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Monday, August 8, 2011

Matt Moore & Durham Bulls beat Lehigh Valley IronPigs: Habits

Posted by on Mon, Aug 8, 2011 at 6:00 AM

DBAP/ DURHAM—For the second straight night, the Durham Bulls built an early lead and rode it to victory, beating the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, 6-4. Matt Moore and Russ Canzler were the heavy lifters for the Bulls. Moore threw 6 2/3 innings of five-hit ball, striking out 10 batters, and Canzler went 3-3 with a two-run home run, a double and a walk. Stephen Vogt "added a solo shot," as the sportswriters' vernacular usually phrases it. The Bulls built a 5-0 lead after five innings, and then held off a late oink or four by the IronPigs to win.

There's no such thing as a must-win game when you have a division lead and a month left in the season, but last night's had the feel of an important one for the Bulls. They'd dropped the first two games of the home series against Lehigh Valley, one of only three teams in the IL with a better record than Durham's. The Bulls rebounded to win on Saturday night, so last night they had an opportunity to even not only the four-game set but the eight-game season series against the Phillies' class AAA aphiliate (I mean, come on). The Bulls and IronPigs split four games in Allentown back in June.

These two teams could very well meet again in the playoffs, and after the game Canzler noted the "playoff atmosphere" at the DBAP last night—although that bit of sportswriters' vernacular, too, sounded a little like the sort of bone you throw to a reporter who asks about playing against another first-place club. Nonetheless, last night's victory affirmed the Bulls' confidence against a team it may see soon enough in the post-season—last-word proof that they're competitive equals.

It was a clarifying win not just for the team but for its followers. One question that has hung in the air all season—for me, anyway—is how good the 2011 Bulls really are. The current roster seems likely to stay fairly stable through the playoffs, despite some September callup candidates (Reid Brignac, Dane De La Rosa, maybe a couple others), and there are reasons to be optimistic about the late-summer Bulls. They may lack flash, and they have only one really electrifying prospect (Moore, last night's winner), but they have plenty of good, dependable players who will probably be here for the duration.

Predictions aside, however (and I'm not really making one, since betting on Triple-A teams is a mug's game), this team will almost surely give its fans something to root for all the way through to Labor Day. Recently, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo has talked here and there, and with growing animation, about his desire to get make it to each August "fighting for something." His team is in the ring, and is likely to stay there.

If you're getting off the ride before the jump, Bulls fans, one thing to be aware of this week: The Rochester Red Wings' annual four-game series at the DBAP starts tonight, and they have with them Justin Morneau. The Minnesota Twins star, who was the American League MVP in 2006, is rehabbing with Rochester after June 29 surgery to remove a herniated disk fragment in his neck. Morneau has had a rough go of it the last couple of years. He lost much of last season to a concussion (here's the video—ouch) and has also had wrist problems. He's back, though, and had a big night yesterday in Norfolk.

It's an embarrassment of riches at the DBAP these days: Bulls in first place, Hall of Famer managing for one visiting team, MVP playing for the next. Get out to the ballpark and catch Morneau in action, not least because—you ready for this?—the last-place Red Wings (whom the Bulls ought to rough up) fly away four games from now, and after that the Bulls have just one more homestand, nine games at the DBAP left in the regular season.

A bit about habits in baseball, and plenty about Russ Canzler and Matt Moore, follows.

About two hours after last night's game ended, I was watching the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox play one of their (habitual) four-hour, 2-1 ballgames. The broadcast commentators were talking about the proposed change to Major League Baseball's playoff structure, a change they all endorsed. (That change would be a boon, by the way, to the Bulls' parent club, the Tampa Bay Rays, a quality team that nonetheless often finds itself looking up at the wealthy American League East Division rivals who were playing under the television commentary.)

During this discussion, one of the commentators, retired pitching great Orel Hershiser, said that over the course of the long season ballplayers tend to get deeply absorbed into their routines and habits. Given that all three of the broadcasters (Hershiser, former player and manager Bobby Valentine, and play-by-play announcer Dan Shulman) agreed that the change to the playoff system would be a good one—a blow struck on behalf of evolution and expansion—I expected Hershiser to conclude that players needed to get out of those stultifying and narrow routines, whose monotony can lead to hidebound, intolerant thought and thus rigid and slump-prone play.

(A brief but apposite aside on that note: check out this Wall Street Journal article about the longstanding use of the "doughnuts" with which hitters add weight to their bats in the on-deck circle. Hitters think the extra weight helps them; scientifically, they're dead wrong. h/t to my pal @outfieldrambler for calling it to my attention, and for adding his take to the article.)

But rather than stump for a change, Hershiser threw one instead. He noted that the addition of a second wild-card team would make winning the division outright more meaningful, because the proposed new structure puts the wild-card teams at a distinct and pressure-filled disadvantage. The goal of winning the division, Hershiser concluded, would force players to train their focus all the way up to the summit of the 162-game season, rather than the much lower peak of winning the wild card. What do they need in order to maintain that focus and attain that goal, according to Hershiser? Routine. Habit.

Habits are good for ballplayers—as they are for writers. "Hurray for regular hours!" Saul Bellow wrote. "And for the supervision of the spirit! Long live regimentation!" When you are tasked with doing something every day, as you are in baseball and in writing, best to have those routines. You hear about those weird superstitions, like Wade Boggs's insistence on eating the same dish (was it lemon chicken?) before every single game. You watch pitchers run from foul pole to foul pole during practice, even though that has always struck me as a counterproductive ritual.

But it doesn't really matter if the routine works; you still have to do it, you get psychologically (even pathologically) attached to it. You hear the story—perhaps this version is incorrect, but its spirit is authentic—about Peter Benchley, who wrote Jaws. One day Benchley sat down to write, as he did every morning, without any idea of what he was going to say. So he decided to start with the helpful and promising word, "The."

Eight hours later, he finally added "hell with it" and went out for a drink.

Baseball is a notoriously slow-to-evolve sport (as is writing, I suppose). A scout sitting next to me last night put it differently, and less charitably: "If it makes sense," he said, "baseball won't do it." That's not quite true—mandatory batting helmets are a good idea, for instance—but the spirit of it isn't off-base and is in fact manifest in many of baseball's traditions and innovations. What the scout meant, I think, was that people figure out better ways to do things in baseball, all the time, yet the game of baseball isn't generally interested in them at all, for years, until finally the evidence becomes undeniable—like say, acknowledging that the game had a performance-enhancing drugs problem (and maybe still has one).

But it isn't only huge issues like steroids. Take the choice to make the All-Star Game winner the beneficiary of home field advantage in the World Series. (Take it, please.) It's a compelling one in theory, but in order to work properly and fairly, there would have to be an overhaul of the way the roster is built and the game played. Thus it is, in practice. stupid: This year, many of the very best players on the teams begged off,as they often do, and you wound up with home field advantage in the World Series partially decided by electrifying matchups like Brandon League versus Gaby Sanchez. Nice players. Who cares?

It goes much deeper, all the way into many, many longstanding practices. Here is another example. For no particular reason, the other night at the DBAP I happened to notice something I've gotten so used to that I had lost sight of its silliness: Baseball players wear belts. I suppose it's possible that it is comfortable to sprint around the bases or chase a fly ball while wearing a belt, but I don't see how. Is there no better way to keep one's knickers from falling down? There's this substance called elastic, it was invented in 1820. There is Spandex, Lycra, Velcro. Belts? Seriously? And why, for that matter, do the managers and coaches wear uniforms at all? They aren't permitted to play unless they're on the roster. The last player-manager in the major leagues was Pete Rose. That was 25 years ago.

(Here is another, more deliciously local example: Check out this roster of the 1980 Durham Bulls, the franchise's first year of revival after more than a decade of dormancy. Note the fifth player on the list of position players. "Al Gallagher" will be better known to some old-timers in these parts as Dirty Al Gallagher, the manager of the Bulls that year. I don't know why Dirty Al wound up playing in seven games for the Bulls in 1980, one in the outfield and six as designated hitter. I suspect injuries throughout the farm system of the Atlanta Braves, then Durham's parent club, were to blame. Dirty Al batted .346 with a double and four RBI, to along with one outfield putout. You could look it up.

I was surprised to learn that Dirty Al, the perpetually grizzled minor-league lifer, was actually just 34 years old that season. He looked 54. You may be surprised to learn that Dirty Al's given name is Alan Mitchell Edward George Patrick Henry Gallagher. You could look that up, too.

Oh—you want to know how Dirty Al got his nickname, don't you? Well, back when he was the manager of the Kansas City T-Bones, an independent league club, the T-Bones' web site told this story (the web page is no longer there; I copied this from it years ago):

Dirty Al Gallagher received his nickname in college at the University of Santa Clara. During a 25-game winning streak, Gallagher had hits in each game and refused to wash his uniform, including his undergarments, as a way to keep both streaks alive. His teammates quickly learned to affectionately call him "Dirty" Al.

In a pleasant where-are-they-now update, Dirty Al was hired out of retirement less than a month ago by the Rio Grande WhiteWings, the independent North American League club he managed back in 2008. Dirty Al lives in Harlingen, Tex., where he is a substitute teacher; but habits, to stick with today's theme, are hard to break, and he's back in the dugout.)

That long digression, dear reader, is to explain why the thing that sticks out for me from last night's game, more than Matt Moore's excellent pitching performance—which I promise I will get to—was the walk Russ Canzler drew in the bottom of the eighth inning.

At that point, Lehigh Valley had whittled the Bulls' once-comfortable 5-0 lead to 5-3, thanks mainly to some iffy relief pitching by Jay Buente and an error by J. J. Furmaniak. Another insurance run would help ease the breathing a bit, and Canzler began the bottom of the eighth by drawing a four-pitch walk from IronPigs' reliever Michael Schwimmer.

There was nothing unusual about that, really. Schwimmer has good control—he came into the game having allowed only 19 walks in 62 1/3 innings—but Canzler has better discipline: He had the league's fourth-highest walk total.

The thing is, though, that just a few weeks ago Canzler led the league in walks drawn. That walking habit is something he's been working on and developing. Throughout his career until 2011, he had averaged one walk about every 11 trips to the plate. This year, it's one every eight. Canzler had recently fallen into some old habit, apparently, of being too aggressive at the plate. Coming into last night's game, he hadn't drawn a base on balls in his last 50 plate appearances over a 12-game span.

That was not an accident. Canzler told us after the game that he'd recently "been trying to pick up the aggressiveness in my approach. I was taking some strikes; I was getting myself into 0-2 counts, taking too many pitches. Your greatest fear at the plate is, you don't want to take good pitches. I made a transition: If I'm gonna get out, it's gonna be an aggressive out."

Canzler prizes runs batted in. He's talked about it before. To some degree, the sudden disappearance of walks from his repertory may have had to do with a desire to drive home more runners. "In the beginning of the series [with Lehigh Valley], I had some guys in scoring position. I was swinging at everything, striking out." (Canzler did that twice on Thursday night.) During the walkless streak, Canzler only had two RBI hits, and both of them were home runs. His batting average actually rose a bit, from .299 to .305, but his OBP dropped seven corresponding points. He was still a productive hitter, but his productivity wasn't increasing.

Lesson learned. In fact, Canzler said after last night's game, Bulls hitting coach Dave Myers had called his attention to the 12-game stretch without a walk, and reminded him that patience was a virtue. Canzler talked about the "fine line between aggressiveness and selectiveness." It's one he is still learning to walk. I have no substantive complaint about the season Canzler is having—he's second in the IL in wOBA and OPS—but he doesn't always manage at-bats well. Sometimes he looks for a pitch, doesn't get it and takes something else for a strike or swings at something he wasn't looking for; then he starts swinging at other pitches he doesn't really want to swing at, as though in an effort to rectify his first misjudgment; then he whiffs (he is ninth in the league in strikeouts). Or he just keeps looking for that pitch, never gets it, and strikes out looking.

The habit of patience he started to develop this season, the weighting of selectiveness above aggressiveness, is what has made him a better player. "It's my first year in Triple-A," Canzler said. "I've proven that I can play at this level." True, and what's more encouraging than that is Canzler's improved judgment here. He's not just refining good habits he brought with him from Class AA (in another organization—what were the Cubs thinking? What are the Cubs ever thinking?); he's building new ones. The new-to-Class-AAA Canzler is well on his way to being the Bulls' team MVP in 2011. With Brandon Guyer out for perhaps another month with an oblique strain, it really isn't even close.

***

Speaking of developing new habits, let me begin my Matt Moore talk by working backwards: After the game, I asked him, just for fun, if he had thought about developing the new habit of throwing a fourth pitch. I half expected to hear that Bulls pitching coach Neil Allen (or perhaps Rays Minor League Pitching Coordinator Dick Bosman) had already bugged Moore about that, but Moore replied, "I think I'm on them about that more they're on me."

Moore was jesting a bit, really, adding that he hasn't really worked in earnest to add to his three-pitch arsenal (why would he, at this dominant point?). He did say that he has messed around with a two-seam fastball, mainly to have something "to throw early in the count, to have a little movement with a little less stress on the arm." (Two-seamers aren't thrown as hard as four-seam fastballs.) Also, a two-seamer is often easier for pitchers to acquire than some other pitches; it's mainly just about learning a new grip.

But "I'm in no rush," Moore said. "If it happens playing catch, that's how guys pick up pitches. They just start exploring different things. For me, the changeup (was developed) because I said, 'Okay, I'm getting beaten with my fastball and my curve ball, so I've got to develop my changeup." Moore added that he learned his changeup from his brother, also a left-handed pitcher, who played for the University of New Mexico. (He's a dead ringer for Matt.)

Develop it he has, and by way of illustration—and of getting back to some telling moments in Moore's work last night against Lehigh Valley—let's consider how Moore handled Josh Barfield. Barfield is a 28-year-old second baseman who has moved to the outfield for Ryne Sandberg's outfielder-deprived club. Barfield, son of former major-league All-Star Jesse Barfield, is a seasoned hitter, and he fought Moore through a nine-pitch at-bat in the second inning, fouling off mostly fastballs before getting one at 94 mph that he drilled to left-center field for a single.

Two innings later, Moore started off Barfield with two breaking balls, both for called strikes. He then threw two balls, one a slider in the dirt that got past catcher Nevin Ashley for a wild pitch—it advanced Pete Orr (hit by pitch) and Kevin Frandsen (single) to second and third base. (I thought Ashley might have been able to block it, but it certainly wasn't a passed ball.) On the fifth pitch, Moore went to his changeup, a mid-80s beauty that fell right under Barfield's swinging bat. Strike three. All 10 of Moore's strikeouts last night were swinging. He threw an astounding 76 of his 103 pitches for strikes, and the IronPigs swung 63 times. That's command.

That second Barfield at-bat was entirely deliberate, Moore said later on. He and Ashley had recognized that Barfield was on Moore's fastball. They wanted to get ahead with offspeed pitches and finish Barfield with another one. It was a savvy approach, and it helped, of course, that Moore has the chops to have executed it so well.

It's also worth looking at Barfield's third at-bat, less for Moore's strategy (he got two swinging strikes and then a foul) than for how it altered the game. From the fourth through the sixth innings, Moore retired nine straight batters. To lead off the seventh, with Durham leading 5-0, Domonic Moore reached up and out for a fastball on the outer half of the plate and lined it into the left-field corner for a double. Delwyn Young hit a single to shallow center field to move Brown to third base.

Then, on an 0-2 count Barfield hit a grounder into the shortstop hole. It was certainly not an easy play for Reid Brignac, but it's one Brignac probably will make more often than not. This time, though, he didn't. The ball deflected off of his glove into shallow left field, scored a hit for Barfield (somewhat controversially, among some onlookers). Brown scored and Young moved to third base.

Jay Buente was warming in the bullpen, although he wasn't quite ready—and in any case it was refreshing to see Moore get a chance to get out of a jam (he's had so few of them in Class AAA so far). Erik Kratz fought Moore through six pitches, and on a 2-2 count Moore got him to pop out to Brignac. Buente was now ready, but Moore stayed in to face Carlos Rivero, whom he'd struck out twice, and rather easily. He did so again, for the second out, with his 103rd pitch, and Charlie Montoyo came out to take him out of the game. The infield converged on the mound, and you could see Brignac apologizing for not fielding Barfield's grounder.

Moore got a long, appreciative ovation from the crowd, and it was fun to watch Moore's walk to the dugout. For one thing, he always walks slowly and with the pained gait of an old man (or, perhaps less seemly, as if he has jock itch). For another, Moore took off his cap as he neared the dugout and held it out near his face, almost wearily. He wasn't quite tipping it—but that's surely how the gesture was meant. The way he did it, though, not fully committed to it, was sort of endearing: it was as if the young lefty hasn't done it much to date, and is still mastering the habit of the exit-doff.

Buente cost Moore another run when he wild-pitched Delwyn Young home, bouncing a splitter about three or four feet in front of the plate, but he struck out Cody Overbeck to end the threat. (With different official scoring and a different reliever, Moore might not have been charged with any earned runs at all.)

To start the top of the eighth, J. J. Furmaniak mishandled Freddy Galvis's grounder for an error. Pete Orr chopped a single over first base to move Galvis to third, and Frandsen hit an RBI groundout to score him.

That made it 5-3, Bulls, and Montoyo went to Dane De La Rosa, who fought Brown for six pitches—slider, fastball, slider, fastball, slider, slider—before striking him out. He got Young to fly out to end the inning.

Which brings us to Canzler's walk, five innings after his opposite-field homer put the Bulls up 4-0. Canzler moved to second on a Leslie Anderson single, and to third on Daniel Mayora's fly out to center field. Mayora's productive out really became so when Michael Schwimmer threw a wild pitch, scoring Canzler to make it 6-3.

That run mattered, in a subtle but important way. Rob Delaney came on for a save—the second time in as many nights that he followed De La Rosa out of the bullpen late—and gave up an emphatic one-out home run to Erik Kratz, the IronPigs' Very Big Catcher.

That made it 6-4, and Rivero followed with a grounder wide of third on which Furmaniak made a nice short-hop pick. He threw out Rivero at first. The play was a worthy atonement for his error in the previous inning, because Cody Overbeck followed it with a single to center field. Had Rivero reached, the tying runs would have been on base. They would have been there for ninth-place hitter Galvis; but as Charlie Montoyo pointed out, even had Delaney retired Galvis, the top of Lehigh Valley's order would have come to bat (Pete Orr), and the Bulls' win, which had seemed a given almost all night, might have been thrown into doubt.

As it was, Galvis flied out to right field, and the Bulls stretched their IL South Division lead over Gwinnett to 2 1/2 games, their largest lead in two weeks. They also knocked Lehigh Valley into a North Division first-place tie with rained-out Pawtucket. The Bulls are 34-25 at home. That's the second best home record in the league (ludicrously good Columbus is best, with a ludicrously good 42-17 home mark), although it's a sharp decline from 2010, when Durham went 47-25 at the DBAP. The Bulls would have to win all 13 of its remaining home games to match last year's home record.

***

Admin:

* John Jaso, who was the Bulls' regular catcher in 2009 and a Tampa Bay Ray for most of 2010 and 2011, has been out a while with an oblique strain. He will start a rehab assignment with the Bulls on Wednesday, and is expected to play with the Bulls for perhaps the entire two weeks allotted to rehabbing position players. That will push Stephen Vogt into (probably) exclusive outfield duty, since Nevin Ashley needs playing time behind the plate. Vogt has been raking since he came to Durham, sporting a 1.168 OPS in eight games as a Bull, and you can bet that he'll be in Charlie Montoyo's lineup virtually every day during the stretch drive.

* Matt Carson isn't on the disabled list but probably should be, Montoyo said. His hamstring is apparently a ways from full recovery.

* Alex Torres starts tonight for the Bulls against Rochester's Eric Hacker, a former Yankees draftee (23rd round, 2001) who looked for a second there like he might become a legit prospect. But he's since bounced through a couple of other organizations and, at 28 years old, has probably reached lifer status: he's got a 5.56 ERA this season as a Red Wing, although he did pitch well against the Bulls on July 18, going six innings and giving up two runs in a loss.

Torres, on the other hand, has steadily improved lately, lowering his ERA under 3.00 (2.98, to be exact) for the first time since mid-May. The Red Wings don't have much in the way of firepower and are near the bottom of the league in most major hitting categories—although, with the addition of Justin Morneau, they do lead the league in rehabbing MVPs.

***

The 2-1 Yankees-Red Sox game had nearly reached its four hour mark when Mariano Rivera came in to save it for New York. If there's one thing that's habitual in baseball, it's Mariano Rivera saving games for the New York Yankees. How many hundreds of times has he thrown that cutter of his, gotten a broken-bat groundout, an ordinary-looking strikeout, and a pop-out to end the game on a grand total of, say, 12 pitches?

Here he was, 41 years old, again at Fenway. And you know what happened? Rivera blew the save. Habit was turned on its head.

But look more closely, and you see that it wasn't. Mariano Rivera has blown 72 save opportunities in his career. Of those, 14 have been against the Boston Red Sox. So it seems he does have a habit there. And as I watched Marco Scutaro step in to lead off the ninth inning against Rivera, I immediately thought ofone of the unlikeliest save chances I ever saw Rivera fail to convert. On April 15, 2007, in Oakland, called on to nail down a 4-2 win, Rivera got the first two outs of the ninth inning easily. Then he allowed a single and a walk. Marco Scutaro came to the plate. Rivera got ahead of him, 0-2, and then missed with his cutter. Scutaro, whom we saw playing at the DBAP just a couple of months ago, rehabbing with Pawtucket, drilled it down the left-field line for a game-winning, walkoff three-run homer.

Sure enough, Scutaro hit a leadoff double in the ninth inning last night, missing a homer by just a few feet when his drive to left field hit high off of the Green Monster. A bad sacrifice bunt attempt followed, but rookie Eduardo Nunez, filling in for the injured Alex Rodriguez, unwisely left his post at third base to field it. No need—Rivera pounced on it, and had Nunez stayed put, Rivera would have thrown Scutaro out. As it was, no one was covering third base.

The mental mistake cost Rivera what would have been his 30th save after a sacrifice fly scored Scutaro to tie the game. The Red Sox won in the 10th inning against Phil Hughes.

Red Sox, Scutaro: turns out there was plenty of habit in operation in baseball last night. In fact, during the endless pauses and commercials that padded the Yanks-Sox game to four hours, I found myself flipping, with guilty regularity, to a trifling cinematic satire called The Joneses, starring David Duchovny and Demi Moore. I'll spare you the details (you're welcome) except to say that—spoiler!—the movie got at least one thing right: a downbeat finale, in which the leads, set up all along to become a romantic couple, instead go their separate ways.

And then you know what happens? The movie ends with a poorly and hastily tacked-on coda, in which Duchovny and Moore drive off together anyway into the sunset (well, it's actually the night, although they are headed for Arizona, just like in an old Western). Oh, Hollywood, poor little rich Hollywood, always giving in to its happy endings. Habit is everywhere, not only in baseball but in everything we make and do. Sometimes you have to look past the obvious one in order to see the other, its opposite habitual force, pushing back—quieter, hiding, but eternally true, and refusing to be broken.

See you at the DBAP at 7:05 p.m.


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