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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Indianapolis Indians' rout extends Durham Bulls losing streak to 11 games: One big blah

Posted by on Sat, Apr 28, 2012 at 6:00 AM

godzillamatsui.jpg
DBAP/ DURHAM—I think Durham Bulls reliever Marquis Fleming may have been looking for the phrase "one big blur" last night after the Bulls were crushed, 13-2, by the Indianapolis Indians. The loss was Durham's 14th in the last 15 games and the team's 11th in a row. They are two losses away from tying the club's all-time record for consecutive defeats.

Fleming had been asked about how the pitchers were trying to recover as a group from a horrid spell that has puffed the team ERA all the way up to 6.29, one of the very worst marks in all of organized baseball. He said that the pitchers had had a meeting earlier that very day, during which "we talked about the mental side of it."

(That put me immediately in mind of what Lance Pendleton, who has quickly put up a 13.50 ERA in two appearances, told me last year after he had stymied the Bulls as a member of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. "Sometimes you get out of whack just slightly," he said, referring to allowing walks. So did walks issued point to faltering mechanically, he was asked? "Maybe not mechanically," he replied, "but maybe mentally-mechanically." Awesome. Mentally-mechanically. I find myself often uttering that borderline-nonsense phrase like a mantra. If I screw up a drink behind the bar, or do something boneheaded while I'm driving: mentally-mechanically, I'll whisper.)

Fleming talked briefly about how the pitchers' meeting included discourse about "not going into panic mode on the mound"—kind of a tacit admission that they've at least already got their fingers near the big red button—and then allowed how balls hit off of opponents' bats had a way lately of finding holes, dropping in for hits, etc. Snowballing.

"It's pretty much just one big..." and here Fleming paused for a moment before landing on the word "blah."

Did he mean "blur" or "blah"? Hard to say. Even though "blur" is what you usually hear there—"one big blur," further unfocused by the club's recent four-city, 14-game road trip—"one big blah" more accurately describes the state of the Durham Bulls.

This game was essentially over after the top of the first inning. Starling Marte, who has one of the league's most pleasing names, and for that matter games, raked Alex Torres' second pitch of the game high off the Blue Monster for a leadoff double. One out later, Matt Hague hit an opposite-field double down the right-field line. 1-0. Torres then ran the count full against Jake Fox, who has hit some monster homers at the DBAP in his day (you may remember him as a Norfolk Tide).

Torres didn't have much command of his fastball—he really didn't have command of anything, except his changeup a little. But you sort of knew he would throw the fastball on 3-2, and that it would be right down the middle, and that Fox would hammer it. It was right down the middle, and Fox hammered it: a two-run homer off the facade of the building above Tobacco Road "Cafe." Jake Fox doing Jake Fox things.

So it was quickly 3-0, Indians. The way the Bulls have been going lately, it seemed like game-over right then and there. But then it was really over, symbolically, one batter later. Nick Evans hit a grounder to third base, hard enough that it wasn't an automatic play but certainly didn't qualify as an especially tough chance. As the ball bounced toward Will Rhymes, playing the hot corner to give Matt Mangini a night off (which he would not wind up getting—stay tuned), you knew—you just knew—Rhymes was going to muff it. And muff it he did. It kicked into left field for an error.

Then Torres walked Jordy Mercer, which meant that Alex Torres had showed up at the ballpark. Enough with these hittable strikes, let's do what we do best. (Torres has now walked 21 batters in 17 1/3 innings this season.) Then Brandon Boggs laced another double off the Blue Monster, it was 4-0, and the game was over-over.

Here is the sort of thing that happens to teams deep in the sort of funk the Bulls are in. In the top of the second inning, the first three batters reached against Torres via a leadoff walk and two singles. It was now 4-0. Torres was yanked by manager Charlie Montoyo after 57 pitches (only 29 strikes). It was the shortest start of Torres' professional career to date.

The mental-mechanical Lance Pendleton came on, got ahead of Fox 0-2, and then surrendered an opposite-field single. Jake Fox hits the ball the other way about once a month—it's this sort of thing that prompted Marquis Fleming to talk later about hits unaccountably cascading during pitching slumps—but in hindsight it's not so surprising: Pendleton wears jersey No. 14, which was Brian Baker's number when he pitched for Durham. And Fox owned Baker last year. Pendleton avoided the long-ball that Baker might have given up to Fox, but with No. 14 on his back he had no chance of retiring the slugging DH.

The next hitter was Nick Evans, and Pendleton got him to hit a shallow fly ball to left field. Bulls shortstop Reid Brignac went back on it and called for it with left fielder Stephen Vogt coming in behind him. Vogt called off Brignac, but either he did this tentatively or he didn't really read the ball's arc, because he wound up having to lunge forward in an attempt to make a shoestring catch, and the ball glanced off of his glove. There were runners on first and second, and to add to the foibles, Vogt's throw to third base—which beat the runner, who held near second thinking the ball would be caught—was low and Rhymes couldn't handle it for what would have been a gift forceout that would have held Vogt harmless for his gaffe.

Vogt's (mis)play was generously ruled a single by the Official Scorer, but it was certainly an error in judgment if not in legalese. Granted that traditionally an outfielder always has first dibs on balls hit to the shallow outfield, but in this case the outfielder is a converted catcher without great speed and the shortstop is Reid Brignac, an excellent fielder. The proper choice for Vogt, situationally, is to let the excellent shortstop, just down from the major leagues and shouting for the ball, catch that ball.

But Vogt does not. Bases loaded. A single and a fielder's choice later, it's 8-0, Indianapolis. No one can hear your screams.

And to go ahead and complete the ignominious evening, in the sixth inning reliever John Gaub was one strike away from notching the Bulls' pitchers' first 1-2-3 inning of the night. With the count 0-2, Anderson Hernandez hit an easy, easy grounder right at Brignac, and the sure-handed Brignac flubbed it for an error. A single and a walk followed. Only when a long, long drive to center field by Evans wound up being caught for an out about 380 feet from home plate was Brignac let off the hook.

Still, the error required Gaub to throw 19 extra pitches in order to get out of the inning, so he didn't come out for a second inning of work. Instead, Fleming gave up another run, the Indians' 13th and final, in the seventh via a single, a hit batter and another double by Marte (2-4 in seven plate appearances, two walks, hit by a pitch). That inning took 27 pitches (14 strikes), and Fleming labored through 30 more in the eighth, stranding two runners with a borderline called strike three against Boggs. The Bulls threw 242 pitches last night. The Indians threw 143.

Well, that's enough of that, more or less. Romulo Sanchez recorded five outs, all by strikeout, in the fourth and fifth innings, but managed to give up three runs doing it. Four of the Bulls' six pitchers last night have ERAs over 10.00. Ten! A fifth, Fleming, is at an even 9.00. Juan Miranda hit into not one but two 3-6-3 double plays and is now batting a team-worst .183 with a .557 OPS. All-time franchise home run leader Chris Richard, who has been retired for more than a full season, could probably pick up a bat, throw on a uniform, and hit better. Except that Richard recently moved back to California. Chris Richard isn't going to save you. No one hears your screams.

More, and worse, and this really stuffs the envelope of the miserable evening for Durham: The Bulls have three active position players with an OPS above .800, which is basically the benchmark number that connotes "good." One of them, Brandon Guyer, landed on first base awkwardly in Norfolk on Wednesday and rolled his ankle. He was out of the lineup last night and is day-to-day. Another, Nevin Ashley, scored the Bulls' first run last night after reaching base with an impressive opposite-field double in the second inning. In the very next inning, the top of the third, Pendleton hit Marte with a pitch. The ball glanced off Marte, and then (I think) off of Marte's bat, and then smacked Ashley in his throwing hand.

And broke it. No one hears your...

Enter Matt Mangini and exit his night off.

Figure Ashley to go on the disabled list and Craig Albernaz, currently wearin' the Hudson Valley sweatshirt, to be activated.

You would expect any manager to be tearing out either his hair or someone else's at a time like this, but Charlie Montoyo was stoic. He gave equable, clear-eyed answers to our questions, cracked a few mordant jokes, had added a bowl of candy to the accoutrements on his desk, in case we reporters needed a sugar fix, I guess. Or maybe he assumes that the only explanation for how scary things have gotten for the Bulls is that it is somehow Halloween.

Montoyo knows as well as anyone that his pitching is terrible right now. The staff ERA is 6.29, which is close to the worst in the USA, and the Bulls have allowed a staggering 102 walks in 186 innings pitched, plus 21 homers in 22 games. Of course his team has lost 11 straight and 14 of 15. And it isn't as if there's anything Montoyo can do about the pitching. A team with a 6.29 ERA is going to lose many, many games no matter who is managing it. All Montoyo can do is hope that pitching coach Neil Allen, with the help perhaps of the ghost of Christy Mathewson or a Norman Vincent Peale sermon, finds a way to help the pitchers escape the One Big Blah.

It isn't just the pitching, of course. The Bulls have allowed those 21 home runs and hit... seven. Guyer and Ashley, both now out with injuries, have four of them. The Bulls' team slugging percentage is lower than their on-base percentage—smoking-gun evidence of meek hitting. Perhaps the most revealing thing Montoyo said last night was this aside while he was ostensibly talking about how his pitchers need to do better: "We're not the kind of team that's gonna hit a three-run homer." He knows that he doesn't have a very potent lineup this year, and all you had to do last night in order to see that was to compare the middle of the Bulls' order to the middle of the Indians'. Hague, Fox and Evans, sluggers all, were a combined 10-17 with two homers, two doubles and nine RBI. The Bulls' Brignac, Vogt and Leslie Anderson went a respectable 4-11, but three of the hits were singles (one off of an infielder's glove) and Anderson's double was an opposite-field special, not hit especially hard.

So really, the Bulls are in a double-bind here: The hitting lacks the potency to bail out the pitching. Hence the team has a league-worst 6-16 record. To repeat my thoughts from the other day, there are no hot prospects with blowup potential, either here in Durham or, really, in Class AA Montgomery. Leslie Anderson is not going to keep hitting .352. Alex Torres seems to be getting worse as he "develops." The Bulls' best reliever, Cesar Ramos, is likely to be called up to Tampa very soon for LOOGY duty if he keeps on mowing down Triple-A hitters. Somehow John Gaub, a recent waiver claim, is the best reliever after Ramos. And, more immediately, the very left-handed Bulls are going to see nothing but left-handed starters in the Indianapolis series. Ugh.

Montoyo is not a shout-and-rage manager. The most you can picture him doing is pleading his team to win, rather than berating them. He does not do "Everybody in the shower!" routines. He knows his guys are playing hard, citing last night Kyle Hudson's running out of a grounder that helped lead to a throwing error on Indianapolis shortstop Jordy Mercer. But playing hard isn't always enough. Winning is another thing altogether, an ineffable phenomenon that has to do with something vaster yet more ephemeral than effort. It's an act of will, and when losing streaks like these take hold, winning requires the marriage of will to habit. You hear about athletes who "know how to win," as the cliche goes. The way you "know how" is partially by having done it before, when it has mattered most. You have to be able to fall back on it.

But you also have to demand it. You have to be angry about it. It's as if someone, some old and ornery type, needs to start smashing the clustering structures of the Bulls' current slum of woe, toppling the spires of the Church of Losing, stomping on the city of failure. Someone needs to breathe fire over the whole ballclub, incinerate the bad and ignite the good. He needs to have thick skin. He needs to be larger than this losing life. He needs to go nuclear. He needs to roar.

G-O-D-Z-I-L-L-A !!!

As you may have heard, the Rays recently signed veteran Japanese import Hideki Matsui to a minor-league deal. (Technically, they haven't signed him yet, and Rays manager Joe Maddon said yesterday that there is "none—zero" news on the deal's progress.) Matsui, aka Godzilla, is a former World Series MVP (2009) with the New York Yankees. He has a lifetime big-league OPS of .830 (or a TAv of .291, if you're into that sort of thing) and 173 homers in a nine-year career, which after seven seasons in New York included a season in Anaheim and another in Oakland.

Due to the worldwide glut of left-handed DH-types, Matsui found himself without a big-league job offer to begin 2012. He is almost 38 years old, and like his former teammate Johnny Damon—also unsigned when the season began—he is finding that teams have the luxury of preferring younger, cheaper versions to older, costlier, more rickety ones. (To drive the point home, lefty DH-type Brandon Allen, just claimed by the Rays off waivers from the A's, hit a walkoff, pinch-hit, come-from-behind two-run homer to beat Anaheim on Thursday. In his only other at-bat so far for Tampa Bay, Allen drew a bases-loaded walk.)

Figuring, apparently, that there's no harm in having an endless supply of lefty DH-types—just as it can never hurt to have lots of Loire Valley white wine in the fridge—the Rays have filled their cellar with them: Allen, Luke Scott, Vogt, Juan Miranda, etc. Matsui has been added to the pile. He's down in receiving in Florida and is rumored to be headed either to extended spring training or to Class A Port Charlotte. There is no word on the Rays' plan for him, but they don't have a need for him in the majors right now. Matsui is essentially insurance for Luke Scott, the incumbent lefty DH-type who has a history of serious injury and is less than a year removed from major surgery, and for Allen should he fail to keep hitting walkoff homers and turn back into the guy who wasn't good enough to play for the Oakland A's.

All of that is to say that Matsui is almost surely Durham-bound at some point, and I'm guessing soon. Although that guess is derived only from rumor and perhaps wishful thinking, there's every reason to think that Matsui will be a Durham Bull. When, and for how long, who knows? And who knows whether he will have the movie-monster effect on the team that it sorely needs. Maybe he's washed up. Or maybe he'll play for the Bulls for three days before the Rays summon him to the majors so that he can torment his old team, the division-rival Yankees.

In any case, it is more than a little tempting to put a lot of hope into Matsui's potential arrival. He would immediately be the greatest and most famous position player in the minor leagues, and even if he were to strike out all the time (unlikely—check his career walk-to-strikeout-rates), if nothing else he would almost surely give color, zip, snap and excitement to a team that currently lacks all of the above and is fogged deeply inside One Big Blah.

In the mean time, the Bulls continue to seek their first win since April 15. I'm starting to think that maybe the I.R.S., or some other equally nefarious and punitive entity, has cleaned them out. Mentally and mechanically.

The Bulls' Chris Archer, who has struggled so far through four starts (8.00 ERA, 16 walks in 18 innings pitched), faces Indians lefty Justin Wilson at the DBAP at 5:05 p.m. this afternoon/evening. Wilson started two games versus the Bulls last season, both against Alex Torres. Torres, beat him, 6-1, in Indianapolis. But in the rematch at the DBAP, Wilson no-hit the Bulls through six innings. He, like Archer, has control trouble, so prepare for another long one. And note that Saturday's game has the dusky start time that hitters dread.

Sam and Mike are your pilots through the weekend. I'll see you at the DBAP on Monday afternoon.

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The Bulls have lost 11 straight games. Nevin Ashley broke his hand and Brandon Guyer sprained his ankle. No one hears your screams.

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