Rochester Red Wings pound Durham Bulls: Karma! | Sports
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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Rochester Red Wings pound Durham Bulls: Karma!

Posted by on Thu, Aug 11, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Justin Morneau rounds the bases after hitting a home run at the DBAP on Wednesday, August 10.
  • Photo by Al Drago
  • Justin Morneau rounds the bases after hitting a home run at the DBAP on Wednesday, August 10.
DBAP/ DURHAM—Nevin Ashley homered to highlight a 3-4 night; surging Russ Canzler added a solo shot; every Bull in the lineup had a hit in the Bulls' third straight double-digit hit attack against the league's worst pitching staff; and Brian Baker made a convincing return to action after two weeks out of action with arm fatigue. The streaking Bulls won their fifth straight game, beating the Rochester Red W

Oh, wait, what? Let me start again.

I was going to subtitle this post "Chimera!" (see yesterday's report), but for reasons only Heather knows, I had to reconsider the frightening creature that was last night's game. Had I stuck with my chimerical idea, I would have said that some games look like a certain kind of beast from one angle—like a Bulls victory, for example—but when you change your perspective, you see a horse (lion)(goat)(snake) of a different color: in last night's case, a pitiful loss. All of the details in the first sentence of the opening paragraph are true, but Rochester hammered Durham, 11-3.

There may be no crying in baseball, but it turns out that there is crying right after it: one of the Bulls' young sons was bawling in the clubhouse immediately following the game while we interviewed Ryan Reid, who had ample cause to cry himself. A few minutes earlier, we reporters walked into the clubhouse just in time to see one of the players exiting a closed-door meeting in the manager's office. Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo seldom has those, and as a rule only when he's telling a player that he has been called up, sent down or released. He was doing none of the above last night. As the player stalked past us out of Montoyo's office, he was scowling in huffy resentment, like a teenager who has just been grounded.

It was that kind of night.

The ancient, mythical, hybrid creature known as the chimera had the head of a lion, the tail of a snake and the midsection of a goat. To see one was considered a bad omen, a portent of natural disasters such as storms and erupting volcanoes—which last night's game unquestionably was for the Bulls. But the Bulls were their own chimera: the word comes from the Greek khimaros, which means "she-goat," and the Bulls were pretty much a teamful of goats last night. (She-goats, if you must.) There was a touch of leonine pride in the ninth inning, when Russ Canzler and Nevin Ashley hit solo homers to get the final deficit down under 10 runs; there was some serpentine behavior in the Bulls' treacherous fielding; but mainly there were goats.

The thing is, last night's loss was no strange and mythical monster. It was a very real defeat, not only in and of itself but because of what it begot: the possibility, with another loss to Rochester tonight, that the Bulls will split the home series with one of the league's worst teams, and also split yet another homestand (they went 2-2 against Lehigh Valley over the weekend), failing to exploit the comforts of the DBAP and build a decent division lead over Gwinnet, whom they now lead by two games. The Bulls are a so-so 24-21 at home since May 17.

Karma, not a chimera, better suits the mood. It's a slightly misunderstood concept in the West, where we tend to give it a reap-what-you-sow, goes-around-comes-around boomerang toss. The term Karma, in its pristine sense, really just means voluntary action, i.e. something the doer does with moral awareness, no matter whether that thing be good or bad. (Vipaka is the corresponding result, more or less.)

There are all kinds of things you can't control in baseball: what happens to the ball after it's hit; whether some umpire makes the right call; injuries; whether the parent club gave you a lefty in your bullpen. Things like that are outside the realm of karma; thus it really isn't true, for example, that every bloop base-hit is counteracted by a screaming drive caught at the wall. There is nothing volitional in what produces those results, which are as random and unfair as coin flips. (To borrow from one of last year's recaps: "As Tom Stoppard argued in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, just because a coin flip comes up heads 92 times, doesn't mean it's any likelier to do so the 93rd.")

Karma comes down to—karma is—what you do deliberately, knowingly, mindfully. Karma is your actions and not your reactions, your work and not its outcome, and how rightly you do that work. So here you go: In the second and third inning last night, Bulls swingman/spot-starter Ryan Reid walked six men over an eight-batter stretch, and utilityman/duct-tape Ray Olmedo made two bad errors in a three-batter stretch, and that was pretty much the game.

I suppose it is fair to say that Reid's "karma" was that Brian Baker, who relieved him, along with Olmedo, who made his second error after Reid left, made sure that all three of Reid's walks scored following his exit. But really, the karma was the walks themselves: they were their own bad action; the crossings of the plate those bad actions set up are mere residue, not karma. Olmedo's errors, too, are Olmedo's karma. They do not need the reinforcement of results—Rochester runs, and lots of 'em—for karmic completion. The errors stand (or rather, fall) alone, especially at the minor-league level, where wins and losses are ancillary to the karma of individual actions. The Tampa Bay Rays care a lot less about the score of the game than they do about Olmedo's two errors and Reid's six walks in two-innings-plus.

Put the walks and errors together, though, and in more or less no time flat it was 6-1, visitors, in the third inning. Game over, in the Buck Showalter Theorem manner. Just to make sure, though, because Rochester is a bad, bad team, another walk and another error led to three more Rochester runs in the seventh inning, and rehabbing big-leaguer Justin Morneau punctuated the rout by belting a two-run homer, his first long-ball of the series, in the ninth, off of Mike Ekstrom, the second dinger Ekstrom has allowed in as many appearances.

Some other teams had been creeping up on Durham's league lead in unearned runs allowed, and the Bulls weren't having any of that. They kicked in five more freebies last night, or maybe six—it's not entirely clear and isn't worth the effort to sort it out. The Bulls have now allowed 72 unearned runs through 116 games this year; league average is 51. Last year's team allowed 60 unearned runs in 144 games.

This was the third straight ugly game these two teams have played, as though the very bad Red Wings have dragged the Bulls down into the mildewy baseball basement with them. Rochester won handily, but they didn't really play all that well themselves. Spot-starter Jake Stevens, who replaced Kevin Slowey (he was called up to Minnesota), gave up eight hits in four innings. The Red Wings made an error that led to their own unearned run allowed. Reliever Jim Hoey served up two solo homers in just an inning of work.

But the Bulls hit into four double plays, made a reliever (Cole DeVries) with average stats and an average curve ball look awesome, and batters and pitchers on both clubs spent some time publicly hating on the (admittedly vague) strike zone of home plate umpire Karl Best. I made a foolish little joke about Best not long ago, downgrading him to Karl Better after some dubious home-plate umpiring he did a few days ago. Now I'm prepared to demote him further, to Karl Below Average.

But, as Charlie Montoyo said after the game, "Don't blame the umpire. Reid was all over the place." That's true, but how he got so scattered is hard to get a reid on. He had pitched pretty well in three prior spot-starts this season, and over his last half-dozen appearances (sprinkled sparsely over July and early August) lowered his ERA by more than a run and a half.

In the first inning of last night's game, Reid appeared to be right in that same groove. He needed just 10 pitches to dispatch the top of the Red Wings' order. In the second, though, things got sticky. The first man Reid faced was Justin Morneau, who fought off some good pitches, ran the count full, and finally fouled out to third baseman Daniel Mayora, who did a nice side-step of the Rochester bullpen mound out in shallow left field. (Left-fielder Leslie Anderson, it should be noted, barely even moved from his position.)

After Morneau's seven-pitch at-bat, Dustin Martin battled Reid for nine more before striking out on a superb slider that knifed down into the dirt.

And then—what happened to Reid? He walked the next three batters. He said later that it had something to do with his release point, that he started laboring and getting worked up and sweating a lot out there on the mound, that he needs to develop a five-day routine if he is going to continue starting games (but is he?). He said he had worked hard to retire Justin and Dustin, a 16-pitch task which perhaps made the next three hitters a Brian and two Renes too far. Reid is usually a reliever, and could have been running out of gas, I suppose; but on the other hand, he averaged 44.3 pitches per game in his last six outings, including 62 in the spot-start immediately prior to last night's; for the season, he has averaged 32.8 pitches per appearance. Even after struggling to retire Morneau and Martin last night, he had thrown only 26.

So who knows, exactly, what went wrong, and why he couldn't fix his release point or calm himself down? Reid got Toby Gardenhire to ground out after the three walks, ending a scoreless (but 34-pitch) second inning. But then he opened the second by walking Brandon Roberts and Mike Hollimon.

The next batter, Luke Hughes, hit a fairly sharp grounder a bit to the left of shortstop Ray Olmedo. Olmedo tried to field it using only his glove, rather than moving his feet and getting behind it. That nonchalant effort—much more style than substance—resulted in the ball ticking off his glove for an error, loading the bases.

Reid went to a full count on Morneau and then walked him—Reid's sixth of the game (in the last eight batters, in fact)—to force home a run. Later, Reid said that he wished he had just thrown Morneau a fastball down the middle and let him load up and hit it.

Brian Baker came on, making his first appearance since July 25. He had been out with arm fatigue, and the good news is that he looked much stouter last night, his fastball touching 90 mph. The first batter Baker faced, Dustin Martin, hit a grounder to Dan Johnson at first base that should have started an easy double play. I like to keep my eye on the first baseman and watch him go back to the bag after making his throw to second base, and so I did not see Ray Olmedo simply drop the ball. Apparently, Johnson's throw was a bit high, but not all that high.

Another run in, bases still loaded, still no outs. After Baker got Rene Tosoni to pop out, Brian Dinkelman banged a two-run double to left-center field. Rene Rivera singled home Dinkelman, and suddenly it was 6-1, Rochester. Rivera advanced to second on a stolen base that was really a wild pitch—he was kind of halfway breaking for it when Baker's pitch in the dirt eluded Nevin Ashley—and Brandon Roberts followed with a single to center field. John Matulia threw out the slow-footed Rivera at the plate, though. Why on earth was Rivera waved home, with Rochester's lineup suddenly knocking hits all over the yard and a tortuous runner on base? It's almost touching, how badly the Red Wings' coaches want to score runs and win games; they'll do any kind of foolishness. That's bad karma, and in this case, Matulia punished them for it.

So, two things to point out after that six-run, three-walk, two-error, two-pitcher, 39-pitch half-inning. First, the Bulls weren't really out of the game, despite the score. Through two innings against the Red Wings' emergency starter, left-hander Jake Stevens, they'd collected five hits. Soon enough, they'd have him out of the game and get into Rochester's bullpen. It looked like that might come quickly: In the bottom of the third inning, Olmedo partially atoned for his errors by hitting a one-out single, already the Bulls' sixth hit.

The next batter was Stephen Vogt, who has struggled against left-handers. It was nice to see him hit a 2-2 pitch high and deep to right field, and the good karma of the drive was not the least bit diminished when Tosoni caught it with his back at the wall for the second out: I hope the Rays were watching what Vogt did, which was hit the ball well against a lefty.

Unfortunately, those few feet of bad luck pretty much ended the game, as what had nearly been a 6-3 deficit in just the third inning remained 6-1. By the time the Bulls scored again, it was the ninth inning, and the score was 11-1.

The second thing: In the top of the fourth, Luke Hughes hit a grounder to Olmedo at shortstop. It wasn't a particularly hard play, but the ball did take a tricky final hop, the fast and low kind that is best dealt with by staying down on the ball, crouching, so as to make it virtually impossible for the ball to skip by you. Olmedo, though, nonchalanted this one, too, sticking his glove down around his shin. Like the play in the previous inning, it looked flashy—and this time, Olmedo fielded the ball cleanly and threw out Hughes—but in karmic terms it was no better than the one he misplayed. In fact, it was worse, because Olmedo didn't rectify his approach from the previous inning. He wasn't performing what the Buddhists call "right action." That he got the right result is immaterial. Personally, I thought his punishment should have been to have pitch the ninth inning, by which time the Bulls trailed 9-1. But a) the only player on the Bulls' depleted bench was John Jaso, whom Charlie Montoyo was barred from using (and who isn't, you know, a shortstop); and b) Olmedo would probably have enjoyed pitching. He got a win, after all, last time he did.

A leadoff walk by Lance Cormier and an errant throw by center fielder John Matulia (which in fact might have been handled by two different Durham infielders, in some alternate but very similar universe to ours) led to two more shouldn't-have-been runs, plus a third legit one, in the seventh inning. Then Ekstrom, who has recently been the Bulls' least predictable reliever, got whacked around in the ninth: double, Morneau homer, single.

It's hardly worth attempting to dignify the mess the Bulls made last night by mentioning the solo homers Canzler and Ashley hit in the ninth, except that, in Canzler's case, the homer capped another good night for him. His fourth-inning single was an infield chopper, but you get those when you're streaking, and he was patient in drawing a full-count walk in the sixth. Yet he didn't get complacent with that patience. He hit the first pitch Jim Hoey threw in the ninth for his team-leading 16th home run.

What I like about Canzler's approach right now is that it flexes: It's not all-looking or all-swinging, it's not routine and predictable. He's starting to own his at-bats more confidently, nimbly walking the line he recently described between aggressiveness and selectiveness. Canzler has a 10-game hitting streak going, during which he is 21-41 (!) with six doubles and three homers. He has nudged his OBP back over .400 (to .405, the highest it has been since April 22) and hasn't struck out in his last five games. He and Vogt are carrying the team.

But how far can the team be carried? Yesterday was all about lights—the brightness, the illumination, the sunny side—but karma says there is a darkness to every light. Emerson says it, too, forcefully and often, in "Compensation," his great essay that is certainly about karma, though Emerson doesn't use that word (he does mention "Indian mythology," however). "An inevitable dualism bisescts nature," he writes. And: "There is always some levelling circumstance that puts down the overbearing, the strong, the rich, the fortunate, substantially on the same ground with all others."

And: "Crime and punishment grow out of one stem."

And: "A surplusage given to one part is paid out of a reduction from another part of the same creature."

So it is with the chimerical creature known as the Durham Bulls. With the arrival of rehabbing big-leaguer John Jaso comes the departure of season-long big-leaguer Reid Brignac, who was recalled to Tampa Bay yesterday, after a very brief relegation to Durham. Justin Ruggiano went on Tampa Bay's disabled list with "knee bursitis." Well, maybe that's what you come down with when you spend too much time with knees bent while sitting on the bench. Since Desmond Jennings was called up a couple of weeks ago, Ruggiano has basically been 86'd from Joe Maddon's player menu. He has played in four games and had six plate appearances. If you're not going to let the guy eat, get him away from the table.

In other words, there was no point in keeping Ruggiano on the active roster if he wasn't going to be used, and Brignac is the closest thing to a viable position player on the 40-man roster. (Canzler isn't on it, and the Rays would probably rather see him play every day in Durham than ride pine with the major-league club. Canzler, no doubt, privately disagrees.) Meanwhile, Elliot Johnson has gone from bad to worse. His average has plunged to a season-low .182 and he apparently can no longer even get a bunt down. Maybe the Rays are hoping that a humbling demotion to the minors will have helped Brignac adjust not only his swing but his attitude, and that he'll reclaim the position he earned in 2010.

That "levelling circumstance" is always at work in Class AAA baseball. With a few exceptions like this year's dominant Columbus Clippers and last year's Bulls (which help prove the karmic rule: that it is not all balance, not all fifty-fifty), teams at this level rarely get too good. The players responsible for runaway success will end up playing their way out of Class AAA and into the majors. (Teams do get and stay really bad, though—just ask Rochester, which has been at or above .500 for exactly 10 games since—wait for it—June 4, 2009. That's 349 games. Maybe it helps to know that the Red Wings were above .500 for 364 straight games from June 2005 to April 2008?

Well, if Tuesday was lights, and Wednesday karma, then Thursday's action is all we have before us to contemplate. Karma is not, for all our fascination with its reincarnative properties, really interested in the past, it seems to me, any more than a coin flip is, or Emerson for that matter: "The man of today scarcely recognizes the man of yesterday. And such should be the outward biography of man in time, a putting off of dead circumstances day by day, as he renews his raiment day by day... We cannot stay amid the ruins." The man of today pays his karmic debt, whatever it is, in the currency of how he plays the ground ball coming at him, right now; in the rectitude of the pitch he throws next, not the one he threw before. Play for today. See the ball, hit the ball. That is karma, sportsfans.

The karma goes not just for Ray Olmedo and Ryan Reid, but also for the whole team called the Durham Bulls and its adherents. Like every other club in Class AAA, the Bulls are pulled apart and put back together, imperfectly and lopsided, on an almost daily basis. They scarcely resemble themselves from week to week, even day to day: every night (and some afternoons), they are rebuilt anew, their errors and walks (and their homers and catches) wiped clean from the slate, one shortstop gone and replaced by another, their fate at first pitch hanging perfectly, sweetly, levelly, karmically, in the balance.


Handfulla notes, and then I'm out of your hair:

* That shortstop who replaced that other shortstop is none other than Tim Beckham. Beckham was the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft, back when the Rays were bad enough to have such a pick. He has been something of a disappointment so far, but hold your fire: The kid is 21 years old and was having his best season as a pro in his first year in Class AA with Montgomery. It's exciting to have him in Durham, and I'm looking forward to seeing him play. He will start tonight, and presumably Ray Olmedo, who has played seven straight games, will get a night off to let the odor of his woeful Wednesday dissipate. (In addition to his ruinous errors, Olmedo also struck out and grounded into one of four Durham double plays.)

But maybe not so fast: Charlie Montoyo has a real fondness for Olmedo, like Montoyo an undersized Latino middle-infielder who could never quite get beyond Class AAA. Olmedo is second on the team in games played to Canzler, who is the Bulls' best hitter, even though Olmedo's OPS is .625, more than 300 points lower than Canzler's. (Olmedo was third on the team in games played in 2009, his previous stint with the Bulls.) Maybe J. J. Furmaniak sits instead, or Daniel Mayora, whose once admirable OBP has faded back down to a so-so .340. For comparison: Olmedo's is .304, Furmaniak's .259.

* Matt Carson was placed on the disabled list retroactive to August 8—an auspicious day for Buddhists, if that's any konsolation to Karson on this day of karma. That leaves the Bulls with an open roster spot, one they could stand to fill, since they currently have a one-man bench. (Charlie Montoyo was only half-joking last night when he said that his emergency outfielder was Mike Ekstrom.) Montoyo announced no plans to fill it, but there were murmurs that Brandon Guyer might come off the disabled list sooner than originally expected (the last word was early September). Maybe the Bulls are holding the space for him.

* Matt Torra starts tonight for Durham against Rochester's Liam Hendriks, in a battle of right-handers. Hendriks is 22 and from Perth, Australia; he pitched for the national team in the 2008 World Baseball Classic. Hendriks was having a superb season with Class AA New Britain (Conn.) when he was promoted to Rochester in July. Hendriks's first start in Class AAA was at home against... the Durham Bulls. On July 19, he went 6 2/3 innings and allowed six hits, no walks and two runs in a no-decision. The next day, Torra pitched in Rochester and allowed three runs, three hits and three walks in 5 1/3 innings.

This is the last game of the Bulls' penultimate homestand of 2011. Tomorrow, they hit the road for a 10-game trip to Buffalo, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and finally Norfolk, where I'm going to rendezvous with them and report from Harbor Park. But home games are getting mighty precious: Only nine remain in the regular season. You never what could happen between now and August 23, when the Bulls next play at the DBAP, that might keep you from making it back. Karma can be a chimera. Might as well take the lion/goat/snake by the mane/horns/eyes and get out to the ballpark tonight, while you know you still can. See you there at 7:05 p.m. One-dollar concessions!

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