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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Durham Bulls beat Louisville Bats, win third straight: Small town

Posted by on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 11:34 PM

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DBAP/ DURHAM—Minor-league life is small-town life. The stakes are lower, the pace is slower. Family drives it, and so does family business.

The majors, on the other hand, are for millionaires and celebrities. What happens up there is for the ages. What happens here is for the locals.

Durham is booming but it is still, in many ways, a small town. The decaying mansions adjacent and across from mine here in the resurgent downtown are rooming houses, have been for decades, and they haven't changed much. Tim, a resident of one of them, who looks to be in his mid-40's, has been living there for years. His father lived in the other one, as far back as 1956. The residents live in dread of the day when the octogenarian owner passes away, for his daughter has already announced that she will sell the houses.

After the Durham Bulls beat the Louisville Bats, 7-5, Wednesday afternoon, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo detoured during his usual press session to mention that the Bats' Neftali Soto, a top-15 prospect in the Cincinnati Reds' farm system, lives in Montoyo's hometown of Florida, Puerto Rico—population ≈6,000, Montoyo said. (It's actually up to a whopping 12,000 now.)

"I already took a picture [with Soto] so we can send it home," Montoyo said. He played with Soto's father, years ago. "I hope he does well—after he leaves," Montoyo said, dropping in a solid, small-town punchline.

In the metropolis of pro ball, there are always distractions—for fans and players alike—even from a 13-game losing streak. A big city, the big leagues, can magnify or minimize the fortunes of a baseball team, depending on the circumstances. If the minors, on the other hand, are small-town, then the collective memory tends to stay fresher, more exact; it tends to dominate the collective consciousness more completely, and to persist longer. The Bulls have won three straight games, but by no means have they forgotten that they just tied a club record for consecutive losses, as Jeff Salazar's straight-shooting, rather world-weary but still-punching postgame comments suggested. (He hit what turned out to be a game-deciding two-run home run in the eighth inning.)

In a small town, the events of a couple of weeks can alter the long future—clans, histories and the common weal may be permanently affected. So it made a fair amount of sense that Charlie Montoyo was already taking the long view of the 2012 season, which is just 1/4 over. He had been asked about the mood of the clubhouse after a win—or, in this case, after three straight wins following 13 straight losses. All he had to do was point in the direction of the loudly thumping music coming from the locker room, which one did not hear a few days ago.

"You hear that?" he said, closing his case.

"If we lose, nobody wants to come back the next day," he continued. "That’s why, as a manager, I hope I’m in it in August, because otherwise you lose August. Everybody’s ready to go home already. Everybody’s looking at their stats. It becomes a selfish thing. They become free agents, and they already know, ‘I’m not gonna come back with these guys.’

"I’ve been lucky that everything counts in August the last couple of years."

And to think it's only May 2.

It has been a long season already for the Bulls. They won five of their first seven games, then went on the road and lost 16 of 17. Now they have won three in a row again. They inherited a shortstop who was, not long ago, close to a major-league regular (Reid Brignac). They lost another shortstop, Tim Beckham, to a 50-game suspension for recreational drug use. The guy who hit the important homer yesterday, Salazar, was supposed to have made the opening-day roster of the Tampa Bay Rays, only to be informed, Whoops, on second thought, Stephen Vogt's the guy we want. But Vogt quickly followed Salazar to Durham after an 0-13 start in the majors, and is batting just .143 as a Bull so far this season, still looking for his first extra-base hit after nine games. (Brignac is even worse so far, batting .097 in nine games of his own.)

Meanwhile, erstwhile potential ace Alex Torres has been relegated to the bullpen, the starting rotation has already undergone a 40 percent overhaul, and putative closer Dane De La Rosa has an 8.18 ERA.

This virtually invincible franchise since 2007 has the league's worst record and is 9.5 games out of first place.

On top of all that, Hideki Matsui, a virtual legend, is rumored to be on his way to Durham soon on a minor-league deal with the Rays, trailed by a phalanx of Japanese media for whom there is no room in the tiny DBAP press box. It's going to get crazy if Godzilla shows up in this small town, where players come and go, fortunes rise and fall, but big-city beasts seldom appear.

And because it all happens so fast, in a milieu that the world is not watching, with the rattling instability that defines Triple-A baseball (where cumulative results don't really matter all that much), there isn't much in the minors beyond what's immediately evident. There are hardly any days off, there are long, long bus rides, there is the endless and rather painful family-style bonding that comes from being stuck in the same Triple-A purgatory for months on end—a bonding that is both strengthened and corrupted by the arrival and departure of Brignacs and Matsuis and Salazars and Will Rhymes, the last of whom will almost surely be back by the All-Star break.

So it's really nice to win, just for today, in a small town.

Two days after Matt Torra took a no-hitter deep into a game, another Bulls pitcher followed suit. That pitcher was the heretofore mysterious Jim Paduch, who has taken Alex Torres' rotation spot. Here is how weird that is. Paduch spent years in the independent leagues, has done a fair bit of coaching (in fact he still does), and signed on as a free agent with the Rays in 2011, whereupon he was assigned to Class AA Montgomery. He made a spot-start for the Bulls last July 21 in Rochester, holding the Red Wings to three runs over seven innings. He was then sent back to Montgomery.

In the second week of 2012, Paduch was bumped up to Durham from Montgomery again. He threw three innings in another spot-start, and allowed one run. The Bulls beat Gwinnett that day, 5-1, their last victory before the infamous 13-game losing streak. He was then sent back to the Biscuits for about two more weeks before the Rays decided to move Torres to the bullpen. Pack up, Paduch. He returned to Durham, probably to stay, and started on Wednesday morning at 11:05 a.m. against Louisville, which is tied with Durham for the league's worst record.

And no wonder. Remember the last few years, when Louisville had Yonder Alonso, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Cozart, Juan Francisco, Todd Frazier, Mike Leake, Devin Mesoraco, Dave Sappelt, and other dangerous prospects? Plus veteran bullies like Kevin Barker and Gary Matthews, Jr.? Remember when they were the Bulls' annual opponent in the playoffs?

Well, those days are gone. Not one of the Reds' top 10 prospects is in Triple-A right now. The aforementioned countryman of Montoyo's, Neftali Soto, isn't exactly Bryce Harper, but he is apparently the best they've got according to Baseball America. The Bats have two old-timey pitchers in their starting rotation, trying to make it back to the big leagues; but 39-year-old Brett Tomko and Jeff Francis (31) aren't what they once were, and the Bulls beat both of them over the last two days.

As for Paduch, who took a no-hitter into the fifth inning, all he did was throw strikes, as Montoyo said later. Well, really, 40 of his 65 pitches were strikes, a decent but not world-beating portion; but more importantly, he was around the plate. No walks, five strikeouts. A hit batsman that was really the result of an intention gone slightly astray. Only five at-bats, out of 18, that went longer than four pitches.

The Bats got only two hits off Paduch, and that is really no surprise when you look at the lineup. Holdovers Danny Dorn and Chris Valaika can hurt you, and have experience at this level, but most of the rest of the Bats are just getting their feet wet in Class AAA; low expectations surround them. There was nothing really special about Paduch's arsenal, although his 90-92 mph fastball had some life on it; otherwise, there was a decent slider and a very occasional changeup. (In a way he is a better, more polished version of Paul Phillips, another up-and-down Biscuits hurler who rescued the Bulls with a two-pitch repertoire in spot duty over three seasons. Phillips is now in indy ball, whence came Paduch.)

Paduch told me after the game that he has a curve ball, but given that he didn't throw it on Wednesday, I'd guess he isn't all that confident with it. Still, he is an intelligent pitcher with an obviously sound idea of what he's trying to do on the mound. Furthermore, he knew a number of Louisville's hitters from having faced them in Double-A last season. With Craig Albernaz, a familiar battery-mate from Montgomery, behind the plate, Paduch looked comfortable and confident on Wednesday, and he left after five shutout innings.

Meanwhile, the Bulls did something they have seldom done lately: they built a lead. Over the previous 10 games, dating back to April 20, the Bulls had been ahead of their opponent for a grand total of 3 1/2 innings. That is almost unthinkable, although not really shocking in light of the team's swollen team ERA. The pitchers were constantly putting Durham in a hole.

And when they didn't put the Bulls in a hole, the hitters didn't hit. Yesterday, for the first time in a long, long while (told you it's already been a long season), the Bulls' starter shut down the opponent and the Bulls' hitters... well, the Bulls hit! They jumped all over the major-league veteran Francis, who as recently as 2007 won 17 games for the Colorado Rockies. But major surgery (labrum, rotator cuff) robbed him of his best stuff, and he is now a classic soft-tossing lefty trying to work his way back to the majors. (He had a March 28 opt-out clause in his contract with the Reds, but stayed aboard.)

Francis' fastball is in the mid-80s and he sports a 69-mph curveball, plus what appears to be a low-70s slider. His pitches, like Paduch's, were generally around the plate. The Bulls, not an especially patient bunch to begin with, went a-hacking. They swung at over half of Francis' offerings, and when early on they were too fat the Bulls struck for four runs in the first two innings, during which they hit three doubles and a triple. They had five extra-base hits in the previous four games combined. (In the eighth inning, Salazar hit the Bulls' first homer in a week, off of Carlos Fisher.)

Francis settled down, and kept the Bulls scoreless after that for more than four innings, retiring 13 of 14 in one stretch. Later, the Durham bullpen, which has recently been very good, sprung leaks. De La Rosa, who is struggling badly, John Gaub and Josh Lueke coughed up seven hits and five runs in just two innings, but this time the Bulls' lineup bailed them out. They added a run in the seventh (it scored on a wild pitch) and two more in the eighth on Salazar's homer, and thus gave the relief staff a boost. This was "a 7-5 nail-biter," as Montoyo put it after the game, referring to what had become of the Bulls' commanding early lead; but in fact that early lead, plus the late additions to it, kept Durham in control throughout, despite the bullpen's shakiness.

And so, times are suddenly much better here in Small Town, USA. Sure, the Bulls are still a dreadful 9-18, and even after the three-game winning streak must win the next four games to have what one would consider a successful home stand (7-3). Reid Brignac, dropped Wednesday to sixth in the order (he went 0-4), looks so frustrated since his demotion from the majors that you want to give him a bottle of bourbon and a fishing pole and tell him to come back next week. Power hitters (or, perhaps, "power hitters") Matt Mangini and Juan Miranda are still looking for their first home run of the season. Not a single reliever looks like a really reliable choice to save a game. The team's best hitter is on the disabled list, and its only top draft pick has been banished to the purgatory of drug-users.

Nonetheless, the Bulls are winning, and as long as a small town thrives—think Grover's Corners, think River City, Iowa—no one casts doubts, no one worries much about the future or the past. All is beautiful moonlight and barbershop harmony. April showers have, so far, brought May flowers to the Bull City and its national pastimers.

But Charlie Montoyo has been here a while now, and he has adopted the long view of his small town. He knows that the disillusionment of August lurks. He knows that his team must keep winning, right now, in order for his players to want to keep coming to the ballpark to play tomorrow, and the next day, and the next weeks and months. If they don't, and the Bulls haven't won themselves into contention by late summer, the storefronts will have been abandoned, the mill shut down, the best and brightest training their gazes on the horizon and the promise of some other town, or even the big city at the top.

***

Thursday, the Bulls' Chris Archer, who has looked better lately, draws the Bats' righty Sean Gallagher, yet another Louisville starter with ample big-league experience. Gallagher, once a top prospect, is only 26, but he has pitched for four different major-league teams and bounced around like a premature journeyman recently.

One transaction note: With Tim Beckham's 50-game suspension and Will Rhymes' promotion to Tampa Bay (where he is holding down the roster spot of, um, Evan Longoria, who is out with a hamstring injury), the Bulls have gotten a new infielder. Cole Figueroa, yet another lefty bat, was hitting well in Double-A Montgomery and figures to join Brignac and Shawn O'Malley in sharing middle infield duties. And look for Brandon Guyer to return to action from the disabled list soon. Nevin Ashley will be out at least a month with a broken hand.

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April showers have, so far, brought May flowers to the Bull City and its national pastimers.

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