Yet, while 1-0 result was typical for both the RailHawks and their snakebitten opponent, the Atlanta Silverbacks, the path to it was anything but. Three weather delays totaling more than two hours eventually led to the match being called in the 50th minute. Because one-half of the contest was completed by the time the referee and representatives of both clubs agreed to abandon it, the scoreline stood as final and another three points for the high flying ‘Hawks (14-2-2).
Braves center fielder Jeff Fiorentino hit a three-run home run off of Durham starter Andy Sonnanstine in the fifth inning, and you knew right then that the game was over. The Braves added sacrifice flies in the sixth and the ninth, the latter by Fiorentino to cap a four-RBI night, and the Braves won, 5-0. They took three of four games in the series and moved back into a first-place tie with Durham atop the IL South Division.
In their last eight games since returning to the DBAP, the Bulls have scored only 24 runs, and nine of those came in one game against the sloppy Toledo Mud Hens. In the four games versus Gwinnett, Durham drove in just five runs—two scored on a throwing error by the Braves' Brandon Hicks. The Bulls haven't scored a run in 19 innings.
Baseball is a complicated sport, but it's quite easy to explain the Bulls' sudden drought after a post-All Star Break road trip in which they scored double-digit runs three times in eight games. The reasons are easy as 1-2-3—as in 1-2-3 in the lineup: leadoff hitter Desmond Jennings was called up to the majors, two-man Brandon Guyer got hurt, and then three-spot anchor Felipe Lopez was traded. They took their bats with them.
The players that have stepped into the top part of the lineup have gone 15-56 since last Friday. That isn't terrible, but 12 of those hits have been singles. They have stolen no bases and driven in just two runs. No team can lose its 1-2-3 hitters—who happen to have been the team's best, give or take Russ Canzler—and expect to keep producing. And it isn't the loss of just those three players that has affected the team. The Bulls have had an astounding 44 roster changes in July, setting a new single-month record for the 14-year-old Class AAA franchise. A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson famously warned, but it isn't so bad for a baseball team.
Charlie Montoyo was certainly right, as the salaried manager of whatever 24 Durham Bulls he happens to have under his command on any given day, to bemoan what he called a "non-existent" and "just bad offense." But he knows as well as anyone—and said so—that this is not the team he had a week ago.
On Thursday, the Bulls' Alexander Torres shut out the Braves for 5 2/3 more innings, although he worked hard to get through them, frequently pitching behind in the count. He began 14 of 22 at-bats with balls out of the strike zone, and the final out he got was emblematic of his performance: Torres struck out Mauro Gomez swinging, but it took him nine pitches to do it.
Meanwhile, Gwinnett starter Todd Redmond, who has faced the Bulls something like 74 times over the last three seasons, was throwing shutout baseball of his own. Redmond doesn't throw hard at all, but when he's got command of his pitches, especially his slider, he keeps hitters off balance, which he did expertly last night.
Redmond's a former 39th-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates back in 2004, traded to Atlanta for Tyler Yates in 2008. He's from St. Petersburg, Fla., so he must have some feelings about facing the top farm team of his hometown Rays. (I'll try to ask him about that if I can find him tonight.) Also, after "MISCELLANEOUS" in the G-Braves game notes prepared for the media, the text reads: "Enjoys hunting in his spare time, long walks on the beach and UF Gators football." Ladies?
It's tempting to say that the difference in last night's game was the one-third of an inning more than Torres that Redmond pitched. Joe Bateman spelled Torres with a runner on first and two outs, wild-pitched him to second, and then, after a tough, eight-pitch at-bat of his own, got Brandon Hicks to hit a dink pop-out to first base to end the inning (thanks to a nice sliding catch by Dan Johnson not far from the pitcher's mound).
Bateman worked around a two-out single in the seventh, but that pesky Tyler Pastornicky sort of wanded his bat at one of Bateman's sliders with one away in the eighth, and singled to right field. Stefan Gartrell hit into a forceout. Bateman had thrown 26 pitches, and although he's got a rubber arm, they were a rather hard 26, just as Torres's even 100 were hard—especially compared to Matt Moore's 104 the previous night, when Moore barely seemed to be trying. Had Bateman not been needed until the start of the seventh inning, which is probably when Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo was hoping to send him in, he might still have been feeling fresh at this point. Those eight sixth-inning pitches Bateman threw had taken a toll.
In the bullpen, Adam Russell was ready to make his Bulls debut, but Montoyo stuck with Bateman. Mauro Gomez stepped to the plate, and he was due—especially, it seemed, after fighting Torres for so many pitches two innings earlier. Montoyo has the habit, in my experience, of leaving pitchers in games one batter too long, but his thinking here made some sense: the next batter would be Hicks, the first man Bateman had faced in the sixth; he might have trying to get Bateman through a full turn of the lineup before going to Russell.
I didn't think it would work, though. Gomez just seemed like he was certain to get a hit—he's a fairly cagey hitter who I thought wouldn't be fooled by Bateman's sidearm delivery and tricky slider. I called out loud for a double to the gap. Not quite: Gomez laced a high, opposite-field liner into the right-field corner and chugged to third base for a run-scoring triple. 1-0, Gwinnett.
Bateman came out of the game for Russell, and Russell gave up a first-pitch double to the gap (I predicted it one batter too soon, I guess) by Hicks. 2-0, Gwinnett, and that's how it ended. The Braves' hard-throwing relievers, especially Arodys Vizcaino, Juan Abreu and Jairo Asencio, preserved Redmond's shutout. Asencio is perfect this year in 19 save opportunities.
Right now, the G-Braves resemble their parent club: really good pitching, a terrific bullpen, and just enough hitting. They pulled back to within one game of the Bulls in the IL South Division, with a chance to tie it up again tonight in the series' fourth and final game. Manager Dave Brundage, who is a pleasant interviewee, was asked about his familiarity with Montoyo's Bulls—they've been going at it for five years now—and after complimenting Montoyo and his four-years-reigning division champs, said, "It's fun to beat 'em."
UNC has a head football coach again.
Withers will have “interim” in front of his title.
“We’ve selected Everett Withers to lead the football program,” athletic director Dickie Baddour said. “The Chancellor and I spoke with him this afternoon and we believe he has the leadership qualities to help our student-athletes deal with the challenges ahead. We are fortunate to have someone with his credentials and background. He is ready for this position.”
The next man up was Tyler Pastornicky, who was also promoted from Class AA (Mississippi) to Class AAA on July 19. The two players were both born in Florida in 1989. Moore faced Pastornicky in two Southern League games earlier this season, holding him to an infield single in five at-bats. Pastornicky was, in fact, the only player in Gwinnett's lineup last night whom Moore had seen before. He saw him again Tuesday night, from the dugout at the DBAP, when Pastornicky went 2-4 with a first-inning walk and stolen base against Matt Torra & Co.
Moore wanted to be careful with Pastornicky, an aggressive but smart hitter whose father, Cliff, was a cup-of-coffee major-leaguer with Kansas City in the 1980s and then became a scout—a really good one, too. (Here's a good piece about Tyler that talks about both Pastornickies.)
Moore tried to get ahead with two breaking balls, but Pastornicky didn't bite and the pitches missed the strike zone. Pastornicky proceeded to draw a four-pitch walk and and then steal second base: a carbon copy of his first inning at-bat against Torra on Tuesday.
I hope Pastornicky took a picture of second base, or planted the world's tiniest G-Braves flag in it, or made a drawing of it in a pocket-sized journal, or tweeted about the wondrous view from there: something to memorialize or lay claim to the keystone sack for future Braves, and to prove that one of them had been there. Neither he nor anyone else on his team reached second base for the rest of the night.
Matt Moore allowed three other baserunners, all on singles—one of them by Pastornicky, wouldn't you know—and struck out 13 batters in eight scoreless innings to tie a DBAP record held by Wade Davis, who fanned 13 Toledo Mud Hens in 2009, and Jason Hammel, who set the record in 2006.
Through five innings, Moore had struck out nine batters but had thrown just 61 pitches. He threw a 97 mph fastball to Brandon Hicks in the second inning, his top velocity for the night. He threw one other 97 mph fastball, again to Hicks, in the seventh inning, on his 87th pitch of the night. In other words, he wasn't tired at the end of what wound up as a 104-pitch, eight-inning night (Dane De La Rosa pitched the ninth for his third save).
"I expected to come back out for the ninth," Moore said later. I wished Charlie Montoyo had let him do that, face one hitter, and then come and taken him out of the game, so that Moore could have received a standing ovation for the finest pitching performance I've seen at the DBAP in nearly three years of covering the Bulls.
As you might have guessed, the Bulls beat Gwinnett, 4-0. John Matulia and Leslie Anderson hit solo homers off of Braves starter Mike Minor, but the big blow was actually a two-run throwing error by Hicks from third base, on a rather ho-hum play. That made it 3-0 in the third inning, and it might as well have been 13-0. The game took 1:55 to play. It was still so early when the postgame interviews were done that I had time to go out for a beer with Heather before I went home to write.
But it wasn't just the early hour that prompted that beer.
The suspense is over around the UNC football program.
The university released an E-Mail late this afternoon with the news that football coach Butch Davis had been immediately relieved of his duties, following a months-long NCAA investigation of players’ receipts of extra benefits as well as academic cheating.
Chancellor Holden Thorp and athletic director Dickie Baddour will hold a news conference Thursday morning to discuss the transaction and the immediate future of the program.
“To restore confidence in the University of North Carolina and our football program, it’s time to make a change,” Thorp said in the press release. “What started as a purely athletic issue has begun to chip away at this University’s reputation. I have been deliberate in my approach to understanding this situation fully, and I have worked to be fair to everyone involved.
That was plenty for Braves starter Julio Teheran, Atlanta's top pitching prospect. Teheran wasn't at his best. He allowed eight hits over six innings and struggled to locate his fastball for much of the evening (scouts teemed in the stands, with the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline fast approaching). But his raw stuff is so good—he showed a sinister curve ball and a good changeup, too—that he didn't have to be all the way on top of his game in order to hold the Bulls down. Teheran pitched around the eight hits by striking out nine batters, walking only one, and making quality pitches when he had to in order to extinguish potential fires. He left after giving up just one run.
Not only was Teheran too much for Durham, so was another 20-year-old Braves pitching prospect. Hotshot Arodys Vizcaino made his Triple-A debut in relief of Teheran. Vizcaino gave up a weird, opposite-field home run to the Bulls' John Matulia in his lone inning of work, on a pitch down and away whose high velocity Matulia used to golf over the Blue Monster. Otherwise, though, he was terrific. His fastball sat at 95-97 mph and touched 98 once (Daniel Mayora watched it go by for strike three, although it was actually outside.) He also threw a sharp-looking 82-84 mph curveball, and looked generally like a guy who should be pitching in the major leagues before long. The Bulls had little chance in this game, especially once Lance Cormier came in and allowed five runs in two relief innings.
Yet another blue-chip arm, lefty Mike Minor, pitches for the Braves tonight against the Bulls. The Braves' working parts are looking strong right now, especially with the recent addition of top infield prospect Tyler Pastornicky, who went 2-4 with a stolen base and a fine play in the shortstop hole. He's batting .419 since his promotion from Double-A Mississippi a week ago. The Bulls still lead the division, but the Braves are poised to take it from them.
So you could complain about Brian Baker, who lasted only 4 1/3 innings last night and was tagged for 11 hits and six runs—and, not coincidentally, the loss in a 6-2 defeat at the hands (beaks?) of the Toledo Mud Hens—or you could delve down and try to discern what Baker's complaint is. What ails him? Why has this pitcher, who had a superb first two-thirds of 2010, and showed signs of high-quality work nearly to the end of last season, struggled so badly ever since?
"My arm wasn't feeling very well," Baker said afterward, and then added, "I've been struggling lately. I feel like I'm starting to get tired. We'll just see what happens."
The admission of arm fatigue was a little alarming, because that same malady caught up with Baker late last season, too. It appears to be recurring in 2011, only earlier than it did in 2010. Baker's fastball touches 90 mph rather frequently when he feels strong; last night it sat in the flat mid-80s, and the problem was quite obvious: unable to do much with his fastball as a get-ahead pitch, he had to resort to his changeup and slider too much without having set them up properly via the fastball. When you give up a home run to a ninth-place hitter, Jeff Kunkel, with 10 home runs in about 1000 career at-bats, one with exactly one extra-base hit so far this season (an A-ball triple), you know something's amiss.
Charlie Montoyo invoked the dreaded "dead arm" phrase after the game, a somewhat vague-sounding complaint that is, while not an official diagnosis, a quite real pitchers' syndrome, rather like a relationship that goes into a rough patch: You don't know why it strikes, exactly; you still love each other; but all you can do is hope you climb out of it and start getting along again.
That's not an entirely facetious comparison. To some degree, a pitcher's arm is like an independent-minded and often contrary spouse, with whom he has a sometimes fraught marriage. In many cases, the arm essentially files a complaint against the man asking it to throw pitches over and over again, and he has to agree to stop—forever, if the labor is too taxing. In the case of Baker, or guys like Richard De Los Santos and Dirk Hayhurst, both of whom are in different stages of, well, differences with their arms, it may be too soon to predict what will happen. They may have plenty of years left in their right arms, but those arms can throw a finite number of pitches before "dead arm" is no longer a phase and becomes an obituary. (And I'm sorry for the comparison of marriage and death; just a mixed metaphor, I swear.) As Chris Richard put it in an interview earlier this year, when he retired, "They say athletes die twice." For pitchers, the limbs usually predecease.
And as if that wasn't enough, Brandon Guyer has his own complaint. He reached for a pitch well out of the strike zone in the fifth inning of last night's loss, protecting the plate on a 1-2 count, and poked a double down the right-field line. Something got tweaked, according to Montoyo, by Guyer's swing. After his next at-bat, a rather unsightly strikeout in the seventh inning, Guyer realized that his rib cage was bothering him quite a bit, and he was done an inning later, replaced by Leslie Anderson. Montoyo had ominous words about Guyer's injury, noting that it was probably something more serious than a muscle pull, which grabs immediately and forces a player right out of the game. No word yet on the severity of the injury. Later that night, Guyer was lying on the trainer's table in what appeared to be significant discomfort.
There were, despite Baker's dead arm, despite the loss, despite Guyer's rib cage, some bright and unworn spots for the Bulls last night. After the jump, we'll stop complaining and name them.
PINEHURST RESORT Both Butch Davis and Tom O’Brien have got to be tired of answering the same old questions and very anxious for practice to get started next week.
When the pads finally start cracking, the media will start asking more questions about how the new receivers are catching the ball and which true freshmen really have a chance to play in those season openers against the FCS boys from Virginia and how someone’s knee or shoulder is healing.
Andy Sonnanstine, the erstwhile Tampa Bay Rays pitcher trying to work his way back up to the majors—the second time in three seasons he's had to climb back up that ladder—tossed seven innings of one-run ball, backed by scoreless relief from Dane De La Rosa and Rob Delaney. The pitching collaboration made Felipe Lopez's tiebreaking home run in the fifth inning stand. The Bulls won their fifth straight game and eight of nine overall. They opened up a 2 1/2-game lead over second-place Gwinnett, their largest margin in exactly a month.
Details of the game come after the jump, and also after this item of unpleasant news: Yesterday, the Independent reported on the latest act of negligence committed by Greenfire, the Durham-based development concern that keeps making news it surely would rather not make.
Mid-May saw the highly publicized collapse of the roof of Greenfire-owned Liberty Warehouse, the last of the old tobacco auction buildings in Durham. The collapse forced the departure of some of Liberty's tenants, including the beloved Scrap Exchange.
Now it has transpired that another Greenfire building, 117 Parrish Street, is unstable. One of the walls could crumble under heavy winds and fall into the lot next to it, which has become a informal park and pedestrian green space over the years. I happen to cut right across that park on nights when I walk home from the DBAP after ballgames, and as I did so last night I found myself thinking about investment.