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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Toledo Mud Hens snap Durham Bulls' winning streak: Complaints

Posted by on Tue, Jul 26, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Toledos Will Rhymes rounds third in the Mud Hens win over Durham last night.
  • Photo by Kailey Farmer
  • Toledo's Will Rhymes rounds third in the Mud Hens' win over Durham last night.
DBAP/ DURHAM—I like that word, "complaint," because if you go beyond its usual meaning—e.g., "Waiter, my steak is (over)(under)cooked"—you find that the complaint is not only the voicing of the problem but the cause of the problem itself: a stomach complaint, for example, isn't merely the sound of a stomach whining about how hungry it is; it more often refers to the virus/infection/chili-dog that has attacked it.

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.

If you're looking for a trendsetter in the no-complaints world, look no further than Mud Hens' leadoff man Will Rhymes. We've seen Rhymes at the DBAP for three seasons in a row. He's listed on milb.com at 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, which means he's probably closer to 5-foot-7 or 5-foot-8: a scrappy second baseman if ever there was one. (I, a shrimp, am 5-foot-10, 150 pounds.) Rhymes, 28 years old, was a 27th-round selection of the Tigers in the 2005 draft out of powerlessness-house William & Mary. He had no business making it to the major leagues, but did anyway. "Busta," as he really ought to be called, hit .304 with Detroit last year in a little over 200 plate appearances, and was the Tigers' opening-day second baseman in 2011.

He didn't produce, though, and was sent back down to the minors. #ifyoudontlikeitplaybetter, Rhymes tweeted, elaborating on the well-worn hashtag of the well-adjusted athlete. Play better he has. Rhymes is batting .322 with an .803 OPS as a Mud Hen since his demotion, and his approach at the plate is disciplined and, for opposing pitchers, annoying. A left-hander, he slaps pitches all over the field for singles. He went 7-17 in four games against the Bulls at the DBAP, with two walks. He's virtually certain to be called up again when rosters expand in just over a month, if not sooner.

While Rhymes is rising up, Baker has been falling down: his ERA hasn't been below 5.00 since June 7. Already trailing 2-0 after the third inning last night, Baker foundered in the fifth. Singles by Rhymes (told you) and Jeff Salazar, plus a walk to Timo Perez, loaded the bases with none out. Ryan Strieby bounced into a fielder's choice to score Rhymes and move Salazar to third base. Then, after ball one to Casper Wells, Bulls catcher Nevin Ashley tried to catch Salazar napping at third and pick him off. But his throw was way off the mark and bounced off of Daniel Mayora's glove into shallow left field, scoring Salazar.

One of those bizarre moments followed, one of those compact incidents that so often seem to contain the whole essence of the game. With the count 3-1 to Wells, Baker threw a close pitch that Wells took for what appeared to be ball four. Home plate umpire Brad Myers made no signal for a long moment, and Wells discarded his bat and took a few strides toward first base. Then Myers called the pitch a strike. Wells didn't complain, although he took some exaggeratedly slow steps in stopping his progress toward first base, letting Myers know what he thought of the call—or he might have been miffed simply that Myers waited so long to make it and thereby showed him up.

The count was full, and there was little doubt Baker would come back with a fastball to Wells, a good hitter just down from Detroit—he hit two home runs in the Bulls' win over Toledo on Saturday night. So I said, out loud, to the aggrieved Wells: "Don't worry, Casper, you're gonna hit a homer on the next pitch." I was almost right: Wells's long drive to left-center hit the wall on the fly, and he had an RBI triple when it was all said and done.

Which, at that point, Baker was. Ryan Reid came on, and Scott Thorman greeted him with a single to score Wells and make it 6-2.

That's the bad news (if you're a Bulls fan). The good news is that Reid was superb thereafter, tossing 3 2/3 perfect innings with five strikeouts. His slider was just mean, mean, mean. Who knows whether Reid, a former seventh-round draft pick who hadn't been able to pitch his way out of Double-A for three straight years until 2011, can keep capturing the stuff he had last night. But if he can, he has a viable big-league future.

Meanwhile, the Bulls almost made a game of it. In the bottom of the fifth, facing a fresh four-run deficit, J. J. Furmaniak belted a two-out solo home run off of Toledo starter Adam Wilk, who had a good night for the Mud Hens. Wilk, who has a funky chicken-wing thing at the back of his windup, pitched around eight hits and allowed just two runs in 5 2/3 innings, maintaining his impeccable control: he has now walked only 39 batters in over 300 career innings. (Brian Baker has walked 37 in 83 innings this year alone.) Home runs have been a problem for Wilk—13 allowed in just under 70 innings this season—but when you don't walk guys, homers don't tend to hurt that much. Just ask 2010 Bulls starter Heath Phillips, who led the league in homers allowed for much of the season yet was an effective pitcher until succumbing to, you guessed it, a dead arm.

Furmaniak's homer didn't hurt Wilk. His long-ball, off of a lame 81-mph breaking ball that didn't break much, with no one on base, only made it 6-1. Furmaniak has had a tough, tough season, but rather than complain he has simply kept fighting, kept trying new things, and hoped to find one that worked. Recently, he tweaked his batting stance, standing more upright in an effort to get on top of the ball with his bat—he'd been popping out a lot from his pronounced little-guy crouch.

Is it a coincidence that, since the change, he's 9-20 with two doubles and last night's home run, raising his average up above the Mendoza Line to .209? No idea, really, but it's nice to see him show signs of life.

The batter after Furmaniak was Ray Olmedo, who nearly hit his first homer of the season, yanking a pitch from Wilk deep but foul down the left-field line. That came during an 11-pitch at-bat that ended with Olmedo grounding a single past the third baseman.

Guyer followed with the opposite-field double that hurt his rib cage. Right fielder Wells, who made a pair of bad throws last night, unleashed his first one somewhere in the general area of third base, but not to third base. The ball wound up in left field, and Olmedo scored. Guyer moved to third.

The Bulls seemed to be in business, down 6-2 against a tiring pitcher who had thrown nearly 30 pitches in the inning. If they could plate Guyer, they'd be down 6-3 with four more at-bats remaining. But Felipe Lopez grounded out sharply to shortstop, ending the threat.

In the bottom of the sixth, the Bulls loaded the bases with two outs, but this time Furmaniak—who really needed that second homer, that grand slam which would have tied the game, struck out on three pitches from reliever Brendan Wise, the last of them a diving slider out of the strike zone that Furmaniak chased for strike three. But you can't complain about Furmaniak, even though he also grounded into a double play to end the game: He's having his best stretch of the year, even as roster depletion has forced him to play the outfield (he was in left last night).

If Guyer has to miss time, expect to see more of Furmaniak in the outfield, and probably a callup from Montgomery—it's too bad Rashad Eldridge isn't around any more. The Bulls are about to get two new players, but neither plays out there. Infielder Reid Brignac will report to Durham today (or risk forfeiting pay), and reliever Adam Russell, designated for assignment by the Rays a few days ago, cleared waivers and will join the Bulls during the homestand.

When Russell arrives, Brian Baker, who has a 6.18 ERA (worst in the league among qualifying starters), may be taken off of the active roster. I wouldn't be surprised to see him hit the disabled list. One can't help feeling bad for Baker, one of the nicest guys in the Bulls clubhouse, who is just trying to coax a bit more career out of his modest arm. Baker, who has filled just about every role a pitcher can fill for the Bulls, leads the team in decisions over the last two seasons with 28—in fact, he leads them over the last three seasons, though he wasn't even with the Bulls in 2009. He's only an organizational makeweight for the Rays, yet his overstuffed won-loss record indicates how necessary that weight has been. If only his earnest but limited arsenal translated to big-league weaponry—but the hard truth is that it probably does not, and moreover that Baker, who is 28, may be running out of ammunition.

Well, there's no crying in baseball, only complaining, and to his credit Baker isn't complaining at all. There he was after the game, sitting at his locker, willing to talk about his rough night. When he was asked whether his stark home-road splits (3.66 road ERA, 8.45 at the DBAP) had anything to do with last night's struggles, he said no. When asked if the rain affected him—the game started an hour late due to drizzle—he said no. He may very well have gone home after that and complained bitterly about those very things—the appallingly close Blue Monster, his tendency to draw starting pitching assignments on rainy nights, even the challenge of staying fresh and in rhythm while he keeps getting shuttled between the rotation and the bullpen, with little or no warning—but his public face remains stoic, firm, yet human.

***

One thing there's no need to complain about, if you're a Bulls fan: Durham took three of four games from Toledo, one of the league's worst teams. About two thirds of the Bulls' 40 remaining games are against clubs with sub-.500 records—indeed, a quarter of them are against teams that are currently last in their respective divisions (Rochester and Norfolk). If the Bulls take care of their business against the lowly and the meek, then they have only to worry about taking care of the Gwinnett Braves, two games behind Durham in the IL South Division. The Bulls and Braves meet just six more times in 2011, and four of those games are... tonight, tomorrow, and the two days after that at the DBAP. It's a big chance for Durham to stretch its lead over its rival.

In order to do so, they'll have to take down some formidable pitchers. The G-Braves have four starters capable of beating anyone on any night; one of them, 20-year-old Julio Teheran, is the best starter in the league, and his 23-year-old lefty teammate Mike Minor can be a terror. But let's not complain. The Bulls send their own young gun to the mound in this series, 22-year-old Matt Moore, along with a resurgent Alexander Torres, who seems to be reaching something close to cruising altitude after plenty of early-season turbulence. Whatever complaints are ailing the Bulls right now, and whatever Brandon Guyer may have done to his rib cage last night, the team is still tops in its division, with a chance to soar higher.

These four games are crucial. Get out to the ballpark and take some of them in. Game time tonight is at 7:05 p.m., with Matt Torra starting for the Bulls. See you there.

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