The Durham Bulls return home tonight, after a 4-4 road trip to upstate New York, to start their second 10-game home stand of the season. At 7:05 p.m., they take on the IL North Division leaders, the Pawtucket Red Sox. It's the first game of the teams' annual four-game series at the DBAP.
The Bulls are 15-24, still in last place in the IL South Division, 9.5 games behind Gwinnett. That is a deep hole to be in, and the Bulls have been in it for most of the last two weeks despite having played better recently. After a catastrophic 13-game losing streak dropped their record to 6-18 before April was even over, Durham has gone 9-7 since. That is by no means great, but it computes to a respectable .563 winning percentage. Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo occasionally talks about "playing for something in August"—i.e. a playoff berth—and if you go 9-7 every 16 games you play, you'll find yourself in contention in the last month of the season. The question is whether the Bulls' early-season stagger will have ultimately been the thing that kept them from reaching the post-season.
Certainly there is precedent for a comeback. Although last place and a 9.5-game deficit seem prohibitive, recall that the Louisville Bats were nine games out of first place, 13 games below .500, in July of 2010 before storming back to win the IL West Division. It's certainly true that that team had more upper-level prospects than this year's Bulls can boast, but in the volatile environment of Triple-A, where rosters change daily and fortune follows, there's hope for the Bulls. They may not, in the end, have the horses they need to overtake the front-runners, but the jockey, Montoyo, won't quit—he has gotten the Bulls to the playoffs for five straight years, often with dodgy personnel.
That personnel is about to improve by a quantum measure. Sportsfans, I give you Hideki Matsui,
Yesterday evening, the RailHawks fared far better at the comparatively cosy confines of NSC Stadium in Blaine, Minn. Carolina was more effective in possession, attack and defense … and lost the rematch 2-1 to remain winless for the 2012 season.
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.
“I’ve got to look at some things and make some decisions,” Clarke promised.
After presumably taking a look at some things, Clarke’s first decision was to submit the same starting lineup for Sunday afternoon’s bottom bowl at also-winless FC Edmonton. The result, expectantly, was also the same: Shaun Saiko notched a second-half hat trick to propel Edmonton to a 3-0 victory, the Eddies’ first of the season.
Meanwhile, the RailHawks (0-4-3, 4 points) drop to the bottom of the NASL table, despite having completed two more games than all but a couple of other league clubs.
Durham/DBAP—The first pitch for yesterday’s game between the Durham Bulls and the Norfolk Tides was scheduled for 5:05pm. On my way to the game I stopped by a friend’s house in Old West Durham. At 4:30 I left for the game and made it only two blocks toward DBAP before buckets of rain came washing down. Sitting at a stop sign near Locopops on Hillsborough Road, I emailed Bull’s Media Relations Coordinator, Zach Weber, and asked him if he had an estimate on a new first pitch time (Bulls’ groundskeeper Scott Strickland is by necessity a functional meteorologist). Zach responded immediately, saying, “It’s going to be a while, this storm is big.” He promised to email me and other members of the media when there was news of a first pitch.
I texted my friend two blocks behind me and asked if I could return and bide some time at her house (I live in Chapel Hill) while I waited out the rain delay. But we decided to go to Geer Street Garden instead. The restaurant was celebrating its one-year anniversary yesterday, as well as Cinco de Mayo. Regular customers were given cards to redeem for a free plate of barbecue and one-cent draft beers.
Owner Andy Magowan opened Geer Street on the corner of Geer and Foster streets, one block from the legendary Durham Athletic Park, which opened in 1926 and, of course, stands preserved. In only a year Geer Street has become an old favorite for a variety of patrons.
Sitting at the bar, I turned my tape recorder (normally aimed at Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo and players on game day) asked Andy to reflect on the restaurant’s first year.
AM: It’s been a wonderful first year. I appreciate how everyone has responded. My goal was create a convivial place where everybody could feel normal. I think a lot of restaurants are trying to make customers feel special. I like places that make me feel relaxed and normal, where you don’t feel like you have to measure up to any kind of standard, but where the food and drink is of a high quality. I had a suspicion that other people wanted that, too. This place fits me exactly. It’s nice to have an idea that others seem to appreciate very much. With today’s offer of free barbecue and beer to regular customers, I wanted to show my appreciation.
I asked Andy how he found this spot.
AM: It was a filling station, Fletcher’s Gulf, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After they stopped selling gas they sold beer. There were some guys washing cars in the back. Around 2010 I would drive by here and I’d think, “That building would make a really cool café or beer garden. It worked out.”
We then asked Andy about his background before he entered the restaurant business:
AM: I came down here from Buffalo, New York to go to college at UNC in 1991. I majored in film production, beer, and rock and roll. I played bass in a band called June. Now I play keyboards in a band called D-Town Brass, which is my mid-life crisis band. We play – I might call it - psychedelic jungle jazz funk. I don’t know; it’s weird mix of whatever. It’s very dissonant, but very rhythmic. It’s a lot of fun.
Andy returned to work and my friend and I resumed our conversation at the bar, which was tended by the restaurant’s regular staff, at least two of whom moved to Durham from Portland, Oregon. At a corner table, a couple sat quietly together, reading. The man had “City of Quartz” by the urban theorist and activist, Mike Davis, and the woman, “The Portable Atheist” by Christopher Hitchens. It was unclear whether they brought the books into Geer Street or picked them off the public bookshelves near their table.
Around 7:30pm Zach Weber’s email indicated that the new first pitch would be at 8pm. The rain had only slowed, not stopped, but the field would be playable. Last August, Scott Strickland had described to me the state-of-the-art drainage system underneath the DBAP playing surface. Rain had fallen hard for three hours, and it was still raining, but the field could sustain more than that.
The first pitch by Bulls’ right-handed starter Matt Torra to Tides’ centerfielder Xavier Avery was at 8:01pm. It was a called strike. Avery hit Torra’s second pitch six rows deep into the rightfield stands for a solo home run. The next three Tides also reached base capped by DH Bill Hall’s two-run double off the wall in left-centerfield. With rain still falling, the Bulls were down 3-0 at the end of a half inning.
An inning and a half later the rain poured down harder than it had all afternoon and evening. The game was suspended. I jogged from the DBAP to my car in the parking lot behind Whiskey and Toast on Main Street. I was drenched. By the time I made it back to Chapel Hill my car seat was soaked. Memo to self: Next time you cover a rain-delayed game, don’t leave your umbrella in the car.
The game will be resumed today at 4:05 pm at DBAP, followed by a second game.
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.
DBAP/Durham—Before I report on last night’s game between the Durham Bulls and the Louisville Bats, I want to mention that two days ago, on May 2, the AAA Bulls drew 9356 fans to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park while their parent, the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that has won more games than any team in MLB since 2008 and is off to a strong start in 2012, drew a mere 9837 fans to Tropicana Field for a game versus the Seattle Mariners.
The impressive utility man, Will Rhymes, called up from Durham to the MLB squad on Tuesday, could have played for the same number of fans had he stayed in Durham for Wednesday’s game. But, of course, his salary and per diem would have paled.
Granted, there is a big difference in ticket prices (not to mention sprawling traffic around Tampa/St. Pete compared to Raleigh-Durham). I looked at the two team’s websites for games tonight/Friday in the respective ballparks. Here is what it costs to see these two teams play:
One box seat at Tropicana Field will cost you $255 for tonight’s game against the Oakland A’s. In Durham tonight, a similar seat will cost you $23.99. The lowest priced ticket at the Trop is $12. In Durham it’s $6.99.
Enough of that. Enough of my thought that the Rays should switch places with Bulls and the Bulls should become the MLB team while the Rays be the AAA team playing out of Port Charlotte.
Inspired by the savory aromas, the RailHawks served an offensive feast for the 2,718 fans who ventured out for the midweek match. Unfortunately, Carolina’s rancid defense whipped up another unpalatable course, twice surrendering two-goal leads in the second half en route to a disappointing 3-3 draw, extending the club's season-opening winless streak to six games.
Nick Zimmerman notched a brace to give him four goals on the year, second-most in the NASL, while Brian Shriver scored his third goal of 2012. For the season, Zimmerman and Shriver account for seven of Carolina’s nine goals.
On the other hand, Carolina have now allowed a league-worst 12 goals and a flabbergasting 85 shots in six games. And as in the 4-4 draw with Atlanta on April 14, Carolina failed to hold a two-goal lead at home against a team they dominated for long stretches of the match.
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.
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.