Durham Bulls thump Louisville Bats: Whirlwinds and Nathan Winds | Sports
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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Durham Bulls thump Louisville Bats: Whirlwinds and Nathan Winds

Posted by on Sat, May 5, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM—I love these occasional games where in hindsight it seems necessary to have watched only a single inning in order to come away with a full sense of the outcome.

Well, in this case, it was an inning plus one pitch. The Bulls beat the Bats, 7-1, last night, but it was a closer contest than that for much of the game. Durham led, 4-1, after five innings. They had dinged Louisville reliever Scott Carroll for three runs in the bottom of the fifth thanks to a few well-placed singles, a hit batter and a throwing error by Louisville center fielder Denis Phipps.

Bulls starter Alex Cobb was in good containment-control of a rather weedy start. He allowed eight hits and two walks in 6 1/3 innings, but as he told it later, was able to bear down with runners on and limit damage to just one run. (Louisville went 1-9 with runners in scoring position.) Cobb had good command of all three of his primary pitches—fastball, curve ball, split-change—but the thing about Cobb is that he is almost always going to be prone to giving up hits. His fastball seldom tops 90 mph, and he's always around the plate. He relies on location and, to a lesser degree, deception. When he isn't perfect hitting his spots, and/or isn't fooling batters, he's vulnerable.

Still, through six innings and 77 pitches, Cobb had allowed just one extra-base hit among the seven he had so far given up: a two-out double in the third inning by Kristopher Negron, whom Cobb stranded at second base. He was touched for a run in the fifth on three singles—one of which, hit by Mike Costanzo, should have been a double. His shot to deep right field got out there so fast that it hit the wall on the fly in barely three seconds, and Costanzo had to settle for a 340-foot rifle-shot single.

In the top of the sixth, Cobb ran into more trouble. Phipps and Danny Dorn singled to lead off. One out later, Cobb walked Costanzo on a close full-count pitch.

Suddenly, the bases were loaded with one out. The go-ahead run was at the plate for Louisville, and a game the Bulls seemed to have well in hand was now in jeopardy.

If you hadn't been paying much attention to that point, now was the time to start.

Chris Valaika, a three-year repeater in Triple-A with a couple of cups of coffee in Cincinnati, hit a fly ball to medium-shallow left field. It really wasn't deep enough to warrant sending Phipps home from third base, but Bats' manager David Bell may have figured that he needed to try to make something happen with his stagnating offense—he waved Phipps home. Bulls left fielder Jeff Salazar made a good but not great throw to the plate: it was on target, but a bit of a rainbow, and it bounced once.

Nonetheless, it beat Phipps by plenty, and Stephen Vogt stood serenely at the plate—cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce— as he waited for Salazar's airmail to arrive and then, once he received it, for its intended addressee to follow. Phipps, obviously aware that he was a dead duck, didn't attempt a slide, trying instead to knock the ball loose at a gallop. No dice. Vogt twirled out of the way while slapping the glove on Phipps to complete a 7-2 double play, and the threat was, in a heartbeat, quelled.

Cut to the top of the seventh. Cobb got ahead of Bill Rhinehart, 0-2, but then ran the count full, again just missing with a couple of pitches. Rhinehart fouled off one full-count pitch, but took the next one for strike three.

Except, wait a minute. Home plate umpire Seth Buckminster called it a ball. The plate umpiring had been poor the night before, and it was again last night, and Cobb said later that "it built up to that point" with Buckminster. As Rhinehart trotted down to first base, Cobb dropped almost literally to the ground in disbelief, then sprang up and asked Buckminster just what exactly was wrong with the pitch. Buckminster gestured that it was inside, which it was not, and Cobb was livid. "No, it wasn't!" he barked, as he caught his catcher Vogt's return throw with his bare throwing hand, eyes trained on Buckminster.

Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo came out to the mound. Given that Cobb had needed a fly-ball double play to escape the sixth, that he had walked the leadoff man for the second time in the game (even if this one wasn't really his fault), that he was clearly about to blow his stack, and—most importantly—that reliever John Gaub was ready in the bullpen, it seemed almost certain that Montoyo would take Cobb out of the game.

Cobb thought so, too, and since he probably figured he no longer had anything to lose, started jawing at Buckminster again as Montoyo approached. Cobb was clearly looking to get ejected, in protest—he said so after the game—and Buckminster very nearly complied. Probably he kept his thumb in his pocket only because he knew that he had blown the call and cost Cobb not only a baserunner but, probably, his night.

Montoyo, however, left Cobb in the game after spending a few moments on the mound dropping science like Galileo dropped the orange calming him down. Cobb was as angry as I've ever seen him. He is a fairly even-tempered guy, one of many ways in which he is like former Bull Jeremy Hellickson. But don't be fooled by the apparent placidity. Cobb, like Hellickson, is a dogged competitor. Earlier, in the first inning, he had smacked his glove after the third out, a hard liner by Phipps that went right to third baseman Cole Figueroa. Either Cobb was unhappy with the pitch, which Phipps jumped on, or he was pumped up by the outcome. In either case, he was out there on a mission and with fire.

It was cheering to see Montoyo leave Cobb in the game, because it gave Cobb a chance to deal with pitching through his emotions at high volume. On the very next pitch, Cobb got the grounder he wanted in that situation, in order to erase the walk with a double play. Unfortunately for him, Brian Peacock's ground ball found the shortstop hole for a single.

Two pitches later, Negron sent a drive to deep center field. He got under it a touch, and there wasn't much doubt that Jesus Feliciano would catch it, which he did on the warning track. Rhinehart tagged up and advanced to third base, and this time—after a 390-foot out—Montoyo came back out and replaced Cobb with Gaub, in order to complete both the inning and a rhyme.

Runners on first and third, 4-1 Bulls, one out. Gaub, a left-hander, came on and started lefty Felix Perez with breaking balls. He got ahead 0-2, and then had to ride out four foul balls before he finally fanned Perez. Montoyo, indulging in a bit of situational managing, replaced Gaub with Dane De La Rosa to face the right-handed Phipps, who has plenty of power. De La Rosa got ahead of Phipps 0-2, just as Gaub had gotten ahead of Perez, but De La Rosa did it with fastballs. Two foul balls later, Phipps flied out to center field.

Another rally thwarted.

And then the guy who had caught the ball that started it all, ended it all. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Brandon Guyer (just activated from the disabled list) and Leslie Anderson singled. On a 1-0 count, Vogt lifted a fly ball to deep left that did the Bucky Dent thing, just clearing the wall for a Blue-Plate Monster special three-run homer. (I'm reminded that Vogt himself played the role of Carl Yastrzemski in virtually the same scenario late last season.)

A bit of controversy surrounded the homer—i.e. did it or did it not actually clear the wall before a fan caught it on the Tobacco Road Cafe terrace—but the umps ruled (correctly, in my view) that it was a homer.

That "put the game away," as Vogt put it later. De La Rosa tossed two more scoreless innings, striking out four batters, and Durham pulled even with Louisville in an (ahem) last-place tie in the International League. The Bulls trail South Division leader Gwinnett by nine games. That's a lot, but it's still early. Don't count them out just yet.

***

Just as there are some games that streamline down to an important inning or two, there are some postgame expeditions to the locker room that get right into the good stuff. Alex Cobb and Stephen Vogt are probably the two best guys on the team to talk to—with apologies to the players I haven't interviewed yet—in that they don't mind giving you their time, answer questions honestly and modestly and with good humor, and are able to speak articulately about the very complicated thing they do for a living.

Vogt struggled to open the season, first in Tampa, where he got only sporadic at-bats, and then with the Bulls, whom he joined on the road, in the midst of the instantly legendary 13-game losing streak that put them down in their last-place hole. Asked about the rather bizarre (and discombobulated ) start to his 2012 season—already in Durham to begin the Triple-A campaign, he was informed on Opening Day that he had made the major-league squad—Vogt replied that "on May 1, my wife and I woke up in the morning, and we were talking [about] what a crazy month that was," he said, referring to April.

"We drive up to Durham. Then, 48 hours later, we're both flying down to Florida"—with a six-month-old baby, he might have added. "Then three days later, I'm going on the road, and she's coming up to Boston." From there, the Rays (and Vogts) went on to Toronto, from where Vogt was reassigned to Durham.

"As soon as we leave Toronto, I know I'm coming down here [to Durham]. We had a day in Toronto to relax, but you don't have much time to relax when you're re-packing up everything. By the time we got our car here, it was May 1.

"I'm glad April's over," he concluded. "It was a whirlwind"—and also, he added, "it was a blast." And: "I hope it's not the last time."

Here is another opportunity, one which we arrive at now and then in the generally pitiless dissection of players that typifies sports beat-writing, to remind ourselves that the guys who suit up and play for our pleasure (and, sometimes, displeasure) are human beings. They have lives and wives. They need stability, sustenance and sleep, just like the rest of us do. This is not to chalk up Vogt's season to date solely to the external hindrances and hassles of April. He was batting .115 between Tampa Bay and Durham before last night's two-hit, three-run-homer outbreak. Still, it's worth keeping in mind that there is much more to how these players perform than what pitches they are thrown, or throw.

Speaking of that, it was enlightening to talk to Alex Cobb about the pitches he threw. He appeared to be throwing both a cutter and a split-changeup last night. One faded, the other ran to the glove-side. Turns out, as Cobb told us, both of those pitches are splitters. It's just that he sometimes cuts the splitter by keeping one of his fingers on it longer. Thus he had two versions of his changeup, and that allowed him to move the ball all around the plate while keeping hitters off-balance. I don't recall seeing much of that cut-splitter before. It's something to keep an eye on as the season progresses and Cobb, like Hellickson before him, tinkers with his repertoire in order to polish it for his inevitable next call to the major leagues.

(Surprising side-note of the night: You'd think Cobb and Vogt would have ample experience as a battery, but Vogt said after the game that this was the first time he had caught Cobb in an in-season game since 2008.)

(Also: Cobb and the Bats' Scott Carroll faced each other twice in an 11-game span in 2010, when both were in the Class AA Southern League. Carroll outpitched Cobb, who got a loss and a no-decision.)

A final thought from Stephen Vogt helps conclude the night. I asked him about Cobb's start late last month in Norfolk—his only bad one this year—where he coughed up eight hits and four walks in just four innings en route to a loss.

Vogt didn't dwell on it much. "During that 13-game [losing streak], you can just throw everything out, because..." And here he trailed off, as if to concede that such a terrible run is almost impossible to explain. He soon picked up another line of thought on the matter, but basically left the heart of it alone. Those 13 games constituted one of those horrible, demoralizing spells when everyone struggles—unaccountably, mysteriously. Everything seems to go wrong. You don't hit when you pitch well, and you pitch badly when you hit. And often you do neither one passably.

But when things turn around, they turn around quickly. The energy in the Bulls' clubhouse for the last few nights has been upbeat, light and cheerful. Vogt acknowledged, looking around the room, that everything is much more fun when you're winning. Durham has won four of its last five games.

Sometimes you simply have to be reminded of the simple joy of winning. Charlie Montoyo, for his part, is making sure that, no matter how far down his team may have gotten so far this season—it's been a whirlwind for him as well as Stephen Vogt—he won't forget what it feels like to win. A new addition to the bulletin board by his office chair appeared recently, and I noticed it for the first time last night. It's the lineup Montoyo wrote down by hand, as he does every day, for a ballgame dated September 22, 2009.

That's the day the Bulls played the Memphis Redbirds for the Triple-A National Championship. Durham won that game, as you probably know, to bring home the trophy. Montoyo and I reminisced briefly about that night, and I recalled that Mitch Talbot, of all people—a starter who had been on the disabled list virtually the whole year—wound up coming on in extra innings to get the win.

"I had him warming up in the bullpen," Montoyo said. I reminded Montoyo that in fact Talbot had not just warmed up but had actually pitched. "Did he pitch?" Montoyo replied, laughing. He couldn't remember. Nor did he recall the final score of the game, or exactly how the Bulls built a 4-0 lead that they squandered before winning in the 11th inning. (Ray Olmedo hit a pair of doubles, Sean Rodriguez cracked a solo homer, Jeremy Hellickson pitched well—and Jason Cromer and Joe Bateman gave the runs back in the span of a few outs. The Redbirds' John Jay and Allen Craig, whom you may remember from last year's World Series, hit sixth-inning home runs.)

It was delightful to discover that Montoyo, thinking back to perhaps the biggest win of his managerial career—which was not really all that long ago—could remember almost nothing about the actual game, save that Michel Hernandez had hit an important double in the game-winning 11th inning. The lineup sheet by his chair isn't there to bring back memories. More simply, and more purely spiritually, it's there to impart the feeling of winning to a leader who, although he has been deprived of it for most of this season so far, knows the feeling so well, so fully, and so thrillingly.

***

The Norfolk Tides come to Durham for a two-game mini-series Saturday and Sunday before the Bulls hit the road for eight games. This afternoon/evening at 5:05 p.m., Matt Torra, who nearly threw a no-hitter in his last start, faces the Tides' Jason Berken. Berken is one of countless Orioles pitching prospects who hasn't stuck in the big leagues, largely due to injuries (one of which may have resulted from overuse) and lesserly because newish manager Buck Showalter seems to have decided to turn him back into a starter after Berken was converted to a reliever in 2010. Oh, the O's...

R.I.P. Adam Yauch. He got more hits than Sadaharu Oh.

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