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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Durham Bulls top Rochester Red Wings: Winning Ugly

Posted by on Tue, Aug 9, 2011 at 6:00 AM

My sin, my soul, my Lolita.
  • "My sin, my soul, my Lolita."
DBAP/ DURHAM—The Durham Bulls did a lot of things poorly last night, but they did them against the Rochester Red Wings, one of the league's worst teams, and so the Bulls won, 6-5. It was an ugly game to watch, one that should not have been as close as it got; but as Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo put it afterward, "There is no ugly win."

The win was Durham's third straight, and the team suddenly looks and acts much looser and livelier, both on the field and in the clubhouse. Winning helps a lot; so do a bunch of bullpen funsters, who have emerged as the team's energetic core. The Bulls maintained their 2 1/2 game South Division lead over Gwinnett, which won at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Justin Morneau, the Minnesota Twins' former MVP first baseman, is working his way back to the big leagues following surgery to remove a fragment of herniated disk from his neck. He is on a rehab assignment with Rochester and was kind enough to give some time to the media yesterday afternoon. (He hopes, by the way, to rejoin the Twins in Cleveland on Friday.)

Morneau mostly answered questions about the injury problems he has had over the last season or so. He was asked if he was frustrated that every time he seemed on the verge of coming all the way back, he would get hurt again. He allowed that he was, a little, but offered the sort of perspective one wishes more multi-millionaire athletes had. "It's been unfortunate, but the way I look at it, there's a lot of people in the world a lot worse off than I am. You see kids in children's hospitals; you see people with cancer. I just can't play a game."

Morneau's line of thought here is dangerously close to that peculiar category of well-intentioned but nauseous sentimentality that Vladimir Nabokov called poshlost, a Russian word that has no exact English translation. Nabokov helpfully gives plenty of examples of poshlost, many of them not only worlds apart but apparently contradictory, e.g. contemporary art exhibitions, hack book reviews, airline advertisements, Death in Venice. He elaborates, bringing all of these things under one conceptual umbrella. Poshlost is

[c]orny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know.

Morneau avoided the poshlost trap for this simple reason: "When I'm healthy I can play the game, and it's a game I love." He has that deep and inalienable attachment to playing baseball. Poshlost arises from faux-feeling. Morneau, reserved and soft-spoken as he was, feels strongly and deeply about what he does for a living.

Also, he wants to win. The tissue wrapping paper of poshlost is burned up by the ardor of commitment and competition. Baseball's beautiful deception is that it doesn't seem to be a fiery sport: it smolders rather than flames; its players grind rather than erupt. Baseball, properly lived in, is a controlled burn.

That's why it's possible for players to have so much fun in a locker room after an unsightly win like last night's, one the Bulls almost gave away to a team even less deserving than they were. The emblematic play of the game was one of both great seriousness and giddy comedy—both ugly and winning.

Top of the ninth inning, 6-5, Durham leads. They'd clubbed three straight drives to deep center field in the bottom of the eighth off of Rochester reliever Carlos Gutierrez (in college, he was Miami's closer). But a fine diving catch by Rochester's Rene Tosoni robbed J. J. Furmaniak of extra bases, and then Tosoni hauled in John Matulia's 380-foot shot at the warning track. Ray Olmedo legged out a double to right-center field, though, barely beating Tosoni's throw to second base and wallowing joyfully in the dirt there after he was called safe.

Red Wings manager Tom Nieto brought in a left-hander, Dusty Hughes, who struck out lefty Stephen Vogt to end the inning and strand Olmedo.

The first batter Adam Russell faced in the ninth inning was pinch-hitter Brandon Roberts, one of a seemingly endless clowns-in-a-Volkswagon supply of left-handed hitters on Rochester's bench. (Nieto used three last night.) Naturally, Roberts hit one of those torturous opposite-field flares over third base that hung in the air for about seven minutes and finally dropped in for a single behind Daniel Mayora and out of reach of a sprinting Olmedo, who may have worn himself out hustling for his double.

Bulls followers must have groaned: Durham had left six runners in scoring position in the game, failing in six at-bats with a runner on third and less than two outs. They could and should have put the game away; Roberts' 120-foot fly-ball single seemed like punishment for the Bulls' failure to do so. They didn't score at all after the fourth inning, when they established a 6-4 lead. Those six early runs may have appeared manly, but in fact three of them were unearned, aided by two Rochester errors and a passed ball.

Meanwhile, an eighth-inning, pinch-hit home run by Dustin Martin (a lefty, natch) off of Mike Ekstrom brought the Red Wings within a run. After the Bulls' BABIP luck ran dry in the bottom of the inning and they stranded Olmedo, and after Roberts reached first base on his lucky single, representing the tying run, the Bulls really needed to do something to earn the win rather than just hope Rochester failed to take it from them.

And it was Tosoni, again, who was involved. On a 1-0 count, he tried to sacrifice Roberts to second, but popped up his bunt to the first-base side of the pitcher's mound. Another agonizingly long time passed as 6-foot-8, 260-pound Adam Russell came thundering off the mound like an ancient beast roused from his slumber in a mountain lair.

Russell dove—threw himself, really, on the mercy of the infield grass, all outstretched like a parachutist—and caught the ball just before it landed, maybe two inches off the ground. He got to his feet as fast as man that large can do it and threw to first base. ed: Actually, Heather pointed out to me this morning that Russell made that throw from the ground, making the play even more fun to watch—and more appropriate, since Durham kind of won this game by the seat of its pants, anyway. Russell doubled off Roberts, who had gone all the way to second in the time it took for Tosoni's bunt to touch down in Russell's glove.

Mike Holliman, who had hit a tape-measure home run off Alex Torres back in the first inning, grounded to second, and the Bulls had their win—and Adam Russell had his first save as a Durham Bull.

Afterwards, asked if the play would make his personal fielding highlight reel, Russell said it would, and that that reel would have on it a single highlight: last night's. Brooks Robinson he ain't. He ain't even Don Robinson. While we talked to the big righty, fellow big righty (and clubhouse ringleader) Rob Delaney distracted him with lunar off-mike hijinks, something involving personal hygiene that went well over my head. Russell asked us to try to get his play on SportsCenter. We told him we'd get Buster Olney on the phone right away.

***

Midway through last night's game, we were on pace for something like a 200-minute slog-a-thon. In the first inning, Alex Torres needed 22 pitches to give up Holliman's homer and a single to Justin Morneau (laced into left-center field) while striking out the side. Luke Hughes's leadoff double in the second inning led to a second run; in the third, Torres gobbled up 26 more pitches and allowed two more runs, but he should have needed 14 pitches and allowed no runs at all. Torres got the first two outs, but then walked Aaron Bates after getting ahead of him 0-2. Morneau lined an opposite-field double into the left-field corner, and Jeff Bailey singled both runners home.

At that point, the Red Wings had a 4-2 lead. Fortunately for Durham, Rochester's starter could be counted on to squander it. The best thing you could say of Eric Hacker was that, with a name like that, at least he isn't a hitter. But he turned in a hack job on the mound, one Vladimir Nabokov might have enjoyed ripping apart. He'd allowed two runs in the bottom of the first inning, with help from his fielders, who made one error (Morneau on a grounder) and failed to glove another catchable ball (Jeff Bailey in left field), hit by Russ Canzler. Canzler got credit for a gift single.

In the bottom of the third, Stephen Vogt hit a drive to right field that appeared at first to be a home run, but the umpires correctly ruled that a fan had leaned out in front of the railing to catch it. Vogt settled for a ground-rules double. Dan Johnson singled up the middle and Vogt went to third base. (Johnson got that hit thanks partially to a hole in the Red Wings shift, near where the second baseman ordinarily would be.)

Canzler knocked a double into the right-field bullpen, scoring both runners. It was actually not a bad pitch from Hacker, a first-pitch breaking ball away that Canzler reached down for and wisely hit to the opposite field. Canzler, who reminded himself yesterday to be more patient at the plate, has mashed over the last two nights: he added another double in the seventh, his 34th of the season. He's six for his last seven, with three doubles, a homer and a walk.

Speaking of six and seven, Canzler's two-run double brought up sixth and seventh place hitters Leslie Anderson and Daniel Mayora. Those two had hit in the first inning with the bases loaded and none out and two runs already in. They had a chance to put the game away early, or close to it, but they both struck out, both swinging wildly at curve balls in the dirt that Hacker, on the ropes, starting throwing as a means of varying a fastball-cutter approach that didn't fool the first five Bulls he faced.

After Anderson and Mayora whiffed, Nevin Ashley tapped out weakly to first base—the Bulls failed to convert a bases-loaded, no-outs opportunity. That impotence that seems to have been handed down to them by the Tampa Bay Rays, who choke in that situation with alarming regularity.

And in the third, with Canzler on second base after his two-run double and the game now tied, 4-4, Anderson and Mayora remained at sixes and sevens, swinging again at Hacker's curves in the dirt, each fanning on three embarrassing pitches. These are the kinds of games that kill players' reputations when scouts are in attendance.

Ashley bounced a single to center field to move Canzler to third base, and then it was Furmaniak's turn to swing over Hacker's dirtballs. He was fortunate that one of the only pitches that wasn't, a fastball, whistled right by Rochester catcher Rene Rivera for a passed ball, scoring Canzler. Then he struck out on yet another curve.

The passed ball gave the Bulls the lead, 5-4, and Vogt's RBI single in the following inning scored Olmedo, who had reached on an infield single and moved to second on a bad throw by Toby Gardenhire. It turned out that the Bulls would need that sixth, charity-assisted run.

***

As for Torres, he had little command last night. He ran deep counts, walked three batters in five innings, never really found a groove. Supplied with a one-run lead in the fourth after Rivera's passed ball, he walked the leadoff man. A double play erased the mistake, yet Torres needed more fielding help to finish the inning: Rivera smoked a liner to short, and Olmedo lunged to spear it, enjoying a little post-catch tumble to make the play look a little harder than it really was.

Leading off the top of the fifth inning, Tosoni hit a looper to shallow left field, where Leslie Anderson decided to try for a sliding catch. He missed, the ball went past him, and what should have been a single became a double. (Anderson would further ugly up his evening by striking out for a third time, looking, listlessly, on four pitches in the fifth inning.)

With Tosoni on second, Torres walked Hollimon. Lance Cormier got up and quickly loosened in the bullpen. For some reason, the fans chose this moment to start doing the Wave. It's true that last night's game never seemed as close as it was, but now was not the time for mob mindlessness.

Torres, to his credit, bore down. He got Aaron Bates to hit what ought to have been a double-play grounder to Daniel Mayora, but the ball hit that increasingly treacherous lip of infield grass and backed Mayora up to catch it. (That same unevenly balding patch, presumably a casualty of the unusually hot and dry summer we've had, produced a wicked hop that nearly beheaded Mayora in a game against Gwinnett on July 26. He was charged with an error anyway, an unwarranted insult added to near-injury.)

Mayora had to settle for one out at first base, and the runners advanced into scoring position with one out for Morneau: a perilous moment. But Torres struck out Morneau on what appeared to be a lefty-to-lefty changeup—Morneau foul-tipped it into Ashley's mitt. Then Torres fanned Jeff Bailey on three really good pitches to end the inning and earn his eighth win of the season.

I say "earn" with some reservations. Torres was nothing like sharp, allowing six hits and three walks in five innings. Nine of the 23 men he faced reached base, which is too many, and neither he nor any other Durham pitcher recorded a single three-up-three-down inning all night. Still, he made good pitches when they had to be made, and turned up his focus and effort when he was in trouble. It's for that reason that I repeat my speculation that he might make a very fine reliever: he seems to thrive on pressure. But Torres is still young, just 23, and if he can mature into a dependable left-handed starter, that's what the Rays would surely prefer. Relievers are cheap and replaceable parts. Starters are, well, starters.


***

I don't want to spend too much time and energy delving into a game that was mostly unpleasant to watch, full of errors and wild pitches, botched plays and bad at-bats. Nonetheless, it's worth continuing to admire Stephen Vogt, who had three well-struck hits and raised his batting average to .395 and his OPS to a perfectly absurd 1.111 through nine games as a Bull. But there are some bad spots on this apple. First, the left-handed Vogt had all three of his hits against the unimpressive right-hander Hacker, striking out on high fastballs from lefties in his fourth and fifth at-bats. His left-right splits so far in Durham are ugly: .520 against right-handers, .154 versus lefties. (The disparity was nowhere near that pronounced in Class AA Montgomery, .311/.274, although with much more gap power against right-handers.)

Second, Vogt has had 40 plate appearances as a Bull and drawn but a single walk. He's never been a very selective hitter, averaging about one free pass every 11 trips to the plate in his career, and so far that selectiveness has vanished in Class AAA. To be fair, 40 plate appearances is a tiny sample, and he's never played above Class AA before. He should be granted time to adjust. Meanwhile, he may want to start hanging around Russ Canzler, who has embraced patience since his promotion from Class AA to AAA this season.

On that note, the entire Durham lineup ought to start hanging around Canzler. With the exception of Reid Brignac and Dan Johnson, none of the rest of the hitters on the active roster gets on base very often unless it's via a hit—and some of the numbers are beyond ugly. Leslie Anderson: 16 walks in 412 plate appearances. Nevin Ashley: 1/65 (!). Furmaniak: 18/348. Matulia: 3/80. Mayora: 10/133. Olmedo: 25/411. Add in Vogt's walk rate, and the Bulls have seven regulars who combine to average one walk every 20 at-bats. That figure is so poor, it may have the potential to ruin the team's chances of making the playoffs—or of succeeding if they do.

For the time being, though, the Bulls get a little OBP boost in the form of their own rehabbing big-leaguer. John Jaso is no Justin Morneau, but he is an unusually disciplined hitter who will lay off pitches that aren't good to swing at. There may be more of those than usual for Jaso: He is recovering from an oblique strain (the same ailment afflicting Brandon Guyer), and swinging a bat is what aggravates that injury the most. Jaso will start as a five-inning designated hitter for the Bulls and work his way into seven- and nine-inning appearances. Playing his natural position, catcher, will come a bit later, according to Charlie Montoyo. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said yesterday that he expects Jaso's rehab to last "at least" two weeks. By league rules, he can play in the minors for a maximum of 15 days, so if he isn't ready for the majors after that, the Rays will have to decide what else to do with him. It wouldn't really be the worst thing if Jaso couldn't come back until September 1, when rosters expand. That would keep management from having to deal with dropping one of three catchers from the major-league squad. Veteran Kelly Shoppach and recent Bull Robinson Chirinos are already there, and Chirinos has played pretty well in his first big-league trial.

***

Andy Sonnanstine starts for the Bulls tonight against the Red Wings' Scott Diamond. Sonnanstine is right-handed and Diamond a southpaw, but both pitchers are high-hits, low-walks, low-strikeouts guys—Diamond managed to allow 12 hits to Norfolk in just 2 2/3 innings two starts ago. The Bulls haven't faced him, but he appears to be a pinpoint guy who tends to be either very effective or very bad, with little in between. Diamond is also, like his teammates Justin Morneau and Rene Tosoni, from Canada. I wonder how many baseball teams can boast three Canucks—and two Renes, for that matter?

As for Sonnanstine, he has had one-bad-inning syndrome his last two times out, and he faces a Rochester lineup stacked with good left-handed hitters tonight. So the game is kind of hard to call. Why don't you just show up at the DBAP at 7:05 p.m. and see what happens? Even if it's as ugly as Monday night, it's still baseball, and by definition beautiful. See you there.

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