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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Gwinnett Braves hammer Durham Bulls: Hesitation, or Working Parts

Posted by on Wed, Jul 27, 2011 at 6:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM—The Gwinnett Braves smashed the Durham Bulls, 9-3, last night, to pull within one game of the IL South Division lead. It was Durham's second glum loss in a row, essentially decided early by lackluster starting pitching. One night after Brian Baker put his team in an early hole, leading to a 6-2 loss, Matt Torra allowed three Gwinnett runs in the first inning, thanks largely to a pair of four-pitch walks.

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.

Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo rarely talks about goals, philosophy, the big picture. The long view is one he seldom has any reason to take, because cumulative results at the minor-league level are virtually irrelevant—it's called the farm because it produces stuff that is enjoyed elsewhere. Sure, it's nice to win the Governors' Cup, but there's no doubt whatsoever that the Rays would prefer to win the World Series every year and have the Bulls finish dead last, raiding Durham for the necessary personnel to achieve the ultimate big-league goal. Thus Montoyo's team changes constantly, because it's in the service of the one above him. "Day to day," he says, perhaps oftener than he says anything else in his postgame interview sessions.

So last night offered a rare, though small, glimpse into Montoyo's general approach and his overall assessment of his club and his work with that club. Montoyo was asked whether it gave him reassurance to know that his own young hope, left-handed strikeout don Matt Moore, starts versus Gwinnett tonight. That prompted an uncharacteristic response, and part of what was uncharacteristic was how choppy and hesitant the usually smooth Montoyo was in delivering it: "We took three out four there [June 16-19; the Bulls split a home-and-home, four game series with the Braves July 2-5]. Eight out of I don't know how many. [Durham had won eight of its last 10 games.] It's just tough to keep, you know... Four division titles; we're doing good. My goal is always, in August, to still play for something. If you make it, great. Guys getting called up and getting chances: that's the best, guys getting chances. So I don't put too much stock in games in July."

Montoyo immediately anticipated the obvious followup question, which would have gone something like, "But July games are important, too." He continued, his pitch rising a little: "I know you have to, because it's fun"—the "have to" seemed to refer to the reporter's need to put stock in these midsummer games, not Montoyo's—"but I'm just hoping my guy tomorrow [Moore] does the job, because he's very good. And whenever his pitch count is [reached], he's out. It doesn't matter who I'm playing."

It's that time of year when the working Triple-A parts start to change rapidly. Reid Brignac, sent down from Tampa to improve his hitting, arrived and was in uniform last night, although he didn't play. Adam Russell was driving down from the north. Jay Buente was called up to Tampa; struggling Cesar Ramos was sent down—Ramos has never pitched for the Bulls, or even in the International League. Brandon Guyer is out, probably for more than a tiny little while, with what turns out to be an oblique strain—no word yet on whether he'll go to the disabled list. Iin any case, Guyer's injury means that John Matulia, probably intended originally as a Double-A bisquick addition, is the only guy on the roster who can comfortably play center field. The Bulls' second catcher is Craig Albernaz, who has rated no higher than non-roster bullpen catcher for most of the season.

You can practically hear the Bulls' gears squeaking, the pieces rattling, the cogs coming loose. Nails are used in place of screws, wood instead of steel, wheels instead of wings. Tools break, toner runs dry; tech support won't answer the phone; the best talent is quickly snapped up by HQ, which sends its rejects down to Durham; other parts simply wear out. Meanwhile, the rivals have girded themselves for a showdown, adding bright young talent from below; and a high-ranking assessor from your own front office is watching from the seats behind home plate, unsmiling, unsympathetic.

Imagine doing your job, whatever it is, under circumstances like these. Imagine the pressure, the job uncertainty, the total unfairness of it all. You, too, might do as Montoyo did, and look only at the past—four division titles in a row—and at the immediate future, i.e. tomorrow's starter, whose lever he can only work for so long until orders come to shut him down. After that, you throw one of your backup machines out there and hope for the best. And look no farther. Right now, Thursday barely exists for the Durham Bulls.

***

Many a game looks one-sided on paper but fails to meet expectations, thanks to the wonderful unpredictability of baseball. Last night's game was not one of them. There's no real comparison to be made between the Braves' Julio Teheran and the Bulls' Matt Torra. The former came into the game tops in the league in ERA (1.68) and second in WHIP (1.02) and is widely expected to be in the Atlanta starting rotation on Opening Day 2012 if not before—he has already made one trip to the majors this season, at just 20 years of age. When I was 20, I thought waking up in time for my 9:00 class was an accomplishment.

The latter pitcher, Matt Torra, is a backup machine. He was just acquired less than a month ago, days after his 27th birthday, from the Diamondbacks organization, to make an emergency fill of a hole in the Bulls' starting rotation. Torra had been dreadful in Class AAA Reno this season, and in three starts with the Bulls he was worse. Last night saw the best five-inning stretch he's had so far with Durham. He allowed only five hits and one run after the first inning, and even bested Teheran in one category, 1-2-3 innings: He threw one of those; Teheran didn't throw any.

Torra's five solid innings, though, came after his three-run first. Two of the runs scored with two outs on an opposite-field double by Brandon Hicks, who also made some excellent plays at third base last night. The Bulls trailed 3-0 before they came to bat against Teheran.

To their credit, they fought him hard. They made him throw 20 pitches in the first inning, had at least one hit in each of Teheran's six frames, and were not at all cowed by his prospect status. If anything, they probably relished the idea of attacking him. But when you trail an ace by three runs early, you have to be aggressive and try to make things happen. With Desmond Jennings gone to Tampa and Guyer out with an injury, this was a hopelessly slow Bulls lineup, almost historically so. Of the nine, only Matulia had any speed, but he's never been much of a base stealer, with only 63 career thefts in 578 games coming into the season—and he had been caught nearly as often, 55 times.

Without an authentic way of upping circumstantial pressure on your opponent, you basically need luck: Things have to break right for you, and rather quickly. They didn't for Durham, and did for Gwinnett. In the fourth inning, the Bulls' only real rally, Ray Olmedo did in fact try to make something happen—but he was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double, calming a potential outburst and keeping the Bulls' scoring to just a single run.

In the top of the next inning, Tyler Pastornicky hit a leadoff single. Matt Young lined out to Olmedo, and Olmedo doubled Pastornicky off of first base—except that first base umpire Chris Ward hesitated before making the call, and decided that Pastornicky had beaten Olmedo's throw to first. My completely unscientific anecdotal experience suggests that umps usually make the wrong decision when they don't make it immediately. It's called Blink, Mr. Ward, and it was a bestseller. Read it.

Speaking of hesitation, left fielder Leslie Anderson could have thrown out the next batter, Stefan Gartrell, who was trying exactly the same single-to-double stretch that doomed Olmedo an inning earlier. But Anderson checked on Pastornicky heading for third base after fielding Gartrell's fly ball off the top of the Blue Monster, and that allowed Gartrell to secure the double Olmedo couldn't bag. Pastornicky, who should have been out one batter earlier had it not been for Ward's blown call, held at third on Gartrell's hit, and then scored on a Mauro Gomez single. That erased the run the Bulls had gotten a half-inning earlier.

And then, messieurs et madames, Lance(ur) Cormier. He was a non-working part last night: two innings, five hits, two walks, five runs. It was a deeply slovenly performance that matched the heavy, oppressive feel the increasingly sticky night. Cormier's body language was bad, full of shrugs and slouches, as though he felt he shouldn't have been called on to pitch and now-you-see-what-you-get-when-you-call-on-him-anyway: Forty-seven pitches, 25 of them balls; a run-scoring wild pitch, which appeared to go through catcher Craig Albernaz's legs; a slow bouncer not far from the mound that Cormier didn't try to field. By the time he was done, it was 9-2, Braves, and I half expected Albernaz to pitch the ninth inning. But you know how that can go. So does Charlie Montoyo. He used Mike Ekstrom instead.

One working part: the night after working a 12-pitch, 1-2-3 ninth inning at the end of a game long since decided, Ekstrom worked a six-pitch, 1-2-3 ninth inning at the end of a game long since decided. He needed a double play to pull it off after Ruben Gotay reached on what was scored an error and will probably be changed to a hit by the time I arrive at the DBAP tonight. Gotay's hot grounder took a malevolent hop and nearly brained Daniel Mayora at third base. The official scorer, not surprisingly, hesitated before reaching his verdict; he was still looking at the replay after the game ended. I am really not going to quote Peter Frampton, so: Hesitate not! Actually, I can go snooty-highbrow with this one thanks to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote: "Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due."

That's from "Self-Reliance," probably Emerson's most famous essay. The Bulls are going through a minor identity crisis at the moment, however, what with all the roster turnover; so there's not quite a self on which to rely. Charlie Montoyo is tasked with making at least a pretense of one for the sake of his team's morale, and you don't win four straight division titles unless you can pull it off. Despite these last two consecutive losses, the Bulls remain a baker's dozen games over .500, and they still hold the division lead. Matt Moore pitches tonight, Alex Torres the night after that. Reid Brignac is here, ready to get to work and back to the major leagues. Two relievers are incoming from the big-league club. almost surely an improvement over the likes of Jeremy Hall and Marquis Fleming. No one is pressing the big red button any time soon.

At least, not here in Durham. In Tampa, the fingers may be starting to twitch. The Rays are now 8 1/2 games out of the wild-card race after losing a bunch of games recently that they should have won, and also losing others by application of the Buck Showalter Theorem. They used it last night in Oakland, in fact, a game that marked just-promoted Jay Buente's debut with the Rays. He pitched a scoreless seventh inning, right after making a cross-country flight from Durham to the Bay Area. Unfortunately, Buente also threw the eighth, and that's when he allowed two runs to put the game out of reach. On the bright side, Buente's debut prompted this tweet from Rays manager Joe Maddon: "Buente picked up our pen tonight. After his first inning, he came back to the dugout & I finally met him: 'Nice going. I'm Joe.'"

The Rays got all kinds of praise earlier this season for having cheaply and almost completely rebuilt their bullpen into a successful unit, after nearly all of 2010's working parts left for more money elsewhere. Now it's late July, and that unit has begun to overheat. Not only have Ramos, Russell and Andy Sonnanstine been swapped out after more than half a year of labor, the long-awaited return of J. P. Howell has so far been a disaster. Buente is the latest fix. Rob Delaney, Dane De La Rosa and Alex Torres have had their tries. At this point, just about any guy in the Durham bullpen has a chance to pitch his way up to the majors.

It isn't just the bullpen that has seized up. With the trade deadline just days away, Tampa has little time left to hesitate in choosing between buying and selling. In a way, the little slide that has nearly turned into a plummet is almost welcome: it helps clarify how the Rays ought to proceed. A few more losses on the west coast, and they'll start making personnel moves. That procedure will redound to the Bulls, for better or worse, and Charlie Montoyo will keep trying to get his working parts, whoever they are, working together.

Game time tonight is 7:05 p.m. Durham's Matt Moore goes against Gwinnett's Mike Minor. That's not only the best collection of capital M's you can ask for in a pitching matchup, it might be the best pitching matchup, period, at least on paper, that we'll see at the DBAP all season. You should be there. I know I will.

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