"Actually, don't ask Neil": Gwinnett Braves rally, outscore Jeff Niemann and Durham Bulls in 11 innings | Sports
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Monday, August 20, 2012

"Actually, don't ask Neil": Gwinnett Braves rally, outscore Jeff Niemann and Durham Bulls in 11 innings

Posted by on Mon, Aug 20, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM—"Play the game the right way," goes the crusty old baseball saying, and so it ought to be written about the right way, too. On Sunday afternoon, the Durham Bulls tweeted a link to the video of the scintillating 3-6-1 double play turned on Saturday by Henry Wrigley, Tim Beckham and Jim Paduch. In my game story, I expressed doubt that Beckham actually had his foot on second base when he caught Wrigley's throw. Beckham was was several feet away from the bag when he made his relay throw to first base.

But you know what? Watching the replay multiple times, slowing it down and freezing the frames, I discovered that Beckham did indeed catch Wrigley's throw while touching second base with his foot. He timed his arrival there so that his momentum, upon catching the ball, would let him half-leap toward the outfield, out of the way of the charging baserunner, and enable him to make an unobstructed throw to first. Hell of a play by all three fielders, especially Beckham. My bad.

I bring this up not only to right a wrong, mine, and not merely to recount what few bright spots shine for the Durham Bulls, mid-August, 2012. I also want to lead with Tim Beckham, because Beckham is by far the most interesting Durham Bull this season, with a knack for finding/putting himself in the thick of things. In Durham's 13-10, 11-inning loss to Gwinnett on Sunday, wherever the action was, he seemed close to it.

On Saturday, the Bulls lost despite the highlight-reel double play. The game was decided during a disastrous (for the Bulls) fifth inning during which Durham reliever Josh Lueke allowed eight straight batters to reach base safely. Remember that detail.

Sunday's game was played under a heavy, gray, low-barometer sky and a fair amount of rain and drizzle. I was actually cold after the sun set. This game, too, seemed like it would be decided early, but in the Bulls' favor. In a stretch of the bottom of the third inning, six of eight batters reached against Gwinnett's Julio Teheran, who is in total free-fall after coming into the season rated the Braves' top prospect. It was 7-3, Bulls, by the time Teheran was lifted for a reliever, and at that juncture I was thinking what a difference a day makes. Sure, the Bulls aren't a quality team this year, but baseball's incessant dailiness has a refreshing eraser effect. The Bulls, behind rehabbing Rays starter Jeff Niemann, were going to ride their seven early runs and their big-league guest star to victory.

They tried to hand the game to Gwinnett, as Niemann and piggyback "starter" Matt Torra let in six runs over seven innings, including Torra's league-leading 23rd home run allowed. But Gwinnett kept handing it back. It was 7-4, then 8-4, then 9-4, 9-6, and so on. After seven innings, the margin was again four runs, as it had been in the third, 10-6. Lefty reliever Frank De Los Santos, who has pitched his way onto the Tampa Bay Rays' bullpen radar, was going to pitch the eighth for Durham, and Dane De La Rosa, tied for fourth in the league in saves, was lined up for the ninth.

Except Gwinnett scored four runs in the eighth to tie the game.

Many years later, as he faced the Braves' firing squad, Colonel Josh Lueke was to remember that distant afternoon when... I mean, Josh Lueke, 11th inning, hours later, extends opponent on-base streak to 12, takes loss, shoulder back on ice. Like the poet said yesterday, if it weren't for bad Lueke, the Bulls would have no Lueke at all.

The Bulls are now tied with Gwinnett for last place in the IL South Division.

But let's get back to Tim Beckham.

He played second base and made two fine plays. The first was a diving stop well out on the outfield grass and way over towards first base, and he sprang to his feet and threw out Josh Kroeger. The second was a nimble catch-and-tag on Jose Constanza on a stolen base attempt, slapping the glove down, almost behind his own back, on the speedy Constanza and thereby converting catcher Chris Gimenez's off-target throw. Beckham nearly made another diving catch of a grounder that had gone so far through the first base hole I had already looked down to my scorecard to notate a single (for Kroeger, again—the guy is a pull-hitting freak).

There's been all kinds of talk in scout world about how Beckham doesn't have the {something} for shortstop—range? footwork? vibrato?—which is his natural position. He should, critics opine, be moved to the outfield in an Alfonso Soriano-like switch. (In fact there's something kind of Soriano-like about Beckham generally, it seems to me, although I can't quite put my finger on what it is or how to describe it.)

But what about second base? He seems comfortable there. He gets into that first base hole and makes diving stops, or gets near balls that no one ever gets near. He's nimble on the double-play pivot.

But also, he botched a pretty easy grounder to lead off the top of the eighth inning. Five batters later, Stefan Gartrell hit an opposite-field, foul-pole-dinging three-run homer off of Frank De Los Santos—more on that later—four unearned runs were in, and the score was tied 10-10.

But then he made that tag on Constanza in the 10th inning. But then, too, in the same inning, Kroeger spanked yet another grounder to the right side, this one more or less right at Beckham, and instead of getting his body behind the bounding ball, as little-leaguers are taught to do, Beckham sidestepped it and made a difficult backhanded grab, throwing Kroeger out, but with poor form.

At the plate? Dial it back to the second inning, Beckham's first at-bat. Julio Teheran had been cracked open for two first-inning runs, but opened the second by striking out Reid Brignac, finally overmatching him with a fastball. He then started Beckham off with his hardest pitch of the night—94 mph—and Beckham reached down for it (he likes the ball down, as Soriano does) and walloped it onto the grassy knoll just left of dead center field for a 400-foot home run. He hit a git-R-done sacrifice fly in the third, had a mature nine-pitch at-bat in the fifth that resulted in a well-struck, broken-bat base hit, and worked a walk in the seventh inning. He also lined out hard to end the eighth, nearly knocking out the teeth of Gwinnett third baseman Rusty Ryal. (With a name like that, he should be a country star: "Tallahassee, are you ready to get Ryaled up? How about a warm Sunshine State welcome for..." [etc.])

Beckham is just generally all up on your radar. When he plays shortstop, he's the guy chasing down balls in the left-field bullpen before Leslie Anderson gets to them. His walkup music last year was a boastful song called "I Put on A Show." He makes great plays and gawky ones. He has mature at-bats and lame ones. He gets suspended 50 games for enjoying the drugs. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft and is never going to hear the end of it—like it's his fault, somehow, that Tampa Bay didn't take Gerald Posey (yeah, that's right, Gerald), or Eric Hosmer, or Pedro Alvarez.

Tim Beckham is 22 years old. You want to call him a bust? Go ahead. He's not done. As I was saying yesterday, I think he could use some really aggressive mentoring. Maybe Omar Vizquel and his .225 wOBA will finally goddamn retire and the Rays can hire him to "learn me everything he knows," as Yogi Berra once said of his Yankee catching predecessor, Bill Dickey. Beckham is a flashpoint player who has all the flash and mostly needs pointers, pointed teaching, and pointing in the right direction.

***

Felicitous, that passing by the name of the Pirates' Pedro Alvarez above, because it was Alvarez who, Sunday afternoon, hit a tie-breaking solo home run in the, um, 19th inning, giving Pittsburgh a win over St. Louis that took 6:07 to play. Well, is that not the length you'd expect of a 19-inning game? And it was an appropriate coincidence, too, to find myself sitting at the DBAP yesterday next to a fellow named Sean, who is one of the coordinators for the local chapter of Red Sox Nation. Sean told me that he was at the longest game of organized professional baseball on record, the Pawtucket-Rochester marathon, April 1981, that went on for 33 innings and about 8 1/2 hours over two days. (There's a fairly recent book about that game, in which future Hall of Famers Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken, Jr. both played)

On its own terms, yesterday's Bulls-Braves game was longer. It was only a third the length, in innings, of the PawSox-Red Wings game, but it took more than half the time to play, 4:44 (nice attractive number, that). The Cards and Pirates yesterday played eight innings beyond the DBAP's 11, but needed only 1:23 to run through those eight extras. It took 1:56 to play the first 4 1/2 innings in Durham last night, 3:52 to get through the regulation nine. Ugh.

And it isn't as if this was a thriller, despite the Braves' comeback. These were a punishingly drab four-and-three-quarters hours of 23 runs and 37 hits. Both teams played badly: pitched badly, failed to convert easy scoring opportunities, flubbed fielding chances. It was a night when Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo found himself having to acknowledge that he knew 10 runs (ten runs!) would not be enough to win, not with this pitching staff, even though the Bulls had scored all 10 of those runs by the seventh inning.

But in that seventh inning, after a Durham run scored on a wild pitch by Ryan Buchter (who walked four of the five batters he faced), Anthony Varvaro relieved with one out and the bases loaded and struck out Henry Wrigley and Leslie Anderson, two of the Bulls' best hitters, to end the threat. And so Montoyo had to sit in the dugout and somehow know his team would pay for it. He had to say things later like "I've never seen anything like it" and "Well, it's always been good here; now it's a good story for you guys to write."

Yes, perhaps it is, although you can't really write it any better than the Bulls are playing it. Maybe Theodore Dreiser could do something with it, or Nelson Algren. For me, though, the line of Montoyo's that echoes in the mind was prompted by a harmless procedural question about Jeff Niemann's rehab assignment. According to Montoyo, the Rays really wanted Niemann to "get up five times," by which they meant at least pitch into the fifth inning on his 75-pitch limit. He did that, facing the first two batters of the fifth before hitting 75 and exiting for Matt Torra. Why, I asked Montoyo, was it important for Niemann to "get up" five times? Did it have something to do with getting Niemann into some kind of rhythm? Keeping his arm from cooling off too soon? These are the kinds of desperately important trivial question we reporters ask Charlie in the five minutes he is able to spare us after a baseball game.

Montoyo didn't know why. He was just following orders. And then: "You'd have to ask Neil," meaning Bulls pitching coach Neil Allen. And then he added, after the sort of pause one observes when passing a cemetery, "Actually, don't ask Neil."

Well, we didn't. We might like to, of course. We might like to ask him all sorts of questions. Why is Dane De La Rosa's walk rate spiked up by more than 50 per cent this year? What has gone wrong with Brandon Gomes, who has allowed almost as many home runs (5) in his last 25 innings as he did in 2010 and 2011 combined (6)? Is Alex Torres just totally broken? Jim Paduch had a perfectly decent 4.18 ERA through his first dozen starts in Durham this season. He's made nine appearances since then, and the ERA is now 5.68. What gives? Can nothing be done to help Matt Torra keep the ball in the ballpark? And why do Josh Lueke and Frank De Los Santos just keep on throwing, throwing, throwing their fastballs? It's nice to throw 94 mph, as both of them do, but you can't really throw hard enough to get the same pitch by hitters over and over and over again. De Los Santos worked in what appeared to be a two-seamer, but when in doubt, which he apparently was most of the time, he threw that four-seamer until it got Mejia'd and Gartrelled.

So many questions so close to home, but you could ask the road team's guy, Gwinnett pitching coach Marty Reed, similarly pointed questions about Julio Teheran. Teheran was the runaway winner of the IL's Most Valuable Pitcher award in 2011, but after last night's seven runs in 2 2/3 innings his 2012 ERA is almost as high as Jim Paduch's, 5.48. I'm no expert, but it looked to me like too many of his pitches were too fat, simple as that. The Atlanta Braves aren't taking it sitting down, either. They've had a "Special Assistant to the General Manager," Dom Chiti, tagging along with (or watching over, if you prefer) Dave Brundage's club for part of this season—he was in Durham the last two nights—and the word on the street is that he's specifically concerned with Teheran's regression and how to turn it around.

The Rays have guys like Chiti on their payroll, a cadre of generally frowny, wrinkled white dudes who make occasional visits to the DBAP, plus gum-gnawing Chaim Bloom, the Rays' young Director of Baseball Operations. But maybe instead of BaseOps they need PsyOps, someone to escort Alex Torres to an acupuncturist or shaman or tasseographer, or travel with the ballclub like Chiti's doing and scare everyone straight, or fly Josh Lueke, in a rickety old Russian Antonov An-72 or something, to Ecuador to see a curandero—or Julian Assange, for that matter. Josh Lueke just allowed 12 straight men to reach base. That is actually very hard for a professional pitcher to do. (For what it's worth, in the first inning of a game at the DBAP two years ago, Syracuse starter Jason Jones allowed 10 of the first 12 Bulls to reach base.)

When Charlie Montoyo says things like "I've never seen anything like it" during the postgame interview, that's what he means. In the fateful 11th inning, after three singles scored two runs, it looked like Lueke's streak would end at 11 batters when Brian Friday hit a high, lazy fly ball down the right field line. Long run for Rich Thompson, but Thompson is really fast. He ran it down—and dropped it to keep the streak alive. Lueke finally got an out—albeit on a hard-hit line out to left field by Constanza (it was Constanza's seventh at-bat in an 11-inning game—not good). Then he gave up yet another hit, a double by Luis Durango, which scored Friday and buried Sunday. It's great that these Sunday games start at 5:05 p.m., so that writers like me can get an early start on our game stories. Except that it was nearly 10:00 by the time Sunday night's game ended, and I do mean night. Oh well.

At least Lueke is thinking positive thoughts, or at least tweeting them.

In the bottom of the 11th inning, with as many as 150 fans remaining in the ballpark, the Braves' Cory Gearrin struck out the side to end the game. The last pitch was taken more or less right down the middle, a breaking ball that completely fooled the batter, who could only trudge away ignominiously. It was Tim Beckham, of course.

In fact, the final 11 Bulls went down in order, and Durham was hitless for the game's final five innings. Gwinnett, on the other hand, put at least one runner on base in every one of the 11 innings except one (the sixth), and as the slugfest went on it downgraded to a snailfest, less a power display than a wet crawl in the grass, inching toward its sullen end. Would the game have been more exciting had it been the Bulls who came back from a 10-6, eighth-inning deficit? Maybe. But the Bulls aren't that kind of team. I noted yesterday that they have the International League's worst record when trailing after five innings. And if you tie them up after eight, as Gwinnett did, they have the second-worst record in the league. Those sorts of situational stats aside—which are a bit fluky, I think, although not entirely—good teams recover from pitcher meltdowns and rally to score more runs. Instead, the Bulls' hitters folded.

***

I spoke for a while with affable, extraordinarily tall Jeff Niemann. I was so zoned out from the evening's soggy length that I forgot to ask him directly about the "get up five times" decree from Tampa. But he was quite forthcoming with other stuff. Niemann suffered a fractured fibula in mid-May when a grounder off the bat of Toronto's Adam Lind struck him in the shin. It was a spiral fracture, Niemann told me last night, almost (but not quite) bad enough to require surgery—the first bone break of Niemann's life. He said the hardest part of recovering from the injury was that he felt he had found a really good groove just before it happened. The numbers back him up: in his previous start, Niemann had held the Yankees to six hits and one run over seven innings.

As a consequence, Niemann said that he feels like he's trying to get himself all the way back up to his very ceiling, rather than to a merely "acceptable" level of efficacy. He was hit around last night: a whopping 12 hits in 4 1/3 innings. But his pitches were all around the strike zone—72 pitches, 52 strikes (I actually had him at 75/50); 15 first-pitch strikes to 23 batters—he allowed no walks, and felt no pain. He said he'd like to "get better with two-strike pitches and put guys away." (By my count, only four of the 12 hits he allowed came with two strikes.)

He used the word "refine" a lot, which makes sense in this circumstance. He also used the word "we" a lot—as in, "We're still working a little bit to get there... We're very close"— although he was talking about himself alone. You might be tempted to ascribe this verbal tic to a "royal we" arrogance, except that Niemann isn't the least bit arrogant. On the contrary, he's about as regular-joe as a 6-foot-9, 260-pound millionaire athlete can be. As evidence, consider that Niemann was still in the clubhouse after the game, more than three hours after he left for the showers, showing team solidarity where plenty of other big-leaguers would have long been back at the hotel and deep into a 12-pack and their second TV movie of the night, texting with their boys up in the Show (or girls after the show) all the while.

The only other pitcher I've heard use "we," at least when speaking to me, was Dirk Hayhurst, last year. ("We established in," he said after his best outing of the year; etc.) Now Hayhurst did big-league it here and there as a Bull, and you can't really blame him given that he was a best-selling author and to some degree could probably not help thinking of himself as larger than the Triple-A life he found himself living—injured, no less, so that he wasn't even able to pitch his way out. (He was finally released shortly before the season ended.)

Still, I think he and Niemann both were not showing haughtiness so much as a learned formality of speech (with reporters) that has to do with the aforementioned team solidarity. Niemann considers himself part of an organization, and his work in that organization, including rehabilitating his injury, is for a greater good. If you want to chip in your "there is no 'I' in team," go ahead, but more than that, the use of "we" spreads the subject out a bit, and if that's not exactly by design, it is by protective instinct. "We" allows Niemann (or Hayhurst, or whomever) to hide behind a faceless, multiplicative pronoun. No one is to blame, no one is ultimately responsible. It is a team effort commanded from an unseen HQ and managed by doctors, coaches and all manner of personnel that you and I will never see (a side benefit of the pronoun is in the way it helps keep the media at arm's length). The use of "we" thus helps complicate the procedure in some ways.

At the same time, despite this depersonalization, Niemann talked forthrightly and at length about the frustration of being immobilized in a cast, of wishing he could help the team, of wanting to be not only serviceable again but as good as he felt when he stifled the Yankees back on May 9. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch again on Friday night, when he should be allowed to go deeper into the game. Development never ends; it just resumes.

***

To get back to a bone I was gnawing on yesterday, and speaking of keeping the media at arm's length, some further thoughts on the delicate and strange relationship between athletes and the press. Here is an essential thing to add: There is really nothing to be gained from sharing anything at all serious, sensitive or technical with outsiders. especially ones with bylines and readerships. Yes, as a matter of fact, I would like to know how they make the sausage (changeup, pivot throw, etc.), but revealing the method to me is a pointless and perhaps even damaging thing for a coach or player to do. All it does is expose strategy and approach, making those inner workings vulnerable to counterattack.

Anyway, it's not like the reporter himself is going to go and mimic the grip on so-and-so's breaking ball. We are not athletes. We can make no practical use of whatever we might learn from athletes and their mentors. I've been re-reading Chris Ballard's absorbing book about pro basketball, The Art of a Beautiful Game (2009) and envying how much confidence professional basketball players—really famous ones like Kobe and Lebron—gave him for the making of the book. But Ballard is not only a journalist; he also played college basketball, and even though it was for Pomona College (the Sagehens!), a Division III athletic program, that item on his resume gains him entree with top pro athletes. They share a particular type of competitive mindset, an inbuilt physical prowess, a locker room intimacy, and that essential masculine affinity breaks down barriers that, for the rest of us, are impermeable.

A reminder, then, and one I like to issue periodically, so as to preserve the immense sporting respect to which athletes are fundamentally (if strictly) entitled: None of us, probably, could do even once what ballplayers do thousands of times. With reasonable hand-eye coordination, we could probably make some free throws in a basketball game, or catch a few 40-yard football passes in mid-stride downfield. But try to hit a pitched baseball, say a generic 89-mph fastball. How many times out of 100 do you think you could make contact with the ball, swinging at it with a three-pound cylinder no wider in diameter than the ball itself? I would wager that, for many of us, the answer is zero.

Let's say you're exceptionally coordinated and answered 10 or 20 times out of 100. Okay, but now add in a little game situation. The pitch might not be a fastball. It might break. You might be instructed to bunt rather than swing away at it. A hit-and-run might be on. The guy on the mound threw you nothing but changeups last time you faced him. Is he going to throw more of them? Or go back to his fastball? Maybe he'll start you with a show-me curve ball, just to keep you off-balance. Now you're all up in your head. You should call timeout. Too late—that happened to Tim Beckham on Saturday night and he took a pitch while moving out of the batter's box (it happened to be called a ball). Gwinnett's Jose Constanza had a bug fly in his face just as the Bulls pitcher wound up; he flailed out of the box. In baseball, the tiniest distractions can be overwhelming. In football, it's nothing but distractions. In basketball, they're pumping music into the arena at top volume while the players run their sets. Hitting a baseball requires quiet, and concentration, and immense self-discipline, as well as freakish hand-eye coordination and lighting-fast hands.

Think you can do it anyway? Okay, now try being the person throwing the pitch. Can you throw a ball 89 miles per hour—an average speed for a fastball? Probably not. How about 80? No? Seventy? Maybe 70, if you really threw your whole body into it—but remember that you have to keep your back foot on the pitching rubber. Okay, got that? Oh, and you have to come set before you start your delivery, or it's a balk. Got that, too? Ready? Okay, that was good, you actually threw it 75 mph.

Now do it 100 more times. And one of those times, the ball will be smacked back at your fibula. Are you quick enough to grab it before it breaks your bone?

I was writing about magic in yesterday's game story, using it to poke some holes into how the game of baseball works. Sometimes the opposite use of the idea is healthier: What ballplayers do is a kind of magic—even fielding a grounder and throwing to first is kind of a little marvel—and what's the most magical about it is that they can do it over and over again. Precision-in-repetition is a kind of magic. The magician Teller, who featured in yesterday's game story, revealed some of his secrets in an article he wrote for the Smithsonian. This is one of them:

Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth.
You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest. My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.

The resulting "magic" is the tiny but potent derivative of hours and hours of work, intricate technology, adjustment-making and practice. No "sane onlooker" at a baseball game would think to do what ballplayers do—even if we had the natural skills that ballplayers have. It is magic, and it is hard-earned, less sleight-of-hand than heavy lifting.

***

It is Cesar Ramos' turn to hoist the weight tonight for the Bulls. The division champions to be, the Charlotte Knights, come into town for two games, and they send Charlie Shirek to the mound against Ramos. Shirek, a former 23rd-round draft pick, has been a pleasant surprise. This season, he is one of the league's top pitchers, and he has already beaten the Bulls three times in 2012. He works very quickly on the mound, and that will be welcome after the first two games of this nine-game homestand, which have taken more than eight combined hours to play. Perhaps some brevity will help the Bulls, who are now in a last-place tie with Gwinnett in the IL South, get their wits about them again.

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