Durham Bulls beat Buffalo Bisons: Trust | Sports
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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Durham Bulls beat Buffalo Bisons: Trust

Posted by on Thu, Jun 23, 2011 at 6:00 AM

The Bulls Dan Johnson is congratulated after his three-run homer in the eighth inning of Wednesday afternoons game at the DBAP
  • photo: Al Drago
  • The Bulls' Dan Johnson is congratulated after his three-run homer in the eighth inning of Wednesday afternoon's game at the DBAP
DBAP/ DURHAM—After the Bulls lost, 9-1, to Buffalo on Tuesday night, dismally, Charlie Montoyo didn't seem too upset. That was revealing, because despite his general affect of everything's-OK, Montoyo actually wants to win, badly. He's an extremely competitive manager, and he probably knows, despite whatever assurances the Rays may give him about how his job is to develop players (with results secondary), that nothing smells more like job security than napalm in the mor playoff appearances.

So when Montoyo looked composed and calm after the blowout loss, saying that his team would start hitting again soon, you had to trust his confidence. And you had to keep trusting it deep into Wednesday afternoon's game. The Bulls built a slim lead heading into the eighth inning, when they led 4-3. But they had stranded five runners in scoring position, three of them on third base with one out. All signs pointed to one of those depressing games in which a thoroughgoing failure to capitalize early would lead to a late loss.

Cut to the bottom of the eighth inning. Up 4-3, Robinson Chirinos walks on four pitches from Buffalo reliever Justin Hampton. J. J. Furmaniak places a sacrifice bunt so perfectly that it allows him to reach first base with a single.

Omar Luna comes up and receives the signal to lay down another sacrifice bunt. Instead, he decides he is too good a hitter for that; he explains to Montoyo, later, that he aimed to punch a hit past the charging infielders and knock in a run or two. This attempt fails, of course, but Luna chops the ball to a spot where the Bisons' third baseman, Zach Lutz, can only throw him out at first base. Chirinos and Furmaniak advance—so it's as if Luna sacrificed. One away, runners on second and third.

Desmond Jennings is intentionally walked. It's the right move. Buffalo manager Tim Teufel calls on—yep, him again—Dale Thayer to relieve Hampton and deal with Ray Olmedo. He gets ahead of Olmedo, 0-2, but Olmedo grounds Thayer's third pitch through the first-base hole for an RBI single. 5-3. Brandon Guyer follows with a chopper to third base, an RBI groundout. 6-3.

The game's over, and Dan Johnson guarantees it. Thayer falls behind him, 2-1, at one point throwing one of the four or five changeups he generally throws during the course of a given season—and Johnson swings over it. The fourth pitch is a fastball, up and out over the plate—Desmond Jennings later tells Johnson that it wasn't even a strike, too high—and Johnson, who took Thayer to the left-field wall for an out on Monday night, hits an opposite-field, three-run homer over the easternmost part of the Blue Monster. It's a legit shot, and it's 9-3, and that's the final score.

Here's one thing among many that separates baseball, blessedly, from sports like basketball and football: in the latter two, you see coaches screaming at their players to do certain things in certain ways—right now!—and throwing fits when the players don't follow orders or botch carrying them out; you see offensive and defensive coordinators decreeing plays from offices high above, via headsets, to be executed to the letter. These athletes are not to think, not to plan. Their best resistance is basically petulance. In baseball, the manager and his coaches pretty much have to watch from the dugout or coaches' box and hope that their players do the things they're supposed to do. If Omar Luna chooses not to bunt, all you can do is shrug, talk to him later, run him out there again. There's a tremendous amount of intentional green-lighting in baseball, a lot of trust willfully placed in ballplayers over the course of the long, hot season. What you prize them for is not what you can make them do but what they're predisposed to do.

Dan Johnson is disposed to hit home runs. Dale Thayer, given his track record, is supposed to leave, say, one out of three or four fastballs up in the strike zone. Trust these things, and the inevitable outcome is almost sure to follow.

Dan Johnson has had a pretty miserable season thus far. His struggles in the majors, after earning a $1 million contract from the Rays, were pitiable. He was batting .115—.115!—with exactly one home run when the Rays sent him down to Durham after six dreadful big-league weeks. Johnson hit over 30 homers last season between Class AAA and the major leagues. He was, as you probably know, the International League MVP.

Even after his demotion to Durham, Johnson struggled. He was hitting .212 with two homers in 2011 with the Bulls. But Johnson is a home-run hitter. Even taking into account that 2010 was the best year of his career by far; that players regress; that he had been hit on the hand by a pitch just a week into the 2011 season: still, Johnson was going to hit some homers, at some point. It's what he does.

Charlie Montoyo knew that. He kept batting Johnson cleanup, day in and day out. "He's hit some balls good—right at people," Montoyo later said of him. The baseball season is long. Trust it. "You know how he can carry this team, easy, if he gets hot," Montoyo added. Johnson is going to do what is almost in his wrists to do, genetically, and sure enough he did it yesterday.

Is it enough to get Thunder Dan on track? Who knows. But don't think for a moment that Montoyo is going to lose faith in Johnson's ability to get on that track, any more than he's going to give up on, say, Jake McGee, who gave up a leadoff double to light-hitting catcher Mike Nickeas in the ninth inning, then struck out the next three batters—-boom boom boom—to end the game.

Be thankful for the minors for that reason: in the majors, if you fail to produce for long enough, you're outta there. The stakes are too high, the money too scary, to let failure reign for very long (unless you're the Pittsburgh Pirates). In the minors, you get chance after chance to do the thing you're supposed to do until you prove that you can't—and sometimes you keep getting the chance even after that. Failure is tolerated in the name of hoped-for—of trusted-in—success, largely because because baseball is, as it is often pointed out, a game of failure.

Johnson said a wise thing. "I've faced so much offspeed [pitching]. A lot of 2-0 offspeed, 3-0 offspeed. I understand. It's their numbers"—meaning that opposing teams' scouting has revealed Johnson's weakness against offspeed pitches, especially changeups in hitters' counts. He said he wouldn't have been surprised if Thayer, behind 2-0 in the count, had thrown another offspeed pitch. Johnson called it respect for his ability to hit fastballs, although opponents might call it disrespect for his struggles against the slow stuff in favorable counts. Johnson knows, despite the confidence he exudes, invariably, that he has that flaw; yet he also knows that he has to trust himself to do what he does best. He waited on the right pitch at the right time—and the piteous look his former teammate Dale Thayer flashed him, as Johnson left the batter's box and the ball sailed out of Goodmon Field, seemed to acknowledge, sadly, that Johnson's trust in his tendencies had exposed Thayer's own unavoidable habit of missing too high with his fastball.

I was reminded, obliquely, of the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog, which pops up, in variants, everywhere from Aesop to Star Trek to How I Met Your Mother. The scorpion asks the frog for a ride across the river on the frog's back. The frog, worried the scorpion will sting him, hesitates. Why would I sting you, the scorpion asks, since you'd sink and that would drown me? The frog assents. Sure enough, halfway across the water, the scorpion stings the frog. Why did you do that? asks the frog, as they go to their deaths. Because it is my nature, the scorpion replies.

After a point, you trust your best and worst nature. Bulls starter Dirk Hayhurst published an essay the other day about the benefits of pitching to contact. Strikeouts, as Crash Davis reminds us in Bull Durham, are fascist, and to that political wisdom Hayhurst adds the economic argument that they'll cost you too many pitches. "Pitch efficiency," he writes, "not strikeouts, is what separates the men from the boys because this is the stat that reflects your ability to repeat success."

I recommend not only Hayhurst's original article for Bleacher Report but also the Comments thread that arose about the article on DRaysBay (which remains the best site for enlightened Rays fans to visit), because Hayhurst himself weighed in to clarify and elaborate in a longish comment.

Near the end of that multi-paragraph comment, Hayhurst wound up unearthing a buried lede: "There will always be anomalous superstars that are gifted with powers beyond us mortal, garden variety R[ight] H[anded] P[itcher]s. But, maximizing what you have is what this game is about, at least from my end of it. This is one way to maximize your ability, power arm, or Dirk Hayhurst."

In other words, Hayhurst knows that he doesn't have swing-and-miss stuff. His fastball usually arrives at 86 mph. He can't throw something that hitters will repeatedly whiff at. What he needs to do, and knows he needs to do, is get them to put the ball in play—and that ball needs not to be a screaming line drive or a 400-foot booming homer.

The thing is, though, does Hayhurst trust himself to induce that contact? Does he embrace the idea of getting grounders and pop-outs and thus pitching deep into games? He throws numerous different pitches and can make the ball move in the zone, can throw 74, 75, 83, 87, all over the place.

But will he? He got the game's first two outs without trouble, but walked Fernando Martinez on four pitches and Valentino Pascucci after eight. Jason Botts followed with a single up the middle, completing the cycle he started on Tuesday night, and it was 1-0, Buffalo, in the top of the first inning. Hayhurst struck out Nick Evans, but he had needed 24 pitches to get through the first inning. For the third straight night, a Bulls starter—and for the third straight night that starter was a converted reliever—needed either 24 or 25 pitches for the first inning. That put the possibility for a long outing in jeopardy, and of the three only Chris Bootcheck got past the fourth inning.

For the rest of Hayhurst's abbreviated outing—he lasted only four innings, 80 pitches—Hayhurst labored. He nibbled here and there; he tried to get the Bisons to get themselves out but, to their credit, they fouled off a lot of quality pitches. He walked three batters. No matter his plan to get the Bisons to make contact, it had to be a little daunting to encourage contact off the bat of the 6-foot-6, 268-pound Pascucci, who pounded what I think was a floating cut-fastball over the left-field wall for a third-inning solo home run. Hayhurst tried, he trusted, but he had to fight very, very hard; and although he left having allowed only two runs, four innings isn't a convincing start.

It's outings like this one that give the onlooker tremendous sympathy for the trials of a pitcher. Hayhurst knew what he wanted to do, and he even tried to do it—sometimes, it seemed, nearly fighting his instincts in order to pull it off. But his efforts, dogged and calculated as they were, were unconsummated by the results, which were mixed, or anyway incomplete.

I asked Charlie Montoyo, later, whether Hayhurst was on an 80-pitch limit. No: Hayhurst is "somebody who had surgery last year—he threw 80 pitches [Wednesday] and they were a hard 80," Montoyo answered. Hayhurst had runners on in every inning (albeit one, Pascucci, for just a trip around the bases). He threw first-pitch balls to seven of 18 hitters. He had to work with home plate umpire Adam Hamari's small strike zone. One guy's 80 pitches are another guy's Twelve Labors of Hercules. Four innings, done.

One item of trust: you trust yourself, as a manager, to take a guy out earlier than he might want you to. You might even be wrong to do so; Hayhurst may well have had more in the tank; you lift him anyway and take your chances. You trust who he is; you trust who you are.

In this case, Montoyo's early hook was justified. Four Durham relievers pitched five innings and allowed just one run. That was off of Rob Delaney, who gave up three straight one-out hits in the sixth inning and needed some help from his outfield, who recorded an assist at third base to limit the damage. Vultures were circling in the sky, literally, during the inning.

But Delaney escaped, and R. J. Swindle—who hasn't allowed a run since the second week of May—pitched through trouble of his own: he's earned Montoyo's trust lately. Brandon Gomes, Montoyo's closer in April until his callup to Tampa, had trouble throwing strikes (six in 13 pitches) but navigated a 1-2-3 eighth inning. Then McGee, who has begun racking up saves and told us afterward that doesn't mind the closer role all—come to think of it, he likes it ("It helps me focus more, being in tight situations. More adrenaline")—would have gotten his third in four days were it not for Johnson's three-run bomb off of Thayer.

I asked McGee what's become of his changeup, which he used to throw when he was a starter, and he replied that the Rays told him to stop throwing it. "Focus on my two pitches," he said they wanted. (To that end, he's messing with his deuce yet again: He has changed his grip, slowing the breaking ball way down to 74 mph, so that it's more like a curveball than the slider it has been. Just throw the thing, I sometimes want to say when I'm feeling impatient.)

Strange advice, seems to me—although, never having seen McGee's changeup, I don't know if it's any good—but when the organization cutting your monthly check tells you what they want, you've got to trust them. Closing is "new to me," McGee said. But there he is, closing. He trusts his assignment. Rays front office guy Chaim Bloom looked on from behind home plate, furiously chewing his gum.

***

After the game, Russ Canzler talked about swinging aggressively against a pitcher like Buffalo starter Mark Cohoon. Cohoon, a lefty, doesn't throw hard, and his pitches tended to be up in the strike zone—in fact, he recorded not a single out on the ground in 4 2/3 innings (the one he should have gotten was misplayed for an error by Luis Figueroa). The Bulls swung freely and touched Cohoon for 10 hits, five for extra bases. Yet they only had four runs to show for it and led by a mere run during an anxious yet oddly blank stretch of the game's late innings, until the decisive eighth.

The thing about that inning was this: Although Johnson's homer sealed it, it was Ray Olmedo's ground single off of Thayer that licked the envelope, so to speak. It kind of made sense that, while we interviewed Johnson, Olmedo mock-heckled him from across the locker room. Olmedo's hit made it 5-3, really the only difference that needed to be made. It wasn't a frozen rope, by any means, but when a guy throws a hard and heavy fastball like Thayer does, sometimes all you need to do is turn it around. Trust his velocity and it will be yours.

Olmedo's heckling—which centered on the accusation that Johnson's homer was aided by the wind, which was blowing out—also made sense because Olmedo has no homers of his own this year. He is batting .274 after Wednesday's game, a little higher than his career .263 mark. His OPS is .665, virtually identical to his lifetime .663. At this point, he can be trusted to be who he is: a light-hitting shortstop, who neither strikes out nor walks much, with infectious positivity; one who makes some flashy plays and fails to make some easy ones. He's hitting .291 with runners in scoring position; he has that clutchy thing going on. He does some things right when you need them done, just how you need them done. He does other things badly, or not at all. He is a Triple-A lifer.

One guy who isn't a Triple-A lifer is Omar Luna, who probably doesn't belong at this level. Why did Luna think it was OK for him to ignore the bunt signal and swing away in the eighth inning yesterday? He hasn't earned that trust. Luna is batting .200, with a team-worst OPS of .451. He has drawn three walks in 175 plate appearances; last season he drew two in about 150. When he grounded out to shortstop yesterday, he slowed his progress running down the line by looking to see what the shortstop was doing with the chance: a no-no. When he pitched in a blowout not long ago, he glanced at the readout of the radar gun to see how hard he was throwing. The Bulls have three other guys who can play Luna's position (four if you count sweatshirt-wearing catcher Craig Albernaz, who played second base one bizarro day in 2009). The Rays are just being lazy, even neglectful, in leaving him in Durham. Well, that happens sometimes. They have to work their chewing gum about matters more pressing than the 24th man on the Bulls' roster. They're trusting Charlie Montoyo to make it all work.

It's June 23, and so far it's working. These Bulls are the Bulls, more or less. They're 40-32, which is pretty good, and they have a two-game lead in the IL South Division, the league's worst. They'd be in third place in the West, 9 1/2 games out of first. Maybe things change here and there, but the guys who stay—and that's most of them—are going to stay the guys they are. If Dan Johnson gets hot, well, all that does is bring him up to the level he ought to have been at all along. Robinson Chirinos, who started the season in an epic slump, is now hitting over .260 and even his outs are loud—he ripped one to left yesterday, one inning after smacking a double down the left-field line.

If the bullpen gets burned out, don't think twice, it's alright: three fifths of the starting rotation is relievers—the bullpen is heavily, unfairly taxed. Yet they have dependable, virtually indestructible relievers. The Rays will send Matt Moore up from Montgomery soon to shore up the rotation. Dirk Hayhurst will probably end up throwing pretty well—he's too savvy not to, unless his shoulder gives out.

This team is not the 88-55 juggernaut we saw last year. At mid-season now, we can call them true Triple-A: erratic, incomplete. If you're looking for the right way to root for the 2011 Bulls, try the way Elvis Costello puts it on Trust: "I don't wanna be first, I just wanna last." And lasting will probably end them up in first. They're good enough to make the playoffs out of their mediocre division, because they're a good deal better than mediocre. If they're going to stay that way, they—and we—will have to trust the Rays.

***

Alex Torres, the erratic, incomplete lefty (who needs to learn to trust his stuff) gets the start for the Bulls in the final game of the Buffalo series tonight. His opponent will be Jack Egbert, last seen at the DBAP in 2009 getting his arm nearly knocked off by a Henry Mateo liner. He wound up having Tommy John Surgery, but I think we can trust that Mateo's assault had nothing to do with it. Egbert has just been brought up to Buffalo from Class A Port St. Lucie, where he was testing his newly repaired throwing arm. Who knows what we're in for? And who can you trust? Two things are certain: game time is 7:05 p.m.; and I'll see you there.

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