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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Durham Bulls take third straight from the Norfolk Tides: Looking up

Posted by on Sat, Aug 25, 2012 at 9:31 AM

Will Leslie Anderson get to wear this uniform again?
  • Will Leslie Anderson get to wear this uniform again?
DBAP/ DURHAM—About 15 minutes before game time, the plane flew over the ballpark and what looked like four puffs of pink smoke popped out. It wasn't long before the parachutes deployed and the jumpers began their descent to Goodmon Field.

They came down, one by one, via a pleasing route that wound them across the outfield, over the right-field stands, and then, banking sweetly, back into the outfield again, where they landed on the grass to rousing applause. It was a sort of pageant from above, and Mother Nature provided an encore not long after. It's that time of year here, late August, when the angle and texture of the early-evening sunlight are growing autumnal, but still with the warmth of summer, and so the ballpark was bathed in luminous gold as the game began. This was the kind of magical light that could calm the most agitated soul, lift the morose from misery—or inspire dreadful purple prose.

And then, in a final flourish, the sky in the bottom of the second inning was dominated by a high-arcing rainbow that stretched from way out behind center field off into the beyond.

And after Chris Gimenez and Leslie Anderson added to the airborne events a pair of homers that accounted for four runs—and, okay, the Tides hit a couple homers of their own off of Bulls starter Matt Torra (who got his 12th win anyway)—the Durham bullpen set the sun down slowly and the Bulls beat Norfolk 8-3.

It was the Bulls' fourth win in a row and their third straight over Norfolk, ebbing the Tides' playoff aspirations almost all the way out to sea. As the season winds down into its final fortnight, Durham is playing much better baseball—they are playing like a winning baseball team, in fact—and although they are out of contention for the post-season, there is plenty left to play for, much more indeed than the International League playoffs. The Bulls' sights are set higher: on the paradise of the major leagues, and on the sky's-the-limit promise of next year.

The Triple-A level has few advantages over the majors, but it is superior in that it has a built-in mechanism that makes it almost impossible for losing teams to simply quit as September draws near and wait for the off-season. About half of the current Bulls players, 12 of them, are on the Tampa Bay Rays' 40-man roster. As you may know, September 1 is the day active rosters expand from the prevailing 25 men, a temporary late-season swell that allows major-league clubs to keep all 40 players, if they wish, active in the big leagues until the regular season ends. (The roster must contract back to 25 in post-season play.)

No team actually summons all 15 extras to the majors, but they all add a few, for different reasons and purposes. So the dozen Bulls on the 40-man have everything to play for: a callup to Tampa Bay and an opportunity to show that they belong in the Show. At least half this team has more to fight for now than at any other point in the year. For everyone from Chris Archer to Stephen Vogt, this is, the Bulls' record notwithstanding, the pennant chase.

Perhaps that's why the Bulls have looked like a much more animated, focused, plain-old better team over the last few days. It has helped, of course, that they're pitching better, much better. But pretty much everyone on the ballclub is playing with a sense of purpose and urgency now. Even those who aren't on the 40-man roster know that this is their time to leave the right impression for next season. For some, like Leslie Anderson, Tim Beckham and Cole Figueroa, they're trying to brighten their light on the Rays' radar for 2013. Others, like Brooks Conrad and Jesus Feliciano, can use these final days to open their parachutes as they jump from the Rays' vessel and land on another team's field. First impressions are important, but as any restaurant employee can tell you, it's final impressions that determine whether the customer comes back.

Quick looks at some of the contending players who contributed to last night's win:

Stephen Vogt came into last night's game in a 9-58 slump that dropped his batting average 27 points in less than three weeks. I had a long talk with him before yesterday's ballgame, and Vogt knew well that he was in minor jeopardy of losing his chance at a September 1 callup. He had not changed his approach, was still hitting the ball hard (and, he acknowledged, had the odd bad at-bat), but it wasn't falling in. He needed things to turn his way. It didn't look like that would happen in his first at-bat last night against Norfolk starter Jason Berken, who quickly got Vogt in an 0-2 hole. Berken tried to finish him off with a curve ball, a pretty good one, but Vogt went down and got it, spanking a double down the right-field line. One out later, Reid Brignac singled off of second baseman Ryan Adams' glove—a better fielder (e.g.Brignac himself) would have made the play—to score the first two runs of the game. The Bulls would lead the rest of the way.

In the top of the third inning, Vogt threw out would-be base stealer Xavier Avery, who had gotten a poor jump—and Vogt got a honey of a pitch to throw, a high Matt Torra fastball that pulled him out of his crouch. In the bottom of the inning, he whacked a pitch out over the plate into left field to drive in another run (his 300th career RBI, according to a Bulls official).

Vogt is going to be an excellent manager some day, and he wants to be, he told me. He has all the skills for the job, and already thinks like a manager. (He said he'd like to get his master's degree first, in a sports-related field.) He's not ready to give up on his major-league dreams, of course—it's obvious that he'd like very badly to atone for his 0-17 showing in limited action in Tampa Bay early this season—but this highly intelligent, hard-working ballplayer is already using Triple-A not only as a means to return to the majors but also as training ground for his second career as a skipper.

Chris Gimenez came to the plate in the bottom of the fourth inning after the Bulls' 4-1 lead had been cut to 4-3 on a Bill Hall homer in the top of the inning. Matt Torra ran the count full on Hall with nothing but fastballs, and I thought he was setting up Hall for a slider, because Hall, who leads the league in strikeout rate by a wide margin, is known to be constitutionally incapable of hitting breaking balls. But the 3-2 pitch was another fastball right down the middle and Hall launched it onto the terrace roof of the Tobacco Road cafe for a two-run homer.

In the bottom of the fourth, a two-out fielding error by Ryan Adams allowed Cole Figueroa to reach, prolonging the inning and putting two men on base. Gimenez got a pitch up and moving out over the plate on a 1-1 count and hit an opposite-field drive that just cleared the wall in right-center field for a game-deciding three-run homer. He narrowly missed another opposite-field home run later in the game, but his bid landed just foul of the pole down the line.

It may seem unlikely that the Rays would add two catchers on September 1, but don't be surprised if both Gimenez and Vogt get the call. Both are liked in the Rays' clubhouse (Vogt seems a particular favorite of manager Joe Maddon), and both can play the outfield and first base. Vogt is a lefty, Gimenez a right-hander. If Vogt can put together a good week, hitting not only for average but maybe also a bit of power, and if Gimenez maintains his team-leading .324 average, they both have a shot.

This season, Leslie Anderson finally started hitting like the Rays hoped he would when they gave him a four-year $1.725 million contract in 2010. Anderson began the year on a tear, hitting way above .300 for the first two months of 2012. He leveled off at .314 on May 31, and since then his average has neither risen nor fallen more than seven points from that mark. (He is currently at .313.) That is amazing consistency.

We've heard bits and pieces throughout the season about how Anderson worked hard over the winter to improve, but what that work was exactly had eluded me. It's the shameful truth that we reporters don't talk to the Latino players as much as we should for the sole and unpardonably flimsy reason that we don't share a language. In my case, that's actually not even true. I do speak some Spanish, albeit not confidently and not at lightning speed like native speakers do. To tell the truth, it's as much a cultural divide as it is a simple language difference. A double shame.

So thanks go to Anderson for having such a good year that it was simply not possible to go on not talking to him. The usual translator in the clubhouse, Jesus Feliciano, wasn't around, so who should come over to assist but Ryan Reid, who hails from the well-known former Spanish settlement of Portland, Maine. Thanks again go to Anderson, who is a totally nice guy, for going out of his way to speak slowly so that even I could understand most of what he said without Reid's help.

Anderson's comments were illuminating: He told me that he spent the entire winter ingesting massive amounts of... video (gotcha!). He even reached into his pocket and pulled out a CD with game footage on it. He gets these CDs regularly from the coaching staff and has continued to study them throughout the season—Ryan Reid helpfully interjected that Anderson can usually be found in the team hotel on road trips, watching video.

I mentioned to Anderson that he looks more comfortable hitting offspeed pitches this season. He does not appear to have changed his stance (although Heather insists that Anderson's shoulders are lower), and he told me that it's the same as it was last year. The difference, again, was made by watching video, he said. He needed to be able to handle a changeup. It isn't thrown as much in Cuba, he said, as it is here, and he was vulnerable to it when he came to the US to play. He's finally learned to adjust to it—he kept saying "adjustment, adjustment"—and that, he thinks, has made the difference. (It sometimes seems to me that learning to hit a changeup is what provides hitters the necessary, final mastery of their discipline, because it completes the calibration of their timing.)

Although his odd batting stance still results in some awkward swings, even sometimes when he makes contact, Anderson seems better able to stay back on the ball. He's also hitting more home runs. The one he hit last night was a long no-doubter about 8-10 rows deep down the right-field line. It was his team-leading 14th home run of the year, eclipsing his career high of 13 reached in 2011. He has a decent chance to win the IL MVP award, which would be the third in a row claimed by a Bull.

If he wants to be a major-leaguer, Anderson is going to have learn more selectivity at the plate. He has one of the lowest walk rates in the International League (4.7 percent if you factor out his five intentional passes). He doesn't strike out much, either—Anderson goes up to bat to put the ball in play, plain and simple—but that, of course, will change in the majors, where pitchers are better at missing bats. Still, he has a shot to be added back onto the Rays' 40-man roster next season. Carlos Pena, the incumbent first baseman (who is a lefty, like Anderson is), is on a one-year deal and has had a disappointing season. Anderson is very unlikely to win the starting job itself, but the Rays might like to have him in Durham as a ready fill-in should the 2013 first baseman struggle or go down with an injury.

Tim Beckham, unlike Anderson, has changed his stance. Somehow it escaped me until I was watching batting practice yesterday. He used to hold the bat way up around his ear, almost wrap-around style, but now everything has dropped down into a lower crouch, with his hands around his sternum. Beckham wasn't around after the game to ask about this change, but Charlie Montoyo said that one of the Rays' hitting coordinators (which one? forgot to ask) and Bulls batting coach Dave Myers had been working with Beckham on his stance—apparently at Beckham's request. Montoyo said that "it's usually the players" who initiate hands-on coaching, which confirms what players tell me when I ask them about their relationships with their coaches.

In any case, I don't know exactly when Beckham changed his stance, although I presume he did it under his coaches' supervision after he returned from his 50-game suspension, rather than on his own during the suspension itself. I do know that Beckham was hitting barely .200 when his suspension began, rocketed up to .260 soon after he resumed playing, and has mostly been around that level since then. With three singles last night—the last on an excuse-me half-swing that produced a flare to right field—he pulled back up to .259. (Montoyo opined that he found Beckham a little hot-and-cold, pushing up to .260 and then falling back, unable to get up and stay above .260. But I wonder if Beckham's just getting settled into his new stance and will come out on fire in 2013.)

Beckham hit all three of his singles to right field, and he also belted an impressive opposite-field homer on Monday. He's not struck me as pull-happy anyway, but his opposite-field hitting has seemed to have more authority recently, and he also appears to be very comfortable hitting the ball where it's pitched. His new stance gives him better balance and more compactness. He has fast hands and a lot of whip in his swing, no matter how he stands in at the plate.

Questions remain about Beckham's position. He's been playing more second base lately. To me, though, if he hits it won't matter. He has athleticism and reflexes that are intrinsic to his genetics. He isn't on the 40-man roster yet and to be honest I don't know when the Rays have to add him (or risk losing him). If, in any case, after the early-season struggles and the ignominy of the 50-game recreational-drug suspension, Beckham can end 2012 swinging a hot bat, he'll give the Rays some assurance going into 2013 that they might really have something after all in the No. 1 pick of the 2008 draft. Beckham is still just 22 years old. With Ben Zobrist turning, it seems, into Tampa Bay's regular shortstop, second base could be there for the taking next season.

Dane De La Rosa has had a weird season. A month into 2012, he had a cartoonishly bad 8.18 ERA and nine walks allowed in just 11 innings pitched (plus a gruesome appearance for the major-league club on April 14, when he was shelled for five runs in a single inning). Since then, he has found himself, and his ERA is now all the way down to 2.94. He has walked a lot of batters this season (40), more than he has allowed hits to, in fact (35), in 64 1/3 innings (his batting average-against is .161). He has 82 strikeouts, a career high rate of 11.62 per nine innings pitched.

Last night, De La Rosa was called into the game in the top of the ninth inning. The bases were loaded, and what had been an easy victory for Adam Liberatore to close out had gotten somewhat anxious after Reid Brignac muffed a grounder to fill the bases with one out. The southpaw Liberatore struck out same-sider Endy Chavez looking for the second out of the inning, but with big-league veteran (and right-hander) Ronny Paulino due up—and an unexpected save situation—Montoyo replaced Liberatore, who looked none too happy about it.

De La Rosa ran the count full on Paulino, as Torra had done with Bill Hall back in the fourth inning. Paulino fouled off a 93-mph fastball—De La Rosa reached 95 mph during the at-bat—and I wondered if De La Rosa would have the guts, and sagacity, to throw Paulino a breaking ball. It would be a riskier pitch, easier to miss the strike zone with, which would force in a run. But Paulino was set up for it.

And De La Rosa threw it.

Paulino watched it drop right over the plate for a game-ending strike three and De La Rosa's 18th save of the year. He has a shot to lead the league in that category—an overrated one, but one that front office-types like to see on a stat sheet—by season's end.

Will that earn the big right-hander a shot at redemption in the majors this season? Brandon Gomes, who has been pitching much better lately, has the pole position, and lefty Cesar Ramos will almost surely get called up on September 1 simply because he's a lefty; but De La Rosa has pitched himself back into consideration. He has far outpaced Josh Lueke, who despite two scoreless innings last night (he, like De La Rosa, wisely went to his breaking pitch) buried himself with consecutive disastrous appearances last weekend. De La Rosa is a good dude and a hardworking pitcher. It would be nice to see him get another chance. He turns 30 just before spring training commences next season.

Cole Figueroa made three excellent plays at third base last night, the best of them a lunging-into-the-stands catch of a foul popup that belongs on a highlight reel. Those plays came one night after he started 17 double plays (or something like that) at the hot corner, making dazzling stops of ground balls at a position he barely played before 2012. Figueroa has also adapted quickly to Triple-A pitching. He recognized (he told me the other night) the need to be more active early in the count. In Double-A, he said, you can sort of wait out an at-bat until you get your pitch, but Triple-A pitchers are more aggressive over the plate early in the count and, once they get ahead, less likely to throw anything really hittable.

Figueroa, acquired in the 2010 trade that sent Jason Bartlett to the San Diego Padres (who just released Bartlett after a miserable year). He was promoted to Durham in early May, and after a month here he was batting only .207 with a .566 OPS. He rose steadily after that, reaching .300 for the first time on Thursday (he's now at .298). He is a very disciplined hitter, with more walks (23) than strikeouts (22), as he has always had in his career.

I don't know whether Figueroa's skills play up to the major-league level—he doesn't have the traditional power stroke for third base (and the Rays, um, have a third baseman), and isn't a speedster type who can steal tons of bases—but his game is solid, he plays with levelheaded poise, and he has established himself at the Triple-A level. His father, Bien Figueroa, was a ballplayer and, later, a minor-league manager, and you can see the coach's-son mentality in Cole. He made Shawn O'Malley the odd man out when a player needed to be sent down to Montgomery, and has a higher OPS than any of the other Bulls who have regularly manned the infield this season, including Tim Beckham. Surely the Rays have taken notice.

***

From the can't-make-this-stuff-up department, and speaking of middle infielders: Sean Rodriguez, not seen in Durham since late 2009 (he was part of the Scott Kazmir deal), arrived in Durham yesterday and was supposed to be in the starting lineup. Problem: his gear was shipped to Norfolk. Whoops. Expect to see him in Saturday's lineup. Expect, too, for him to go right back up to Tampa when rosters expand on September 1.

The only surer thing when it comes to callups than Rodriguez is Jeff Niemann, who, like Rodriguez, will be in action tonight. The 6-foot-9 (speaking of looking up) Niemann makes his second rehab start for Durham against Norfolk at 7:05 p.m., opposed by a pitcher I have actually never heard of named Zach Clark. (He appears to be a longtime Orioles farmhand who can't seem to stick above Double-A, although he's made appearances in Norfolk in each of the last five years save 2011.) I hate to tell you this, but unless you are planning a road trip to Norfolk (not a bad idea) or Charlotte (very bad idea), you have only four more chances to see the Bulls play this season. Catch them on this late ascent, and enjoy the last days.

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Although they're out of contention, the Bulls are playing like a winning team right now.

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