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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Durham Bulls edge Buffalo Bisons: Tempo

Posted by on Tue, Jun 21, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Chris Bootchecks seven innings led the Bulls to victory
DBAP/ DURHAM—My last game story described baseball games as complicated affairs that eschew linear time. There were phrases like "retrospective teleology" and the contention that baseball's movement is made of "a series of tiny events whose concatenation is actually non-narrative, disjointed and finally inscrutable," and blah blah blah like that.

So thanks for last night's game, a 2-1 Durham Bulls win over the Buffalo Bisons, which basically came down to one at-bat. In the top of the seventh inning, the Bulls were clinging to their 2-1 lead, provided by Desmond Jennings's opposite-field, third-inning two-run homer. Bulls' starter Chris Bootcheck had largely cruised to that point, touched only by a very, very long homer by Zach Lutz in the sixth.

The first two Bisons to hit in the seventh hit groundball singles, the first of them one that a better second baseman than Felipe Lopez might have turned into a groundout. The runners advanced to second and third on a sacrifice bunt, but Bootcheck struck out an overmatched Mike Nickeas for the second out.

With Dane De La Rosa ready in the bullpen, Bulls pitching coach Neil Allen trotted out to the mound. Was Bootcheck going to be permitted to get that last out? A longish meeting ensued—note that Allen gets to the mound much faster than his pitching coach predecessor, Xavier Hernandez, who loped out there so slowly that the ump would come out to break it up almost the instant Hernandez arrived to commence his conference.

Bootcheck stayed in. (Manager Charlie Montoyo joked later that the only reason he didn't lift Bootcheck was that "my players were holding me back.") His first pitch was a strike, and so was his second—a cutter that actually hung a bit. But Bubba Bell didn't take full advantage. He hit the ball decently, but not decently enough, his opposite-field looper to left providing a rather easy chance for Leslie Anderson, who caught it well shy of the Blue Monster. Inning over.

And, basically, game over. Buffalo had two-out singles in both the eighth and the ninth innings, but in both cases the next batter was retired. The Bulls, who looked like they might be falling toward serious trouble just a few days ago, won their fourth game in the last five tries and held onto their two-game lead over Gwinnett, where they just took three of four games to reclaim the division lead they briefly lost to the Braves. The 39-31 Bulls are eight games over .500, matching a season high, and they have three more games at home against the lowly Buffalo Bisons before the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees roll into town.

No surprise that Charlie Montoyo appeared to be a much happier man than the one we talked to just last week.

Fun to see a pitcher's duel! And in fact we've had a decent number of them this year, the last two courtesy of Chris Bootcheck. The prognosis seemed poor early. In the first inning, Bootcheck allowed three hits—one on an unplayable sacrifice bunt attempt—and gobbled up 24 pitches, going to three three-ball counts. But a pickoff at first led to a rundown in which the lead runner, Luis Figueroa at third base, was gunned down trying to sneak home.

After that, Bootcheck found his groove—and in this case "found his groove" is the correct phrase. He didn't make a mechanical adjustment, he said. "I try not to get mechanical in a game. I picked up the tempo. That's been a big key for me. Once you pick up the tempo, you think less about mechanics. Between starts, it's something you can attack a little more." Asked why his tempo dragged in the first inning, Bootcheck speculated that the off-day the Bulls had on Wednesday may have been a factor.

"I'm not a big fan of off-days," he said. "Maybe later in the year, [but not] when guys are hitting well, pitching well—you never want to see an off-day come along."

That's another reminder that this apparently episodic, flow-less game actually does have have flow to the guys playing it. There is indeed a rhythm. I've often wondered about momentum in my coverage—for a long time I thought there was really no such thing in baseball—but players and managers talk about it often. From inside the game, it exists. I think that's due to the day-by-day routine that dominates ballplayers' lives: stretching, batting practice, the between-starts program that each pitcher follows, and so on. Event by event, there's little evident rhythm; but pull back from that and observe what surrounds those events—including the bus rides, the gradual and inevitable heating-up of summer, and all the rest—and you can see, or rather feel, that it's there. It's the rhythm of habit, not of the metronome.

That may also help explain why players get on hot and cold streaks. Robinson Chirinos, for instance, had a wonderful Spring Training (that's like a tree making a resounding echo when it falls in the woods), then couldn't hit at all for the first month of the regular season. On May 7, he was batting .177. He then reeled off—so quietly I didn't even notice it—a 14-game hitting streak, raising his average to .256. And it was his double last night that preceded Jennings's homer and proved to carry the day. What he needs now is more of that power—his SLG is lower than his OBP, and his OBP is only a so-so .332. But in fact his double was just a well-placed grounder down the left-field line. Leslie Anderson and Jose Lobaton both hit balls as hard last night, and had a pair of groundouts to show for it.

More hot streaks: Dane De La Rosa, Jake McGee and R. J. Swindle. Swindle hasn't allowed a run in more than a month, covering 13 appearances and 12 innings pitched. He has been doing LOOGY duty much more often, just coming in for a lefty batter or two. He got one out in each of three straight games from June 9-11, and has now shaved more than three runs off of his ERA since May 18. More importantly, his slider (Swindle's go-to pitch) seems to have regained its all-important spin and snap. He has 12 strikeouts in those 12 innings, right in line with his career rates.

Swindle was up and throwing in the bullpen during the eighth inning last night, as De La Rosa picked his way through the first four batters in the Buffalo lineup. But he wasn't needed, because De La Rosa pitched around a single to Lutz, who had homered in his previous at-bat. (Bootcheck had made a decent pitch, actually, a fastball on the inside corner, right toward Jose Lobaton's target, on a 3-2 pitch; but Lutz did a great job of turning on it. His homer was a moonshot down the line, way way up in the air and way way out of the ballpark; the umpire, Adam Hamari—working his first DBAP game, if I'm not mistaken—got down on one knee, right on the third-base chalk, and watched the ball's flight carefully before making his emphatic home-run call. Two innings later, De La Rosa stayed away, but Lutz lined one into right-center for a solid single. He's easily the most dangerous hitter the Bisons have.)

De La Rosa had one miserable stretch for two weeks in May, allowing 13 runs in 8 1/3 innings, including three homers. He has otherwise been very dependable, having surrendered just three other runs in 28 2/3 innings. He leads the relief staff in innings pitched. De La Rosa has basically only two pitches, but when he controls them well his 6-foot-7 frame makes them tough to hit.

After De La Rosa took care of the eighth, Jake McGee nailed down the ninth for his second save in as many nights. Pinch-hitter Jason Botts, a very big dude who hit a scary homer at the DBAP last year, when he was a Syracuse Chief, hit an opposite-field single with two outs, but McGee outworked Mike Nickeas in a seven-pitch at-bat that ended in a game-clinching groundout to shortstop. A game that hadn't really seemed all that close, thanks to the Bulls' excellent pitching throughout, ended the way it felt: with Durham winning.

Pitching sets tempo. Montoyo says it. All managers say it: "If our starter gives us a chance..." etc. And it isn't merely that the tempo sets the tone of the game, like the drums laying down a beat before the other instruments kick in; it sets the tone in the ballpark, helps keep the energy livelier all night—even if some of the fans aren't really watching the game, they are the mood beneficiaries of its vim and vigor. Bulls games have generally gone faster this season, the frequent rain-delays notwithstanding. Bootcheck, Alex Cobb, Dirk Hayhurst and Brian Baker have all been quick workers on the mound. Only Alex Torres lags behind his own beat, and that, I would argue, has been partially responsible for his erratic performance.

***

Speaking of the beat and the tone, that familiar song started up before the bottom of the seventh inning, after "Take Me Out to the Ballgame": It was the opening bars of "Rock and Roll Fantasy" (lip sync advisory!), which could mean only one thing:

Dale Thayer!

Thayer, as you may know, pitched for the Bulls for most of four complete seasons, earning himself a little taste of big-league action with Tampa. In the off-season after 2010, he signed with the Mets. No hard feelings, he said fter last night's game, toward the Rays; Thayer was a free agent, and his agent had a few players already with the Amazins (that is not a typo).

He said that, after a 2010 season in which he was hampered by forearm pain and stiffness, he tried a different off-season workout program. "I'm getting up there in years," the 30-year-old said. "I needed to try something." That something included throwing a weighted ball, to increase his strength and power, and last night it showed: Thayer, whose upper body looks stronger than it did last year, was hitting 95 mph on the DBAP radar gun. Last season, he seldom topped 93, if at all. His location remains an issue, but with the extra velocity he can get away with it more often (the faster you play, the fewer missed notes your audience hears). He pitched two innings in relief of Bisons starter Dylan Owen, who was very effective, and allowed only an infield single to J. J. Furmaniak (although Dan Johnson took him to the Blue Monster to end the eighth inning—a flyout that wasn't as scary as the Monster's proximity made it look).

Thayer admitted that facing his former team might have upped his velocity a bit. "When you face your old buddies, you're like, 'Let me see what I can do.'" The difference between 92-93 mph and 95 is pretty large, to other organizations' scouts—95 has that heart-skipping quality to it. In fact, his parent organization noticed, too: Thayer has already spent some time with the Mets, and even after he was sent back down to Class AAA, he was left on the 40-man roster.

Thayer is one of the pleasantest (ex-)Bulls I've interacted with: mild-mannered but candid, as easygoing as they come but serious about his work. he's the kind of guy you want to wish success for, and I hope we get to see him pitch here at the DBAP again before Buffalo shuffles off to its next pasture.

***

A few other notes:

* Alex Cobb is back from his second tour of duty with the Rays, and will start Friday against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (he'll get an extra day off since his last start, in the big leagues). After Baseball Tonight did a very up-close breakdown of Cobb's pitch-tipping problem, even going so far as to blot out Cobb's body and focus on his glove, it was fun to ask Cobb about it now that the issue has been both outed and, apparently solved. The tip was that Cobb had been flaring his glove wider to accommodate the grip on his splitter than he did when he was throwing his fastball, and opposing teams picked up on that tell. Now he flares his glove wide no matter what he's about to throw.

Cobb didn't know much about the ESPN feature (he said he saw it in a bar, but the sound was off so he couldn't make much of it). When the details were related to him, he quipped that the Baseball Tonight producers "were just trying to give Eduardo Perez a hard time." Perez, a former Tampa Bay Devil Ray, had been a Baseball Tonight analyst—the one, by the by, who erroneously claimed that Cobb threw a mid-90's fastball—until just last week, when he took over as the hitting coach of... the Florida Marlins, whom Cobb dominated just before his return to Durham. Maybe Perez told his new charges that they should watch out for Cobb's 95-mph fastball, leaving them flummoxed when it turned out that he didn't have one. Meanwhile, the Marlins' recent free-falling 1-18 stretch concluded with the resignation of their manager; between that team and the Rays, it's a tale of two Floridas these days.

It's interesting, by the way (to me, at least), that Cobb is being given an extra day of rest and held out of the Buffalo series until the Yankees come in. It's hard to resist speculating that the Rays would like to give him a steeper challenge than the Bisons pose—although now that I look over some team hitting stats, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre isn't that much better than Buffalo. Still, it's the Yankees: it seems like a better team.

* Jay Buente, who has struggled lately, has been put on the 7-day disabled list with "arm fatigue." It would seem like a natural fit for Cobb to take Buente's rotation spot, but Buente is scheduled to pitch tonight against Buffalo. Instead, Lance Cormier gets that start. That isn't as weird as it might seem. Cormier has been known as a reliever for the last few seasons, but he was mostly a starter in the minors until breaking through as a bullpen arm in the big leagues. It seems unlikely that Cormier will be able to throw a whole lot of pitches—I'm guessing 75, at the most—so look for Ryan Reid out of the bullpen if Cormier runs through his pitches early in the game.

* One result of Cormier's addition to the rotation is that Brian Baker will move back to the bullpen as a second long-man, along with Reid. Baker has pitched pretty well as a starter lately, but he did that for much of last year, too, despite supposedly being earmarked as a long reliever; the additional, unexpected innings taxed his arm so heavily that he was gassed before the season ended and had to be shut down by the Rays. Baker is almost sure to be needed in the Bulls' starting rotation again this year—Cobb could go up to Tampa again, there could be trades or releases or injuries—and keeping his innings down now may well pay dividends later.

* As you probably know, Bulls outfielder/DH Chris Carter recently opted out of his contract, which had a June 15 escape clause in it. Montoyo said that he wasn't surprised Carter played the get-out-of-jail-free card—he had little chance of being called up to Tampa—but he didn't know Carter was planning to do so until Carter walked into his office as the team was gearing up to leave for Gwinnett and said goodbye. The kicker is that, three days later, there was Carter in Gwinnett—he'd signed with the Braves. Brandon Guyer said the Bulls weren't sure at first if perhaps Carter hadn't abruptly changed his mind and decided to return to the team—he was staying in their hotel. But no, his first game as a G-Brave was against the Bulls. He went 0-2 before he was lifted for a pinch-hitter. (Montoyo cracked that he never lifted Carter for a pinch-hitter.)

Carter's new uniform seems a rather mystifying choice, at first glance—the Braves have plenty of outfielders, both in the majors and the minors, and as a National League team they have no need, of course, for a designated hitter—but I wonder if Carter's choice was motivated less by a desire to go to the Braves than to leave the Rays. He seemed a bit of an outlier in the clubhouse, and unconvinced of his allegiance to the team. He may have been annoyed that Justin Ruggiano got called up, rather than Carter, when Dan Johnson was demoted to Durham. I noticed that Carter used the pronoun "they" more often than "we" when talking about his employer. Still, I'll miss him: he was a different cat, and a good interview. And he had the gumption to use a Justin Bieber song for his walkup music. Now that's macho.

* Speaking of macho, Bisons manager Tim Teufel (a former Mets second baseman) is the second consecutive visiting manager (Norfolk's Gary Allenson was the first) to open with a gruff whaddaya-want? scare-off before engaging in what turned out to be a perfectly professional interview. It's as if these guys want to see how we'll react to a growl before revealing themselves to be domesticated. It's rather funny, really. I'm looking forward to seeing what's in store for us with Ryne Sandberg, who manages the Lehigh Valley IronPigs and admitted—in a speech he gave when he was inducted into the, uh, Hall of Fame—"I wasn't the best interview for many of those years, but I wasn't trying to be difficult." He just couldn't help it?

* Just a heads-up, here: The Bulls are halfway through the season, by one measure. They've played 70 games but should have played 72, or half their scheduled 144—they had two rained out in Syracuse, and those won't be made up. I'll probably have more to say soon about the current midpoint of the 2011 campaign, but for now the thing that jumps out at me is how little jumps out. That's largely because the Bulls started the year mostly on the road. Things started to balance better in June, but the June schedule has felt choppy, with little four-game series alternating home and away. I suspect that this homestand versus Buffalo and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre will help clarify what sort of team Durham really has—partially because, right afterward, some more opt-out clauses will hit (on July 1, I believe); and partially because the starting rotation, which has been going through changes lately, may maintain some order for the next few weeks, at least.

If the Bulls, who have been more or less a .500 team since the second week of May, can either get hot or go cold, we may be able to say we know more about them. Right now, the parts haven't summed—at least, not by my math. Or perhaps better to say that the tempo hasn't evened out—that choppiness again. Last year, it wasn't only that the Bulls had a murderous lineup of hitters who were not only good but consistently good (you knew what to expect from each one, the way you know what note a well-made melody will land on next); it was also that, for a while, Richard De Los Santos and Jeremy Hellickson could almost be guaranteed to pitch effectively and deep into every start they made; and most nights, some combination of Winston Abreu, Joe Bateman and Dale Thayer usually made the Bulls' leads hold up. The team was predictable, even-keeled, well-timed. They went 88-55, after all.

Right now, it's not even clear who this year's bullpen heavies are. Brandon Gomes, the early-season closer, has been supplanted by Jake McGee. De La Rosa and Swindle, low-leverage guys in May, now help seal close wins. Dan Johnson, not the devastator he was in 2010, is part of a lineup that includes some very good hitters but no real fearsome ones—Desmond Jennings's 10th homer last night notwithstanding. It's worth noting that the cost of Jennings's newfound power has been his plate discipline: He's striking out about once every six plate appearances; his career rate is closer to 1:8. He's also drawing fewer walks. I expect all that to regulate toward its norms once Jennings grows back into his regained health and strength, neither of which he had last season; but for now he's not really the same hitter we saw, for instance, in 2009, when he came up from Montgomery and excelled as a true leadoff man, drawing walks, seeing pitches, hitting line drives.

***

Tonight at 7:05 p.m., Lance Cormier makes his first start since 2008, when he was a Baltimore Oriole. (Aside: Cormier has pitched for three of the four IL South Division teams; look out, Charlotte!) He faces off against Chris Schwinden, a right-hander who has been a pleasant surprise for Buffalo this season, his first in Class AAA. He's 12th in the league in ERA among qualifiers. See you at the DBAP.

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