KNIGHTS STADIUM/ FORT MILL, S.C.—From guts and more guts to tripe. The Bulls played a couple of anxious, playoff-tense, one-run games against heel-nipping Gwinnett on Monday and Tuesday. The Braves won the first but the Bulls, crucially, won the second, pushing their IL South Division lead up to a reasonably comfortable 3 1/2 games with six to play.
In the Bulls' exciting win on Tuesday night, they showed the strength and courage I had vaguely questioned after Monday's loss: Pitchers toughened up in the face of trouble; a Bull got a clutch hit (finally!) in a fraught late-game situation; and another player made a risky, diving, game-ending catch. Encouraged by these signs, I ended my game story envisioning that the next night in Charlotte might reveal "not just the strength but the length of their guts."
Didn't even make it past the duodenum. In the bottom of the first inning last night, the Bulls' infield made errors on consecutive grounders hit by the Knights' first two hitters. Then a couple more grounders—or perhaps "dirtballs" (see video below)—deflected off of Durham starter Andy Sonnanstine (first glove, then leg) for singles. Then Sonnanstine allowed consecutive doubles to Jim Gallagher and Jordan Danks; and it was suddenly 5-0, Charlotte.
Game over. Oh, they went ahead and played the rest of it anyway, because they had to. Sonnanstine gave up a couple more runs in the third, including the second homer he has allowed to Dallas McPherson in as many games against him, and was lifted after three innings—but not because he was desperately ineffective: Instead, he was rewarded with a callup to Tampa Bay, joining Justin Ruggiano and Brandon Guyer. Sonnanstine had in fact only been scheduled to throw three innings in the first place, yet he was so bad that he nearly didn't make it that far. Brian Baker relieved and allowed three more runs, and the final score was 10-2, Knights. The Bulls pitched, hit and fielded miserably. They were, and perhaps are, offal.
Gwinnett helped out a bit, splitting a doubleheader at Norfolk, so the Bulls saw their division lead level off at three games with five remaining. They can continue to play this badly and almost surely win the division anyway. It's almost too bad.
After the game—whose innards are hardly worth subjecting to haruspication (just a glance at my scoresheet at the top of the post ought to do it)—I figured that Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo would immediately point to yet another big early deficit as the reason his team lost. Surprisingly, he deflected the lead I gave him in that direction and instead started right in on his team's poor hitting, a slump that has lasted "a whole month," in his words. Since an 18-3 blowout win at Rochester on August 2, the Bulls have been held to three or fewer runs in 13 of 29 games, and have scored four runs in five others.
Montoyo noted that the first two batters of last night's game, Tim Beckham and Matt Carson, struck out—a negative tone-setter. He seemed to be indicating that his team has reached the point where the hitting and the pitching are mutually suffocating: The hitters don't give the pitchers a lead to work with, or even signs of life that might give the starter confidence; and the pitchers are constantly putting the hitters in early deficits.
Montoyo generally leaves the mentoring of his pitchers to his pitching coach, but he said he would talk to his hitters. What would he tell them? "Whatever your numbers are right now, that's what they are; they're not going to change that much" between now and season's end: "There's no reason to dig a hole." He said that plenty of his players are probably unhappy that they didn't have good enough seasons to earn callups to the majors, and that that bitter truth—plus what that truth may forebode for next year—tends to make Class AAA players "moody," as he put it, at summer's end; it's just a fact of life at this level of the minors.
Still, Montoyo added, "If you're not going to get called up, you might as well have fun and win games." Honestly, they probably only have to win one or two of these last five—they could probably get that done with one kidney and a damaged liver. Certainly you couldn't blame them if they were making the latter work harder these days.
One guy who is looking like he doesn't need the sauce is Dan Johnson, who is 10-19 over his last six games. Johnson is hitting the ball hard, and last night he cracked a double and a homer and drew two walks. It's as if he has accepted that he isn't going to get called up, and that his season is what it is (although he has upped his batting average 13 points in a week); and that acceptance has allowed Johnson, who has looked tense and dour for much of the year, to relax and get his swing back.
Some notes about the team after yesterday's callups to Tampa Bay: First of all, Sonnanstine's makes no sense on the face of it. He's got a 5.46 ERA but was far worse than that in his last two starts with the Bulls. His stuff isn't suited to the big leagues—it simply isn't. Obviously it's not his effectiveness that is attractive to the Rays but his utility. Sonnanstine could start a game in an injury emergency or a doubleheader pinch; mop up in a game blown open early (like the Bulls' loss last night); or, in a desperate situation, come into a game in, say, the 14th inning and pitch until it ended (probably with Sonnanstine allowing the losing run). He could also step into the rotation right near season's end, if the Rays are out of contention and decide to shut down Jeremy Hellickson in order to curb the youngster's innings.
Brian Baker played the role of Sonnanstine last night: role No. 2, mop-up guy. Baker had been activated from the Temporary Inactive list precisely to spell Sonnanstine, since it was a foregone conclusion that Sonnanstine would be gone by the fourth inning even had he pitched well. Baker soaked up the final five innings, which conserved the bullpen. So there's that?
If you are feeling optimistic, you might put in that the Bulls will be better without Sonnanstine, who frequently found ways to lose games for them. Brian Baker is no ace, but his five-inning, three-run performance last night beat Sonnanstine's three innings by a mile. In the current rotation setup, Baker would be scheduled to start on Monday, which happens to be the final day of the regular season, but Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo isn't going to let him. Chris Archer starts tonight at Charlotte, followed by Matt Moore Friday and Alex Torres Saturday at Norfolk. Matt Torra, rather than Baker, will start the final game of the regular season on Labor Day: The guy Montoyo didn't trust at all two weeks ago has now been granted the responsibility of perhaps saving or losing the Bulls' playoff chances on the season's last day.
But what about Sunday? Montoyo said after last night's game that he had no one lined up for that game. One of two things is likely to happen: Either we get another bullpen smorgasbord, as we did in Tuesday's win over Gwinnett, or we get the return from Montgomery of Jim Paduch. Paduch, an independent-league journeyman, made one start for the Bulls in Rochester in July and was immediately bisquicked. From reports, however, he threw a solid 92-mph fastball and generally pitched well.
The more important thing to look toward for Sunday, however, is what Montoyo is probably hoping: that the Bulls have clinched the division by then, and that any old character could start the game. I nominate the guy in the video below, one Paul Buchanan. "The Uh-Huh Guy," as he is better known, is a superfan not only of the Knights but, from reports, of baseball teams all around the region, including the White Sox' other western North Carolina affiliates in Kannapolis and Winston-Salem.
Heather and I happened to be in Charlotte on opening day this past April, and we saw the Knights host the Norfolk Tides. The Uh-Huh Guy was there, and we assumed he was a regular, what with his colorful signs and his hortatory cheers that are delivered, paradoxically, in a splenetic roar. He was at last night's ballgame, too, but apparently it was just his fifth or sixth Knights game of the season. The players, apparently, find him a bother, and there are fans who aren't impressed either, but we considered ourselves lucky, and it seems that the Uh-Huh Guy himself is lucky, too: He caught not one but two foul balls.
Here you go:
As with the callup of Sonnanstine, those of Ruggiano and Guyer are also a little perplexing at first. The Rays will have far too many outfielders for the final month of the season. Speculation: There's no point in waiving Ruggiano at this late date, but he is almost certain not to return to the Tampa Bay organization next year; so to some degree the Rays are just giving him a gracious big-league sendoff. As for Guyer, it seems likely that the front office, with the big-league team nearly out of playoff contention, wants to get an extended look at him before the year is done, in order to start making personnel plans for next season.
The departure of the two outfielders means the return of John Matulia from Montgomery—he joins the team tonight—plus more playing time for Matt Carson. The Bulls don't steal many bases as it is, and without Guyer they'll steal even fewer of them.
It seems likely that some other Bulls will be called up soon enough, but if nothing happens in the next day or so, that's probably a signal from the Rays' front office that catcher Robinson Chirinos and relievers like Jay Buente, Dane De La Rosa and Rob Delaney—all of them on the 40-man roster—will be left in Class AAA at least until the regular season concludes on Labor Day, in order to help the Bulls try to hang on and squeak into the playoffs.
If they do, one worrying sign going into the post-season: When the Bulls lose lately, they tend to get crushed. When they win, it's by very little. Charlie Montoyo said after Tuesday's nail-biter over Gwinnett that he hoped the game's adrenaline-rush quality would kick-start the hitters; maybe they'd go to Charlotte, a good hitter's park, and put up 10 runs. Yet his team regressed the very next night, struggling against Deunte Heath, an only average pitcher whom they'd just faced five days before. And it was the Knights, not the Bulls, who scored 10 runs.
The hotel the Bulls are staying in has a kidney-shaped pool, which is either a positive sign or just a grimly appropriate one. Maybe they should all jump in it and play Marco Polo today, or have a group therapy session in the lobby. (Management gives out free beer at 5:30 p.m. (seriously!); maybe they should knock a couple back, bus over to the ballpark and, still burping, run right onto the field and play.)
Or perhaps they could all shout at the top of their lungs like the Uh-Huh Guy, whose shouts of joy are delivered with fury—praise as rant. He has "John 10:10" as part of the text printed on the t-shirt he gives out to fans. That verse goes:
The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.
That they might have life, indeed, brother. And as for you, dear reader, I leave you, till tomorrow from Fort Mill, with three more photos of the Uh-Huh Guy's paraphernalia, and a gutsy shout to the Bulls of "Uh-Huh!"