DBAP/Durham—The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Durham County late this afternoon, causing a brief delay in the start of the Bulls game versus the Louisville Bats. The storm skirted north and east of downtown Durham — there were dark grey, wet clouds moving left to right beyond the office buildings on the other side of the outfield fence. The first pitch was only 12 minutes late, though, at 7:17 p.m.
The question looming over this game was whether the Bulls could put together a two-game winning streak, after a nearly historic string of losses (13). Louisville came into the game with only a 9-16 record so the four-game series appeared to be an opportunity to turn things around.
But before we get to the game, we should mention a jolt of high-profile roster activity between yesterday’s win over the Indianapolis Indians and today’s first pitch. Around midnight last night, manager Charlie Montoyo learned that his shortstop, Tim Beckham, would be gone for 50 games after failing a test for “recreational drugs,” the term being tossed around the press box tonight. Then today at 5:30 p.m., Montoyo learned that his versatile utility man, Will Rhymes, would be called up to the Tampa Bay Rays to fill the spot left by Evan Longoria’s newfound position on the disabled list. Rhymes had a 7:15 flight to Tampa-St. Pete, with the Rays hoping he would be in uniform for the last few innings versus the Seattle Mariners.
Montoyo has proven to be the master of organizing the chaos that is the standard AAA roster, with players going up and down and every which way throughout the course of the season. After tonight’s game, Montoyo played down the dramatic news of Beckham and Rhymes in the last 24 hours (for one thing, Beckham was already on the DL and not available), saying it wasn’t much different than what he had to deal with last year, but that it’s easier to deal with changes when the team is winning. However, he did point out that he only had one position player on the bench for tonight’s game versus the Bats, a game the Bulls won in walk-off fashion in the 10th inning, 5-4. After the game, Montoyo was quite revealing:
“Every time (OF Jeff) Salazar was arguing with the umpires I went up to him and said, ‘Dude, we don’t have anybody else. You have to stay in the game.’ It becomes like that. There’s no room for anything to happen. Then (2B Shawn) O’Malley was arguing (with the umpire) and I had to step in and say, ‘No, no, no, we need you in the game.’ That’s the way it goes. It goes like that a lot of times. You can see it more now because we are struggling, so it looks even worse. But it happened last year all the time, and we still won, so it was harder to notice.”
Montoyo paused briefly, and then continued, clearly happy with the two consecutive wins: “This game is funny. If you are down, this game keeps hitting you until you find a way to get up. These last two games (the two-game winning streak) have been very good games for us. The pitching has given us a chance. There are eight guys in our lineup that have to get it going. We have eight guys who aren’t hitting to the level they’ve hit in the past. They have proven numbers over time and they aren’t there, yet, this year. But I told them today, ‘You’ll get there. You are better hitters than this. You’ve shown it in the past and you will show it again.’ We’re waiting for that, but in the meantime I’m glad the pitching is keeping us in the games right now.”
Montoyo has won five consecutive division titles in Durham. He also won a title in his last season managing AA Birmingham before coming to Durham. Six straight titles. In many ways, the slump to start the Bulls’ season, and the lack of power in their lineup, will make for a fascinating study of what Montoyo can do to squeak out as many wins as he can over the next four months. Stay tuned.
We’re lucky to have AAA baseball in Durham. You get to see the craft of baseball on unique display. Tonight, the Louisville Bats started thirty-nine year-old right-handed pitcher Brett Tomko, who has 266 MLB starts on his resume and 100 wins. Okay, Tomko also has lost 103 big league games, so we’re not talking about a prime star. But, still, you don’t get 266 big league starts without having serious talent and skill. In 2009, pitching for the Oakland A’s, Tomko threw a complete game shut-out at age thirty-six. There really aren’t THAT many pitchers who can say they ever threw a complete game shut-out in the big leagues.
Tomko struggled badly tonight. He threw 103 pitches in five innings. But you could still see, at age thirty-nine, that there’s a reason he has 266 MLB starts. I counted at least 5 pitches in his repertoire, and he’d throw them all in any count. He hit 91 mph with what looked like a four-seam fastball; upper 80’s on a two-seam; 85 on what I think was a slider or cutter; a changeup at 80-81; and a slow curve or fork ball or something around 72 mph. With the bases loaded with Bulls and two outs in the bottom of the first, Tomko made the lefthanded hitting 3B Matt Mangini wave at one of those 72 mph pitches for strike three. He walked off the mound looking like it was a routine day in the office.
Tomko gave up 7 hits and 5 walks in 5 innings. But he left the game only having given up 1 run. It was craft in action, at thirty-nine years old. Granted, the Bulls can’t get a breakout multi-RBI hit to save their lives. Baseball is a much easier game when you can score runs with one swing of the bat.
The scenario in which this Bulls team wins another division title is based on pitching, defense, and grit. Across the lineup, except for 1B/DH Leslie Anderson and OF Jesus Feliciano, each batter needs to raise their batting average and on base percentage by substantial margins.
Tonight, Feliciano had 3 hits and 3 RBI's, including the walk-off winner in the bottom of the 10th.
A two-game streak isn't a bad start.