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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Jake Arrieta and Norfolk Tides throw 1-hitter, but Chris Archer and Durham Bulls beat them: Going mental

Posted by on Thu, Aug 23, 2012 at 11:29 AM

Ed Grimley, going mental
  • Ed Grimley, going mental
DBAP/ DURHAM—The Durham Bulls shut out the Norfolk Tides last night, 2-0, despite getting only one hit, a two-out, first-inning single by Chris Gimenez. A wonderful pitching duel between the Bulls' Chris Archer and the Tides' Jake Arrieta was decided in the sixth inning, when Arrieta came unglued and walked four straight batters to force in one run and threw a wild pitch to score the other. The Bulls did not have another baserunner after that.

They didn't need one. Archer had his best start of the season, according to Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo—a big-league start in its precision and potency—and he was backed up by solid bullpen work, especially that of lefty reliever Adam Liberatore, who has been quietly excellent since his promotion from Class AA Montgomery about a month ago. He threw 1 2/3 perfect innings last night and set up Dane De La Rosa, who pitched around a hit and a walk to earn his 17th save, which is tied for third in the league. "I never take him for granted," Montoyo said of De La Rosa after the game, "because it ain't easy to close games at any level"—especially two nights in a row, as De La Rosa did, preserving two-run margins both times.

De La Rosa's 50 appearances this season are three off the league leader's 53. His walk rate is way up, but he has allowed only 35 hits in 64 innings pitched, with 81 strikeouts. After struggling badly to start the season, he has a 1.70 ERA since the second week of May.

Besides "breaking up" the Tides' no-hitter in the first inning, Gimenez also drew walks in his other two plate appearances, including the one that pushed across the Bulls' first run in the sixth. With apologies, however, to him, to Liberatore and De La Rosa and all the rest of the Bulls, you won't be hearing much more about them today.

The night belonged to Chris Archer.

"Half this game is ninety per cent mental." Also: "Ninety per cent of this game is half mental." And: "Ninety per cent of this game is mental. The other half is physical."

That famous baseball truism has its variants, and there is also some debate about whether it was uttered by Yogi Berra or Danny Ozark. Given that it sounds just like Yogi, it's probably Ozark.

But it doesn't matter. In fact, it's appropriate that both the quote and its author are diffuse, because it's so deeply true of baseball that it ought to be sourceless and broad, inbuilt into the mythology of baseball. (And it is built into a deeper mythology, too: Google "half this" and it auto-completes the quote for you.) That's why writers like the game: it encourages thinking. And it helps that you don't have to be a hulking giant to play it. I spent some time last night talking to Bulls infielder Cole Figueroa, and he looks just like a regular guy. Don't get any bright ideas, please. I watched Figueroa hit a 375-foot home run two nights ago. Think you could do that? And my column for Baseball Prospectus yesterday (that's a pay site) was mostly about Will Rhymes, the Bulls' middle infielder (who expects to return to action in the next couple of days, by the way; he fouled a ball off his foot last week). In it, I wrote that "it is now so common as to be passé to comment on Rhymes’ build. He is charitably referred to as '5-foot-9,' officially—for tax purposes, I assume."

I should have added that, even though Rhymes' height played into the moment I was in the middle of describing, it is really irrelevant. He's a ballplayer, and part of why we like the game of baseball is that people who look a lot like us—people like Figueroa and Rhymes—can play it at the highest (or nearly highest) level.

And speaking of the highest and nearly-highest level, as we were talking last night with Charlie Montoyo, the subject of Alex Torres came up—a Bulls official mentioned that Chris Archer was getting within striking (out) distance of the single-season Bulls franchise strikeout record that Torres broke last season. (He's going to fall a bit short, down 24 K's with two starts remaining.) We asked Montoyo what has gone wrong with Torres, who has had an absolutely dreadful year and is currently pitching in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Was it simple confidence, as Montoyo suggested last season?

"It's confidence for anybody. At this level and the next level"—i.e., the majors—"it becomes a mental game. That's why not everybody can play in the big leagues."

Watching Norfolk's Jake Arrieta and the Bulls' Chris Archer last night, and talking to Archer afterwards, reinforced the words of Montoyo (and Berra, or Ozark).

This was probably the best head-to-head pitcher's duel of the year at the DBAP, maybe even the best of the last two. For five innings, Archer and Arrieta totally dominated their opponents (in the sixth, they both fell off, to very different degrees). Archer's fastball was up to 97 mph by the second inning, with lots of late movement, and his slider had superb bite. He added an occasional two-seamer with good sink and, most importantly, a changeup used sparingly but to devastating effect, as when he struck out Xavier Avery with it to end the third inning. He allowed a pair of doubles, but in truth neither of these were ropes; the second of them, by the legendary Endy Chavez, would have been an out in some ballparks.

Meanwhile, Arrieta was throwing his fastball 95 mph, adding in his mean slider, and dropping in curve balls here and there. He had a changeup of his own, and although it wasn't great, it did the job for him. Rumors are that he has been asked to stop throwing his cutter (maybe he grew overly fond of it Baltimore and that's why he struggled?), but some of those "sliders" looked an awful lot like cut fastballs.

No matter. Whatever they were, they were helping Arrieta match Archer, zero for zero, through five innings. They combined for four hits (I said combined!), 13 strikeouts and two walks. Arrieta needed only 61 pitches for his five innings, getting 10 swings-and-misses. Archer wasn't quite as economical, but that's only because he had to face the Bulls' old friend Blake Davis, who has played for Norfolk for parts of the last four seasons. Davis was the very definition of the pesky ninth-place hitter, battling Archer for a whopping 19 pitches in just two plate appearances against him. Archer retired Davis both times, but Davis' stubbornness, fouling off pitch after pitch, kept Archer from making it to the eighth inning. He was removed with one out in the seventh, at 102 pitches (or 104, depending on whose count you use).

Archer told us that in the past Davis "has gotten a couple hits off me," although the play-by-play log from the only previous game in which they've faced one another doesn't support Archer's memory. (Davis was 0-2 against him on May 24, with a line-out and a strikeout—although, if you feel like looking for precedents, the strikeout took six or seven pitches.)

But it doesn't matter. If half the game is 90 per cent mental, what Archer believes is what's important. "I knew that I would have to make pitches with him at the plate, and I was making them and he was fighting them off." He brightened up a little and added: "The game's fun when stuff like that happens." It was as though the extended battles with Davis gave Archer an extra surge of adrenaline on the mound.

Not that he needed it. Archer is a highly demonstrative and animated pitcher. He talks to himself out there, mostly into his glove, excited after he blows away a hitter with high cheese; hops around with excitement and ebullience; shows lemme-at-'em frustration sometimes when he misses with a pitch, or makes an excellent one and sees it fouled off; he'll go into a squat when he doesn't get a call from the umpire. (David Price was a little like that when he was here, though not to Archer's extent.)

Archer talked about "staying in the moment with every pitch, instead of getting ahead of myself, [thinking] about the next hitter, or how I'm going to set this hitter up. I'm just thinking about one pitch at a time." The curious paradox about the mental part of baseball is that players have to think an awful lot out there, but they can't think too much, or they get in trouble. Archer is a pretty cerebral guy: likes to read, professes an interest in psychology, tweets frequently about mental attitude. But the best thing he did for himself on Wednesday was to get himself at one with his cerebration. He was up inside his mind, it seemed, in the moment and enjoying it, letting his physical work—which included his mound presence—keep him tuned into the present tense.

You could tell he was really into it last night, feeling good, at one with himself, throwing heat, showing the Tampa Bay Rays just what a specimen they've got in him when he is at his best. Both he and Arrieta would have dominated major-league hitters with what they were dealing at the DBAP Wednesday. Montoyo called it the best start he's seen so far from Archer, and I would agree. It was, at times, electric, as Archer was in his final regular-season start of 2011 at Charlotte—as bristling as Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore at their best here.

An example: Archer went through the Tides' lineup for the third time in the top of the sixth inning, and they started solving him, just a little. Xavier Avery lined out hard to center field, and Ryan Adams followed with a fly ball to left that looked like a home run off the bat but stayed in the park for Stephen Vogt to catch it. Ryan Flaherty then laced a single back through the box, knocking Archer, who ducked, flat on his ass. Archer ended the inning, though, by striking out Bill Hall—not all that hard to do, as Hall's ludicrous 38 per cent whiff rate leads all International League players with 300+ plate appearances, and by a wide margin.

The Bulls gave Archer a lead in the top of the sixth inning, when Jake Arrieta suddenly could not throw strikes and gifted the Bulls two runs. (More on that later.) Archer sat a long time as Arrieta burned up 35 pitches—more than half as many as he had thrown in the previous five innings combined—and used up more time with a visit from his pitching coach. In the top of the seventh, Archer immediately fell behind Joe Mahoney, 3-0, and a scout sitting near me started up about the irritation of watching pitchers who fail to deliver in the "shutdown inning," as it's known—the inning after your team piles on an opposing pitcher and scores runs and gives you a lead. (Actually, the scout gave it a more colorful term than "shutdown inning," but maybe you'd better contact me privately for details.)

A big moment, this: Archer was one ball away from bringing the tying run to the plate, in the form of a leadoff walk, right after his teammates churned through a long, high-effort run-scoring inning just before. He was in danger of deflating the hard-won momentum.

He broke back and struck out Mahoney.

Now the ending is not entirely beautiful. Archer, probably feeling pretty good about the strikeout and perhaps aware that his outing was nearly at its end—Adam Liberatore was warming in the bullpen and Archer was scraping the 100-pitch mark—tried to blow away Luis Exposito with his stinkiest cheese. Seven pitches later, his final pitch of the night was also his fastest: 98 mph on the DBAP stadium radar gun (that's the fastest pitch I've seen Archer throw). But it was also low, almost in the dirt, and, more importantly, it was ball four.

Archer came out of the game, to hearty applause.

Again, an instance of mental, not physical, baseball. Archer in fact threw consecutive heaters to Exposito to end the at-bat (97 and 98 mph) and missed with both of them. It was as if he was racing ahead of himself, wanting that last strikeout so badly that he tried to get to it as fast he possibly could rather than "staying in the moment." This is really all just speculation. Archer may well have made a reasoned decision to throw those last two fastballs as hard as he possibly could. But given how well he commanded all of his pitches all night to that point, and how intuitively he mixed them, it was tempting to think that those last two pitches got away from him mentally, not physically.

Also on the subject of mixing pitches: A number of seasoned assessors think Archer will wind up in a big-league bullpen rather than a starting rotation (and at least for this season, I would love to see Tampa Bay use him during the stretch drive toward the playoffs as a scary late-inning weapon, much as they did with David Price back in 2008). There are reasons for this thinking: Archer has a closer's fastball and closer's mound presence: high-intensity, high-definition, able to throw his fastball right past hitters and ready to challenge them with it.

Beyond that, though, some baseball people wonder if he has enough quality pitches to succeed as a starter. You need at least three, and for a long time the general consensus was that only Archer's fastball and slider were top-grade. But last night, he showed a solid changeup that, with refinement, could make him a really dangerous starting major-league pitcher. Archer has thrown that pitch before, of course, but something about his use of it Wednesday seemed, well, more thoughtful. When he went to the changeup, it was at exactly the right moments, and it produced swings-and-misses every time, it seemed.

One last thing about Archer, another mental issue: he was asked what he had taken away from the two starts he made in Tampa Bay earlier this season, the first two major-league appearances of his life. He pitched pretty well in the bigs. "Before you go up, you think you can compete there," he said. "And when I came back, I knew I could compete there. For me, the biggest thing was mental. I didn't change anything physically. But mentally, I went from thinking to knowing."

***

Jake Arrieta pitched multiple games against the Bulls way back in 2009, and looked like a surefire major-league starter, albeit one who needed refinement and, both times we saw him at the DBAP, to learn how to recover from mistakes and/or misfortune and pitch his way out of trouble. He was prone to the big inning.

Arrieta was erratic in his first two seasons in the majors, and lost the last chunk of 2011 to elbow surgery. Healthy and effective in spring training this season, he was named the O's opening day starter for 2012, and tossed seven two-hit shutout innings against the Twins that day.

And then, thud, or rather, liftoff! Arrieta's ERA climbed steadily, topping 5.00 in late May and reaching well over 6.00 before he was first moved to the bullpen (in name only—he never pitched in relief) and then demoted to Norfolk so he could work out the kinks, and, if rumors be true, lose the cutter.

But what he lost last night was his mind. Not in the crazytown way, but in the more important "mentally-mechanically" way that Lance Pendleton christened for me last year: that ineffable place where it is actually the mind that determines the matter for a pitcher.

Arrieta might have been even better than Archer over the first five innings last night. Indeed, he would have been perfect had he not had to face Chris Gimenez, who singled and walked against Arrieta. No one else reached base.

But in the sixth, after Jesus Feliciano grounded out, Arrieta walked Nevin Ashley, inexplicably throwing him a slider (or maybe a cutter?) for ball four—why do that when no one has been able to touch your fastball? Arrieta followed that with a four-pitch walk to Rich Thompson, and you could see his posture change—almost transform, really. Suddenly, he grew tense and rigid. His pitching coach made a mound visit, almost surely just to counsel him not to dwell on the immediate past—or about a couple of close calls he didn't get—and go after the next guy. Arrieta was more aggressive against Stephen Vogt, but Vogt worked him through eight pitches and drew yet another walk to load the bases with one out. It was almost painful to watch Arrieta, now really looking flustered, walk Gimenez on five pitches to force in what would turn out to be the only necessary run of the game.

Arrieta compounded his problems by throwing a wild pitch to score a second run, and he was fortunate, as one of the Bulls position players said later, that Leslie Anderson swung at a couple of borderline pitches, fouling them off. That gave Arrieta a little glint of optimism, and he got Anderson—who hardly ever draws walks (he has the seventh-lowest walk rate in the league—to ground out.

From there, Arrieta, to his credit, recovered, striking out Brooks Conrad to end the inning.

All of that, or anyway 90 per cent of it, is half mental. It computes to 45 percent, mathematically speaking, but the fact is that, "at this level and the next," to borrow again from Montoyo, most ballplayers have the physical tools for the big leagues. The difference is really more than 45 per cent mental, and in a bizarre, cage-rattling meltdown like Arrieta's last night (and the ones we saw him have in 2009), it seems to take place almost entirely in the mind. He was still throwing 95, still had that slider. Arrieta was absolutely owning the Bulls—and then, suddenly, was no longer even owning himself. Archer, on the other hand, did stay self-possessed, and it's why he won the game.

More mental weirdness was seeing Arrieta's replacement in the seventh inning: Brian Matusz? Matusz is a former first round draft pick of the Orioles, a lefty who was supposed to have been, by now, a mainstay of the Baltimore rotation. But he had one of the worst seasons in the history of pitching last year, putting up (and I do mean up) an ERA of 10.69 (!) in 12 starts before the Orioles finally realized that that wasn't very good and sent him down to Norfolk.

Matusz has been on the Triple-A shuttle since then, as have any number of once-promising Orioles starters who can't seem to make good. Something must be quite askew in the organization's approach with its pitching prospects (I fear for Dylan Bundy). Matusz's issue is confidence, no question. His mechanics are alright, he isn't injured—he just can't put it together. He started the 2012 season in the O's rotation again, had an ERA over 5.00, and was sent down to Norfolk yet again. After six starts, he had a decent ERA of 3.95, whereupon it was decided—why?—to make him a reliever. In his first appearance out of the bullpen, he was credited, ludicrously, with a three-inning save, even though he allowed two runs on five hits and two walks, making a comfortable 5-0 lead itchy. Nice to have your home ballpark's official scorer in the press box.

In his next appearance, he gave up two more runs, this time in a single inning, the eighth, blowing a save. I had visions of Alex Torres, another confidence-lacking starter with big-league stuff, also demoted to the bullpen with unfortunate results. (Torres, by the way, has walked four batters in 8 1/3 innings in the Gulf Coast League.) The bullpen is probably not going to help Matusz or Torres. It doesn't even matter, not yet anyway, that last night Matusz struck out the side in his inning of relief. Two of the hitters were left-handers, as Matusz is.

So much to think about! Yet this was a very satisfying game to watch, not just mentally but, really, physically. Pitchers who can do, for five innings, what Arrieta and Archer did last night, are a delight, and this was the best game I've seen at the DBAP this year. I'm only sorry that Archer isn't scheduled to pitch at home again this season. It's somewhat strange to think (you could end the sentence right there) that we may have just seen Archer for the last time in Durham. He has a very good chance to make the Rays' major-league club out of spring training next year. If he does, here's wishing him the best. Watching his development has given us plenty of, well, food for thought.

***

Two quick personnel notes: 1) Sean Rodriguez, optioned to Durham yesterday, is expected to arrive Friday, giving Charlie Montoyo yet another infielder for whom to find playing time. 2) Rehabbing right-handed pitcher Jeff Niemann has had his next start pushed back to Saturday (when I can't be there—boo!), apparently to line him up in the Rays' big-league rotation, we heard after the game, unofficially. Does that mean Alex Cobb is headed for the bullpen? It taxes the mind, it does.

A scheduling stupidity, yet another one: last night was the first of eight straight games these two teams play against each other, five here and three in Norfolk (with an intervening off-day on Monday). Ugh. I hope these guys like each other. Two years ago, the Bulls and Tides played seven straight games. The Norfolk GM (now half-retired) does the scheduling, so I guess he has some kinda thing about Durham?

Tonight at 7:05 p.m., Matt Torra, working on three days' rest—but after an abbreviated relief appearance in support of Niemann's first rehab start last Sunday—goes for Durham. I'm not sure I can be at the game. I don't know. I'll have to think about it.

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It was the best head-to-head pitching duel at the DBAP in a long time.

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