week
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Monday, June 6, 2011

Kevin Millwood and Pawtucket Red Sox' rout ends Durham Bulls' homestand: Resurfacing

Posted by on Mon, Jun 6, 2011 at 7:33 PM

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DBAP/ DURHAM—Major-league veteran Kevin Millwood, trying to make it back to the majors and resume what was once an impressive big-league career, had his best start in a long time today. He needed just 63 pitches to go 6 2/3 innings, allowing just one run, and led the PawSox (way) past the Bulls, 11-3. Durham heads up to North Division-leading Lehigh Valley after a sister-kissing 4-4 homestand.

Almost a brother-kissing one, too: Durham utility infielder Omar Luna's brother, Hector, plays for the PawSox. Omar pitched the final inning of the blowout loss—hitting 93 mph on the radar gun ("Luna threw too hard," Charlie Montoyo said later; "that's why he got hit"). Hector wasn't in the lineup, but I had hoped Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler might pinch-hit him to create an hermano-a-hermano showdown. But Hector failed to surface.

The game, which started at 12:06 p.m., was on the MLB Network. Had you tuned in then, you would have seen Bulls starter Edgar Gonzalez give up a leadoff single to big-league rehabber Marco Scutaro, who had three hits off Gonzalez in four at-bats. Then Gonzalez walked Josh Reddick, just down from Boston, who optioned him to the minors to make room for John Lackey.

After that, you would have seen Gonzalez call the batboy to the mound. The batboy gave Gonzalez an emery board with which to scrape mud out of his cleats. Unsatisfied after that scraping, Gonzalez made a further request: that the mound be resurfaced. Not long after that, out came DBAP groundskeeper Scott Strickland with a bag of dirt and a tamping tool. For about five minutes, he did what Gonzalez had asked for.

Maybe you tuned out at that point. Watch some minor-league game go to a delay on a Monday afternoon because the journeyman pitcher wanted the mound re-landscaped? No, thanks.

A bad workman quarrels with his tools, as the proverb goes. The next two batters Gonzalez faced, Darnell McDonald and Lars Anderson, doubled. Four batters, 3-0 PawSox. Gonzalez had needed 20 pitches and 16 minutes to that point. And we're live here on MLB TV.

Then Gonzalez started to throw strikes. Swing, swing, swing. His next 12 pitches produced: four outs; a catcher's interference call (on Jose Lobaton); a single; two doubles; and a sacrifice fly. Later, other pitches produced what appeared to be a contentious interaction with Marco Scutaro, after the highly demonstrative Gonzalez spiced up an inning-ending strikeout with some of his customary gestural mustard—a kind of pitcher's version of Oh, snnaap! Scutaro, who witnessed the hot-doggery from the basepaths, wasn't amused. A teammate intervened. (Gonzalez and Scutaro had an amicable make-up after the next inning.)

Anyway, hold the mustard, E-Gon: It was 5-0, Pawtucket after 1 1/2 innings. The game was essentially over right then and there, a comfortable representative of the Buck Showalter Theorem. Gonzalez made sure of it, though, by losing control in the fifth inning, a 37-pitch trudge in which he walked two batters and allowed two more runs. 7-0. He left after five unsightly innings, in which he had to patch up not only the mound but his tiff with Scutaro, and for which he needed 100 pitches. His teammates were unable to fill the five-run hole he put them in, though, thanks to Millwood's planing.

About an hour later, Gonzalez was released by the Tampa Bay Rays. They re-signed their former reliever of the last couple of seasons, Lance Cormier, to a minor-league deal. Cormier had been let go by the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 24. It was more than a little surprising to see him resurface at the DBAP, throwing a bullpen session in a nameless jersey (No. 6) in the middle of today's blowout.

E-Gon, he gone. Gonzalez wasn't around very long—he made only 11 starts as a Bull—but it's always unnerving when a player is released. It's a reminder of just how thin the occupational surface is in baseball.

All that aside, the story of this game was Kevin Millwood. Millwood, a Gastonia, N. C. native, is a former major-league All-Star, seventh among active pitchers in wins with 159. (That's only 17 fewer than Roy Halladay has, just to give you some idea of Millwood's longevity.) Millwood's career suddenly fell apart last season, when he he hit the skids with the Baltimore Orioles. He signed a minor-league deal with the Yankees, who let him go in May after he failed to convince them of his continued viability in their farm system, and stuck with two other oldtimers, Bartolo Colon (157 wins) and Freddy Garcia (137).

The Red Sox, whose starting rotation has cracks of its own, picked him up shortly thereafter—that's three of five AL East teams in a row for Millwood (I guess the Rays will wind up with him soon enough, if the pattern continues). Millwood was yucky in his first start for Pawtucket, allowing four runs in 2 2/3 innings against Norfolk on June 1. Reports were that his velocity was way down.

Yesterday, Millwood's fastball reached 88 mph here and there, but mostly sat at 86-87 on the DBAP stadium gun. He threw about two thirds of his pitches for strikes, and basically just asked the Bulls to hit pitches in or near the zone. He moved the ball around beautifully—"I was able to throw my curveball for some strikes," he said later, although that was only one of the things he was able to do en route to the win—and let his fielders do work for him. There were four strikeouts, one of them of Chris Carter with a breaking ball in the dirt. Carter homered off of Millwood in the majors last season. This time, Millwood got the better of The Animal.

"He wasn't throwing anything that was really a good pitch to hit," Carter said—he said virtually the same thing of Indianapolis starter Justin Wilson not long ago. (He also echoed something else he said about Wilson, crediting Millwood with exploiting a large strike zone.) "I was really impressed with his command. I don't think anything was a plus pitch, [but] he performed the way he wanted to perform." Carter noted that Millwood had unerring location. "In that sense, I'm really impressed. He did a great job. He made us look bad—or we made him look good. However you want to put it."

That's a tough call. There are plenty of arguments to be made for either case, but there's certainly no getting around Millwood's canny use of his pitches, nearly all of which had good movement—very little went straight and flat. Veteran wiles can get you pretty far in the minor leagues, and Millwood encouraged the relatively young Bulls' aggressiveness. (Russ Canzler, who was 13 years old in Millwood's All-Star season, recalled imitating Millwood's windup when he was a kid.) He wanted them to swing, but seemed to make it so they couldn't quite get the barrel of the bat on the ball. It reminded me of an outing Jason Isringhausen had with the Bulls a couple of years ago: a 10-pitch inning in which he moved the ball around, changed speeds, got hitters interested in pitches that weren't all that great to hit, and marched back into the clubhouse.

Now Isringhausen—who is still, two years later, pitching in the majors with his titanium right arm—threw a 94 mph fastball on that May day in 2009. Millwood told us after the game that he might add a mile or two per hour to his fastball, but that "it isn't about velocity" for him. He's not that pitcher anymore, he said. What pitcher he is remains to be seen. He'll have to be perfect with his now-melting stuff in order to succeed again, at age 36. He doesn't appear to have had controversial stem-cell surgery like Colon did not long ago, and probably doesn't have Greg Maddux's sheer witchcraft. His asphalt might resurface in the majors, get jackhammered, and retire to Georgia, where he now lives. But he couldn't have been pleasanter to talk to—genial, easygoing, responsive: to all appearances just an honest boy from Bessemer City with a million-dollar arm.

And why wouldn't he have been pleasant after his outing today? Nursing a Bud Light, reminiscing a little about his season at the DBAP in 1996 (he played for the the Bulls team that was then a Class A affiliate of the Braves), expressing fondness for the place—he remembered the bizarre playoff series that was interrupted by Hurricane Fran—Millwood gave off the air of someone with nothing to lose, happy to be trying to win again, and content to make a four-hour car (not bus) trip to Norfolk, where the PawSox were headed immediately after the game ended. Millwood has been the subject of much "he's-washed-up" disdain this season, but after today's game and postgame it's almost impossible to want to wish him anything but well.

***

Where Millwood's day went smooth and sane, much of the rest of it was weird. The first inning alone was full of mysteries. There was Gonzalez's surprising need for the mound to be fixed, after just two batters, on live national television. There was his sudden switch, mid-inning, from throwing balls to throwing strikes. There was a dropped infield pop-up that turned into a forceout, and a wild pitch on strike three that scored the Bulls' only run—Desmond jennings scampered home from third base—but didn't keep the batter, Brandon Guyer, from being thrown out at first. There was, too, the unsettling catcher's interference call on Lobaton, when a long swing by his opposite number, Pawtucket catcher Luis Exposito, knocked Lobaton's glove off his hand and had him clutching the hand in pain. (He's fine, Montoyo said—Lobaton's eighth-inning home run suggested as much, even if it was a pop-fly that just sneaked over the right-field wall about 335 feet from home plate.)

Weirder still, Exposito himself got bruised in the ninth inning, when a foul tip took a weird glance off of Brandon Guyer's bat and made a bizarre beeline for Exposito's throwing hand. Exposito crumpled to the ground in pain—you could hear his loudly-uttered oath resound through the stands—but he, like Lobaton, stayed in the game.

While Cory Wade pitched in relief of Gonzalez—he was perfect except for the small matter of a homer by Exposito, who unlike Lobaton got his long-ball out of the way before his hand injury—another Bull began throwing in the bullpen. No name on the jersey. The No. 6 isn't accounted for on the Durham roster. What was going on? No-name threw in two straight innings. Turned out to be Lance Cormier. He hadn't pitched since (he thought, later) May 21, except against high-school players, and was just trying to get some work in. He said he'll try to face some live hitters in batting practice or something, and as soon as he feels ready he expects to pitch for the Rays... somewhere. Durham seems like a good guess, what with the constantly overworked bullpen.

And then there was Omar Luna, making his first pitching appearance since June 24, 2010 at Indianapolis, when he pitched two thirds of an inning to put Mike Ekstrom out of his misery (he'd allowed five runs, four on a grand slam) in a 9-1 blowout loss. He relieved Ekstrom again today, but this time Ekstrom had done just fine, needing only eight pitches to throw a scoreless eighth inning. The Bulls then pulled to within 8-3 thanks to Lobaton's eighth-inning homer off of Clevelan Santeliz—another resurfacing player: we saw him plenty as a Charlotte Knight last season, and there he was sporting someone else's Sox.

Ekstrom probably could have gone another inning, and an 8-3 deficit isn't quite prohibitive (in a way, Lobaton's homer was an unwelcome complication); but Montoyo had apparently decided to concede the game. Luna, waggish and loosey-goosey on the mound, dialed up his fastball to 93 mph at one point—too hard; he couldn't control it—and then turned to steal a glance at the radar gun reading on the scoreboard. Montoyo was right: throw too hard and you're like a real pitcher, thus hitters bear down and hit you. A single, a walk and a double scored one run, and then—as if to add a final insult to the injury of losing three of four games at home to the PawSox—Exposito's grounder to shortstop took a funny hop and Ray Olmedo, last night's ninth-inning hero, was a ninth-inning schlemiel/schlemazel hybrid, letting it get by him for a two-run error. Oy vey.

***

After Sunday evening's 5-4 win, Charlie Montoyo was attributing his team's up-and-down fortunes to the patchy complexion of its starting rotation. "We haven't had one [reliable] guy that's been there the whole time. People get hurt, or somebody struggles for a couple of starts. Right now we've got new guys coming in, trying to go five innings. Your horse [Alex Cobb] deserved to go up [to the majors]." But Cobb was "the main thing we had every five days. And then Gonzalez was pitching okay, but he got hurt." (In retrospect, there's something ominous about that last statement.)

It's curious, in that light, that the Rays would release Gonzalez at this uncertain moment. Sure, they have five other guys who can identify themselves as the starting rotation, but they don't appear to be the horses Montoyo would like to have. "I don't know the last time [Torres] went six innings," Montoyo said, and then noted the short-outing tendencies of converted relievers like Chris Bootcheck and Jay Buente. Nor is it clear how durable Dirk Hayhurst, just off the disabled list after elbow stiffness, will be.

One surmises that the Rays simply weren't happy with Gonzalez's overall potential, perhaps in tandem with his mound demeanor, and when he monkeyed around too much on national television—and got lit up for seven runs, more importantly—they decided that they'd seen enough. Every team has its Triple-A filler, but what is the point of hanging onto guys in whom you've lost trust (Gonzalez) when there are others who might do more to earn it (Buente)? The ideal is that every single player on a Class AAA roster ought to be able to help your big-league club, if circumstances should require his particular skill-set. Look no further than Bulls' home-run king Chris Richard, who at 35 years old found himself starting at first base at Yankee Stadium in September 2009—or, for that matter, than Buente, who pitched for the Marlins just before the Rays claimed him off waivers.

"I think we're doing pretty good, for everything that's gone on these past two months," Montoyo concluded of his 31-26 team. Times are "tough, but I'm happy with where we are right now." And he added that not only is his starting rotation in flux, his bench only has two players on it on any given day—the Bulls have only 11 position players. That's why, for example, catcher Robinson Chirinos wasn't replaced with a pinch-runner after his leadoff walk in the ninth inning on Sunday. The only viable option was Luna, and as Montoyo put it, "Luna's not that much faster than Chirinos" (although he does throw harder than most Bulls pitchers). Chirinos has good speed for a catcher, but ordinarily there's someone in the dugout who can well outrun your backstop. In Triple-A, the cobblestones crack or are removed on an almost daily basis, and you resurface the road with whatever you've got. Think the Bulls have felt it hard? Their 39 total player moves to date this year are nothing compared to Pawtucket's 58—the Sox have been repaved far more often. And both teams will be again, many more times, before season's end. As Pavement themselves sang, "Is it a crisis or a boring change?"

The true minor-league fan learns to love it. As for the minor-league sportswriter, I decided to take that approach myself, and about more than just baseball. About 45 minutes after the game ended, Heather and I, trying to make the turn onto our block less than a mile from the ballpark, were diverted because they were repaving the street. Call me Macadam Sobsey.

***

The Bulls' bus left around 5:00 p.m. for Allentown, Penna., where Durham plays its annual four games against IL North Division-leading Lehigh Valley. The 35-21 IronPigs are surging. They have won seven of their last 10 games and have crept to within half a game of Columbus for the league's best overall record. As if to emphasize the current vagueness of the Bulls' starting rotation, only one starter has been named for the series so far—and that's not even a Bull but Rays' rehabber Jeff Niemann, who starts on Wednesday. Three of Lehigh Valley's starters, meanwhile, have ERA's over 4.90. Excited? Kevin Millwood's was 9.26.

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