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Monday, May 7, 2012

Durham Bulls split doubleheader with Norfolk Tides: Risk and Reward

Posted by on Mon, May 7, 2012 at 6:00 AM

The Bulls Jesus Feliciano is congratulated by teammates in the dugout on May 6, 2012 at the DBAP.
  • Photo by Al Drago
  • The Bulls' Jesus Feliciano is congratulated by teammates in the dugout on May 6, 2012 at the DBAP.

DBAP/ DURHAM—Well, not technically a doubleheader. The first game was the resumption of Saturday's prematurely rain-halted affair, and picked up Sunday at 4:05 p.m. in the top of the third inning. The score to that point was 3-0, Norfolk, whose first three batters of the game had all reached and scored in the first inning off of Matt Torra: leadoff homer (Xavier Avery), single, walk, double.

The Tides went on to win, 5-2
, which essentially meant that the 3-0 beginning held fast and the rest of the game was sort of unnecessary, or in any case a wash—no better, really, than a washout. The Tides' Chris Tillman, who supplanted Saturday starter Jason Berken in the third inning, threw five shutout innings in long, long relief to quiet the Bulls. He allowed two runs in his sixth inning of work on a two-run double by Stephen Vogt, but by then Norfolk had added two runs.

Those runs thanks were courtesy of Alex Torres, who, in his new role as a reliever, struggled again. In a span of seven at-bats over two innings, Torres walked five men. He nearly escaped without a run scoring, but a pair of two-out hits in the top of the eighth plated two. Thus the Bulls merely got those two runs back in the bottom half of the inning, and lost by the margin the Tides had made a day earlier.

In retrospect, they could have skipped the Sunday remainder, which wound up determining the outcome. Also, the crowd at 4:00, which was tiny—after the Bulls P.A. played the cavalry bugle fanfare early on, a single, lonely voice cried out, "Charge!"—didn't officially exist. The fans in the stands were technically there for the second game, which didn't start until 7:00 p.m.; the Sunday-afternoon resumption of the Saturday game was, as the annals will show, played before the crowd of 6,220 that bought Saturday tickets and sat through the long rain delay before going home and, presumably, not returning Sunday. A Bulls official boasted that, because the game was being played before Saturday's no longer extant spectators, the DBAP was defying the laws of the space-time continuum; and the official scorer—whose duties include the official announcement of the attendance—said of the crowd assembled before us: "They are not here, watching last night's game."

In truth, there wasn't much to watch. Credit (or blame) for that is due Chris Tillman, whom we've seen at the DBAP numerous times during his three-year Triple-A trial. Tillman allowed seven hits in six innings, but he worked around those hits purposefully and kept the Bulls quiet. His fastball, which last year seemed to sit resolutely at a modest 89-91 mph, touched 95 a couple of times yesterday. It turns out that he plays possum with it a little bit, locating it more precisely (and much more often) at 88-90, and then at times rearing back and blazing it in there.

I must say, it's gratifying to watch Tillman evolve, even if it means a Bulls loss. Yes, he plays for a division rival, but the best way to be a Triple-A devotee is not to care about the fortunes of teams but rather of individual players. This level is all about aspiration and promise. Watching a pitcher like Tillman improve and mature is heartening. After all, when you see a guy for three or four straight seasons, no matter what uniform he's wearing, you can't help but get interested in how (or whether) he develops.

It was the second game of yesterday's not-quite-a-doubleheader that offered a little more excitement and brain food. It also suggested the topic of this post.

Let me go back by first skipping forward. After the Bulls won the second game—for which assembled a much healthier crowd of 7,754—2-1, in seven regulation innings as per league rules for doubleheaders, I left the DBAP and within a few blocks came upon a live rock show taking place outdoors, in the rear parking lot of the Pinhook on Ramseur Street. On closer inspection, the concert quickly revealed itself to be a rally for foes of Amendment One, the legislation that would ban gay unions in North Carolina if it passes.

As I approached, the band was just finishing up a song. When it was over, the lead singer/guitarist called the drummer up to the front of the stage to speak to the rather large crowd. It was then that I realized that the lead singer was Amy Ray, of Indigo Girls fame, and the drummer was Melissa York of the Butchies, Ray's current backing band.

York gave an impassioned and affecting speech. What struck the hardest was when she talked about how she keeps power-of-attorney papers in her car at all times, so that if she has to take her young child to the hospital, she can prove the child is hers. Her rights as a parent, she said, aren't safe in our legal environment: "Amendment One will hurt a lot of people."

It will, in other words, put a lot of people at risk, including children, and those people are not the ones in favor of the legislation. It occurred to me that in fact Amy Ray and the Butchies were putting themselves at a fair a mount of risk simply by taking the stage outside, as Wicked theatergoers streamed out of DPAC and gawked at the political-entertainment spectacle, whose performers were exposed under the lights and amplified. Simply to be gay and in public is to be in potential danger, both physical and legal.

The reward for the risk taken, of course, is rights. It is bracing to be reminded that the rights most of us take for granted are not really granted everyone, and that every right we have in this country was fought for, bloodily, wrested from what the Declaration of Independence called "a history of repeated injuries and usurpations" at the hands of a tyrannical power.

We can often get what we desire with hard work, but we cannot earn what is truly precious to us without risk. Without it, we accomplish nothing, make nothing, change nothing of importance. Failure to take a risk is worse, infinitely worse, than the failure of taking none at all.

The Amy Ray rally concert only amplified, literally, what had already been on my mind while I was watching the Bulls eke out their win and salvage a split of the doubleheader as well as the entire 10-game home stand.

Sports—and of course love and war—is risk. All is fair, all things may be equal; thus one must at times tilt the level playing field. We watch sports partially because athletes take the chances we are generally too timid for in our own lives.

In baseball, these risks can be harder to find than in other sports. The game is strictly regulated in its design, action and strategy. It doesn't allow for much free-styling or improvisation, and it is arranged and played to minimize risk—it's a game of hedging. It's no surprise that it is also, as most players will tell you, a game of failure, just like life. As Bulls Charlie Montoyo put it after the game, if you go 3-10 your whole career, you're a Hall of Famer.

The narrow difference in yesterday's outcome was to a strong degree simply the risk/reward balance for each team. There were a few isolated moments of chance that determined who won.

In the top of the third inning, Tides catcher Allan De San Miguel—who was a) just promoted from Double-A and playing his first game as a Norfolk Tide, and b) born in (and a resident of) Perth, Australia (!)—led off with a sinking liner to left field. Bulls left fielder Jeff Salazar ran in and over. He could have played it for a single, but instead went fully horizontal and made a superb diving catch just inches above the grass. One out.

If Salazar hadn't made the catch, De San Miguel may very well have ended up on second base. Instead, the next batter, Xavier Avery, walked with the bases empty.

Avery is fast, fast, fast, and there was every reason to suspect he would try to swipe second base. After Blake Davis popped out, Bulls starter Lance Pendleton bounced a pitch that catcher Craig Albernaz deflected up the third base line, in foul territory. It didn't go far from him, but it was far enough for the speedy Avery to sprint for second. Albernaz, who is a nimble catcher, sprang up and chased down the wild pitch, and then made a laser-guided throw to second base, knee-high, and Avery was out by a whisker.

It was a risky play by Avery, but not an unwise one. Probably at least seven out of 10 times, he'll beat the throw (because the catcher will not be quick and agile enough to get to the ball in time) or the throw will be offline and he will slide in safely. Instead, this was one of the few times when the catcher not only retrieved the ball quickly but made a strong and accurate throw.

Thus, twice in one inning, the Bulls kept a Tide from reaching scoring position: once by taking a risk that paid off (Salazar), and once by gunning down a risk-taking Norfolk player.

Appropriately enough, not long after his catch in left field, Salazar led off the bottom of the inning with a single. He was sacrificed to second and advanced to third on a wild pitch, succeeding in taking the extra base after Avery had not. Cole Figueroa followed with a sacrifice fly to score the game's first run. A couple of innings later, Reid Brignac made a difficult play on a grounder up the middle with a runner on second to quell another threat—he might have simply pocketed the ball rather than try the throw, enabling an infield (but not run-scoring) single, but he chose to make the tough throw and risk heaving the off-balance toss into the dugout. It paid off: he got the out.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, Matt Mangini hit his first home run of the season, an opposite-field drive that just barely cleared the wall in left-center field. It was the Bulls second hit of the game—Salazar's single had been the first—and their last. This light-hitting club had little room last night for waste or failure, and they really needed to win the game and avoid a losing home stand. "That win made that home stand a good home stand," was the first thing Charlie Montoyo said afterward.

Montoyo risked more while engaging in some situational matchup managing of his relief staff. Montoyo also played matchmaker on Friday night. This new tactical wrinkle is something that the expanded 2012 roster—which now permits 25 players rather than the previous 24—allows Montoyo to play around with more freely. In past years, it seemed he was always dealing with a shortage of bullpen arms—often, guys were called on to pitch only because there was no one else to do it. This year, Montoyo nearly always has multiple, rested options. (It's like he's been given new toys, two of which are even left-handed this year.)

Southpaw John Gaub retired a pair of lefties to start the sixth inning, and then Montoyo brought in Ryan Reid—not, it should be noted, Dane De La Rosa or Josh Lueke, both of whom would seem to rank higher than Reid (mainly a middle- and long relief guy, even a spot-starter) on the late-inning, high-leverage depth chart of relievers. De La Rosa and Lueke are on Tampa Bay's 40-man roster and both have been with the big-league club this season.

Both were fresh, too, but Montoyo went with Reid, who struck out Jamie Hoffman to end the inning. I thought Montoyo might go to De La Rosa to close the game to begin the seventh (which, to repeat, was the final inning of the doubleheader-shortened game), but Reid came back out with no one warming in the bullpen.

"Cesar Ramos got called up, who was our closer," Montoyo explained later. Ramos had swapped places with Brandon Gomes who, after throwing two innings in extras for Tampa on Saturday, was optioned back to Durham. As a consequence, until Gomes arrives, "I don't really have a closer," Montoyo said, which reveals something about the status of De La Rosa and Lueke vis-a-vis closing duties. "We go with the hot hand," Montoyo declared. Reid had not allowed a run in his last five appearances, spanning 12 1/3 innings.

But he had also never saved a game in Triple-A, so running him back up the wire, without the safety net of someone warming in the bullpen, was risky. Sure enough, Bill Hall hit an infield single—Brignac couldn't quite handle this tough grounder—and Joe Mahoney followed with a shot to deep right field that came within a foot or two of clearing the wall for a game-tying two-run home run. Instead, it hit the top of the wall. Just as Louisville's Mike Costanzo had to settle for a long, loud single of the right-field wall on Friday night, so, too, did Mahoney.

Still, runners were on the corners with no one out, the go-ahead run was coming to the plate, and now De La Rosa did indeed rise and start getting loose in the bullpen.

The next batter, Chris Robinson, also singled to right field. Hall scored from third to make it 2-1. On the play, Mahoney took the game's final, and fatal, risk: he tried to go from first to third on Robinson's hit. Making the first (or third) out of an inning at third base is one of baseball's cardinal taboos—one of many no-no's that help eliminate risk with almost scriptural authority—so Mahoney must have either been entirely reckless or quite, quite sure that he would make it.

In many instances, he would have. But Jesus Feliciano, who seems to have a knack for late-inning heroics, fielded the ball and threw a perfect strike, on the fly, to Matt Mangini at third base, and Mahoney was out. If you were tracking win probability, at this moment it surely plunged for Norfolk. Instead of men on first and second and no outs, there was a man on first and one out.

Speedster Antoan Richardson came in and pinch-ran for Robinson. Ryan Adams struck out for the second out, but Reid walked Jai Miller. Had Mahoney played it safe, the bases would now have been loaded with one out and Norfolk trailing by a run.

And here is where Charlie Montoyo put an end to his risk-taking by bringing in De La Rosa, the tried and the true, although Montoyo didn't exactly shout from the mountaintop with confidence about the move: "De La Rosa has done it before, anyways," he said with a kind of tonal shrug. "He did it last year." Nonetheless, after running the count full, De La Rosa struck out Allan De San Miguel—sorry, Sandgroper!—and got himself a one-out save.

***

The win raised the Bulls' record to 11-20 and lifted them out of last place in the International League. Two teams, Louisville and Syracuse, are worse, and Norfolk is just two games better at 12-17. In other words, the Bulls just played six games against two of the four worst teams in the league, and their next four will be against a third, the Chiefs, up in Syracuse tonight. The Bulls, of course, are the fourth. Will they dwell among the lowly all season, or find a way to raise themselves up out of the darkness and into the daylight of the winning? And how much will they have to risk in order to get there?

In the spirit of tonight's theme, I had toyed with ABBA's "Take a Chance On Me" and Roxy Music's "Take A Chance With Me," both great songs of their own type. But instead I will leave you with the song with which Amy Ray and the Butchies closed out their rally concert last night, a rousing protest anthem in memory of Matthew Shepard. "Laramie": "What we need is a little addition / Ounce of prevention and the weight of a law."

Vote no on this one.

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