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Monday, July 23, 2012

Durham Bulls split doubleheader with Rochester Red Wings: flash forward, same shot

Posted by on Mon, Jul 23, 2012 at 6:00 AM

The Durham Bulls Stephen Vogt.

DBAP/ DURHAM—Henry Wrigley's RBI single in the bottom of the seventh inning—which in a minor-league doubleheader is the last—broke a 3-3 tie to give the Durham Bulls a 4-3 win over the Rochester Red Wings and a split of their twi-night doubleheader on Sunday.

The Red Wings took the first game, 5-1, behind the starting pitching of Jeff Manship, who has been pitching for Rochester for parts of the last four seasons (and goes back in Bulls' lore at least as far as this game story from 2010). His name also provides levity, along with Reid Brignac's and many others', including former Bull Mitch Talbot, in this piece of what's-in-a-name drollery from Baseball Nation superstar writer Grant Brisbee. Enjoy.

A split is about what you would expect from these two teams. The Red Wings are an exactly .500 team (51-51). The Bulls are 47-56 but were playing at home. They lost meekly in the first game, and squandered a lead in the second before Wrigley's late game-winner.

Around the All-Star break, which was not so long ago, it was as if the Bulls looked up from their cud-chewing and discovered, Hey, you know what? We're actually not out of contention even though we lost 13 straight games back in April and ruined the season before it even started. Durham went into the break only (or "only") seven games behind front-running Charlotte, and as it happened their first four games after play resumed were at Charlotte. A sweep of the Knights would put the Bulls right into the thick of the South Division title race.

But instead it was the Knights who swept the Bulls, sometimes in painful ways, and that really did put the Durham Bulls out of contention for good, no matter what anyone might try to tell you to the contrary. Before Wrigley's single won the nightcap on Sunday, Durham was 3-9 over its last 12 games. Even with the salvage of the doubleheader, the team is 12 games out of first place (a season high, I believe) with 41 left to play. If the Knights play around .500 ball from here on out, the Bulls would likely have to go 33-8 in order to overtake them. That is not going to happen.

It's not going to happen for the same reason it was not happening two months ago, the last time I saw a Bulls game before I saw two on Sunday (now that's making up for lost time!): pitching. Pitching, pitching, pitching. Durham's is the worst in the league, and has been nearly all year. The hitting has improved, but it hasn't made up for a dismal starting rotation. The lowest ERA among the eight guys who have been what you would call starting pitchers this year—that includes Matt Buschmann, who made two starts, Bisquick-style, in June—is Lance Pendleton's 4.10. (Alex Cobb's was 4.14 before he headed to Tampa Bay.) Alex Torres's ERA is 6.79 and he has walked almost a batter per inning. Double-A patch Shane Dyer made eight starts and was sent back down to Montgomery with a 7.34 Triple-A ERA. Indy-league rebuild Jim Paduch, who lost last night's first game—rather unjustly, to be fair—has a 5.27 ERA.

Chris Archer belongs on that list of underachievers, too, having posted a 4.64 ERA, also, like Torres, with the copious walks (50 in 85 1/3 innings). He has recently missed a little time with an oblique strain, and made his first appearance since the injury last night. He seemed to look just fine, physically, starting Game Two and getting near his Rays-imposed 45-pitch limit in 2 2/3 innings. Archer allowed one run on four hits. His control was good, he gave up a few hard-hit balls, dialed up a 97-mph fastball; but there's no point in drawing any conclusions from such a short appearance. Suffice it to say: Archer is going to be pitching in the major leagues, probably permanently, very soon, and all he's doing right now is learning how to harness his prodigious natural abilities. He has a high-90s fastball, a very good slider, and a perfectly decent curve and change. He's 23 years old, very intelligent. Now it may be that he turns into a left-handed David Price or just, I don't know, Edwin Jackson—with whom he has much in common—but Archer is a certain big-leaguer-to-be.

And as such, he is the only pitcher on the roster worth paying much attention to, now that the Bulls' season is effectively over. The rest are fillers, triers, strivers and strugglers. Yes, there is the ongoing bullpen subplot about almosts like Dane De La Rosa and Brandon Gomes—although, frankly, last night Double-A newcomer lefty Frank De Los Santos looked more promising than either of them—and there is the totally weird Whatever Happened to Alex Torres? melodrama. But basically, the staff has exactly one pitcher of interest, and until Archer is cleared to throw 100-ish pitches in a game, he can't be fairly assessed.

The hitting can—or anyway, it's easier to understand what's going on there. Henry Wrigley is making the most of his first-ever Triple-A trial, hitting an astonishing .341 (his lifetime average over 600 minor-league games prior to 2012 was .255). Now Wrigley's current clip is to a significant degree a huge fluke of BABIP—among players with 200+ plate appearances, he leads the league with a .401 BABIP, which is 100 points higher than the general average. But talking to him last night, it was clear that this unlikely stat was not entirely the result of luck. Wrigley's game-winning hit came on a slider from Red Wings reliever Lester Oliveros, and as Wrigley later observed in an interview, Rochester pitchers had been throwing him sliders all night long. He was ready for more of them. With speedy Rich Thompson on second base, Wrigley took Oliveros's outside slider through the right side, and watched Thompson dash home and beat the throw from former Bull Matt Carson—"the best arm in this league," Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo later said—by a hair. (The Red Wings' catcher protested the call, although replays showed that Thompson was safe.)

That play made a winner of Bryan Augenstein, who had been struggling, having allowed 11 runs in his last 18 1/3 innings pitched. Augenstein threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings last night. The one hit he allowed tied the game, but it was a ground-ball single, and Augenstein is a ground-ball specialist—it was the at-bat result he wanted, even though its outcome was not. He deserved the win.

Along with Wrigley, Leslie Anderson and Stephen Vogt have been shouldering the hitting load for the Bulls for much of the season. Fittingly, it was Anderson's three-run homer that gave the Bulls an early lead in the second game last night (he also flied out to the right field wall), and Vogt smashed a homer on an 0-2 pitch—a good one—to give the Bulls their only Game One run—he also walloped a double to left-center field. Vogt had a bizarre and difficult start to the season. Pretty much on Opening Day, having already been assigned to Durham, he was informed that, on second thought, he had made the Rays' roster after all (he beat out Jeff Salazar, who has since been released). He barely played for Joe Maddon, went 0-13 in spot duty, and was sent down to Durham. Weeks later, he was recalled for a few more days, again barely played, and returned to Triple-A again. On May 31, just after the second demotion, he was batting .213 with a very weak .537 OPS.

Since then, Vogt has been a beast, batting .360 and increasing his slugging percentage by more than 200 points. He acknowledged that the early-season weirdness—Tampa, Durham, Tampa, Durham; no rhythm; limited at-bats—was an issue, but did not want to blame it all on that. Still, it's hard not to think that all Vogt needed was regular playing time somewhere. He is a plainspoken, hardworking, pleasant guy who can play three positions, and I hope he gets another chance, with the Rays or another team, to prove himself in the big leagues.

Will the same happen to Leslie Anderson? In the final year of his contract (according to a Bulls official), he's making people reconsider him. Anderson has been remarkably consistent, his batting average having been between .307 and .317 since May 31. The homer he hit last night was against a lefty (Red Wings' soft-tosser Luke French, who goes back even further than Jeff Manship versus Durham, and whose weak-ass 78-mph offering Anderson belted over the wall in right). He no longer looks overmatched by southpaws with good breaking balls. It's still doubtful that Anderson's a major-leaguer, especially given his rather indifferent fielding habits, but at least he's trying to turn that corner—and, not incidentally, to make himself attractive to other teams when his tenure with Tampa Bay ends, as it almost surely will, as soon as his contract expires.

A little bit about the first game, largely in the interest of coming to Jim Paduch's defense. Speaking of defense, it let him down terribly. Paduch pitched a seven-inning complete game, and although he was far from awesome (eight hits, some of them ropes), he should have had only one run charged to his record. But a Tim Beckham fielding error cost him one run in the second inning, and then a play in the fifth inning added three more.

That play was, to a degree, augured by a harmless one that went down in the third inning. There two outs and runners on the corners when Danny Valencia hit a routine grounder to third base. Will Rhymes fielded it and, apparently thinking there was only one out (I guess?), threw home rather than take the easy force at first base. Rochester's Tsuyoshi Nishioka made this interesting, darting back toward third base and initiating a rundown, which Vogt (catching) and Rhymes completed, ending the inning, 5-2-5. But it was a needless waste of energy, and a dereliction of duty on Rhymes's part—the correct play was to first base.

Two innings later, there were two outs and a man on second base for Matt Carson, who stroked a single to left field. It was too shallow to score the runner, who held at third as the throw came in to that base. Rhymes, this time quite alert, saw Carson straying too far from first base; maybe he thought Pedro Florimon would be waved home and thus thought to cheat toward second a bit. Rhymes fired to first base. Brandon Allen received, and Carson was caught in another rundown. Florimon broke for home (a good idea in this circumstance) and Allen, recognizing the need to change tacks and keep Florimon from scoring, made a throw home that was a little soft and a little off-target—not very soft, and not far off-target, but enough of both—and Florimon slid in safely.

That made the score 3-1, Rochester, and Clete Thomas (yet another longtime Bulls opponent) destroyed Paduch's next pitch, launching a Dan Johnson-like homer deep into the right-center field bleachers.

5-1, game over.

Here's one way you can tell good teams from bad ones. Both the best and the worst are going to lose more than 50 games a year, which is actually kind of a lot. The difference: When good teams lose, they usually still look like good teams. They happen to run into an ace starter, or they have a late bullpen collapse, something like that. When bad teams lose, they look bad doing it, and the Bulls looked bad last night in losing the first game of the doubleheader. Then they choked on a 3-0 lead in the second game and needed zero-hour heroics and a game-of-inches break to pull it out.

Again, this is unlikely to change. There are no stud prospects on their way from Montgomery—no Matt Moore, no Desmond Jennings, no Jake McGee, to name a few from recent years. (Hey, have you noticed how well McGee is doing this year for Tampa Bay?) Alex Torres is not, probably, going to remember that he was a top prospect to start the year and start to pitch like one. Henry Wrigley won't keep hitting .451, as he has done since June 28. Alex Cobb isn't coming back. The Bulls stand a good chance of finishing last in their division.

It's easy to say, as I often have done these last four years, that one oughtn't put too much stock in wins at the Triple-A level—easy because the Bulls have been winning, winning, winning, year in and year out, and so worrying about their success hasn't been necessary: we haven't had to put any stock in wins because the dividends have been overflowing, leading to a kind of over-confidence bred from uninterrupted success. Of course you don't have to think about winning-versus-losing when winning is practically all your team does. You can afford to lose a few here and there. Tomorrow Jeremy Hellickson is pitching. Russ Canzler is going to be the league MVP. The Bulls are headed back the playoffs, yet again.

Now is the challenge. No Hellickson, no Canzler, no playoffs. How long can you keep rooting for a bad Bulls team? All the way through August? Until their mathematical elimination? With that inevitability looming, can you revel in what successes its players have, game by game, indifferent to win-loss results? Can you applaud Jim Paduch's good work last night even though his fielders helped him along to a hard-luck loss? (Well, he has caused his fair share of losses, too.) Throw your rooting weight behind Stephen Vogt as he tries to hack his way, against the odds, back to the majors, probably with another team? Keep the faith for Reid Brignac, a major-league glove with a minor-league bat?

Or maybe you have been doing that sort of faith-keeping all season, ever since the Bulls' now fatal 13-game losing streak way back around Easter time. The only difference is that, for me, gone these last two months, the Bulls are unchanged from when I left them, a clean and quick flash-forward from May-bad to July-bad; for you, perhaps, the road has been long and hot, has gone up and gone down, day by day, and has had hope and high spirits as well as failures. May the hope continue, no matter the Bulls' overall fortunes, and may we keep watching them with clear and bright eyes.

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