McKIMMON CENTER/RALEIGH Texas Rangers left-hander Matt Harrison was the first active player in seven years not named Josh Hamilton to win the Will Wynne Award as the North Carolinian contributing most to baseball.
Those were just two of the big award winners at the 63rd annual baseball banquet of the Raleigh Hot Stove League on Tuesday night.
And although the Durham Bulls had their worst season in six years and didn’t get anywhere near the game, there’s a great crowd of 8,601 in the house.
The Pawtucket Red Sox, Durham’s worst tormentors in the International League with a 36-27 record in the park, are the Governors’ Cup Champions taking on the Reno Aces of the Pacific Coast League.
Manager of the Aces is Brett Butler, who was a member of the legendary 1980 Bulls who brought pro baseball back to the city after a seven-year absence. Oddly enough, his Bulls teammate Gerald Perry is the PawSox’ hitting coach.
Trevor Bauer, who was the No. 3 overall pick in last season’s draft from the Arizona Diamondbacks, will take on 38-year-old PawSox starter Nelson Figueroa.
The series is tied with each league having three wins apiece. Reno is the home team since the PCL won the Triple-A All-Star Game this year.
Reno scores early and often, banging out 13 hits in an easy 10-3 win.
It was the evidence of things seen—the pitches, the man throwing them, his diffidence and erratic kinetics—and not the grid of simplified numbers, which are anathema to faith, that contained the truth that was to come. After that first start in April, Alex Torres was bad for pretty much the entire of the rest of the season; so bad that, when you compared him to the guy we mostly saw in 2011, you realized that, in fact, we wound up not seeing Alex Torres all year, even when he was pitching before our very eyes.
And then we really didn't see him. On August 4, after what I bet was the worst start of his professional career—he gave up six runs and didn't get out of the first inning on July 29—he was placed on the disabled list. The "injury," he acknowledged last night, did not exist, a thing unseen in which to have no faith.
And like an apostate, like a sinner (because bases on balls are sinful, and he committed an awful lot of them), he went down to the low, low minors and found, if not quite salvation, at least a way back toward it.
And then the prodigy returned to Durham as a prodigal son and was, at least for one night, reborn. He gave the best pitching performance of his two years in Triple-A, Brooks Conrad hit a two-run homer, and the Bulls shut out the Charlotte Knights, 2-0, on the last night of the home season.
Coincidentally, after the weather cooled, the Bulls hit their hottest stretch of 2012, winning a season-high six straight games. But then they left home and were swept at Norfolk, scoring a total of one run in three games; meanwhile, while they were gone, the heat gathered itself again. Yesterday afternoon, about 3:30 p.m., one of the Charlotte Knights was lost near the team hotel; he was trying to get to the DBAP but was going the opposite direction. I happened to be headed out of my house for what would turn out to be a scorching run in the sun, and the ballplayer, whom I had never seen before, flagged me down for directions—you can just tell a ballplayer, even before he reveals himself (so can baseball players tell baseball adepts? is that why he picked me to help him?). I pointed the way for him, a Latino player from a presumably caliente climate, and as we walked across Chapel Hill Street he said, prematurely exhausted, "It's hot."
It's not the Knights, though, but the Bulls who are swooning in the heat. Last night, the Bulls dropped their fourth straight game, losing 7-2 to Charlotte, and the game was over before the home team even came to bat. On his fourth pitch of the game, Durham starter Jim Paduch gave up a solo homer to rehabbing White Sox outfielder Alejandro de Aza, who spent ample time with the Knights in 2010 and 2011. Two pitches after that, Bulls third baseman Cole Figueroa made an uncharacteristic error on an easy grounder by another rehabbing major-leaguer, Orlando Hudson.
Then Paduch started bouncing balls all over the dirt, walking Greg Golson and throwing a couple of wild pitches—one of them a Nuke LaLoosh-style, all-the-way-to-the-backstop airmail express package—and a potential third was courteously ruled a passed ball by the official scorer.
Dan Johnson—who was later removed, after the seventh inning, and called up to the majors (yay!)—singled, and one out later I called for Josh Phegley to hit a double off the Blue Monster. It turned out to be a single off the Blue Monster (what was I thinking with a slow catcher running?) and it was 4-0, Knights.
"Just a bad start. Tough to watch," Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said later, landing really hard on the word "bad." He's had to watch a lot of them this season, and they're why his team never had a chance in 2012. Paduch's start last night encapsulated most of what anyone needs to know. He put the Bulls in an immediate deficit, he didn't throw strikes, when he did they got hit, and he didn't make it to the fifth inning.
What do you expect? There have been a few nice moments for Paduch this year, as when he blanked the Pawtucket Red Sox for six innings and beat Daisuke Matsuzaka. But that was almost four months ago. The league figured Paduch out. He had a 2.35 ERA after beating Pawtucket that day; from there it marched up, up, up, topped 5.00, and wound up (after last night) at 5.65. It's the time of the season when ERAs run high.
Paduch shouldn't even have been on the mound last night. Not long ago, Bulls' broadcaster Patrick Kinas mentioned that the Tampa Bay Rays had originally planned to turn Paduch into the late-inning closer for the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits this season. Pressed into emergency action as a starter in Durham, one level up, he simply didn't have the tools for the job. Not for nothing did he spend four prime developmental years lost to the world in indy-ball. And he only stayed in this year's rotation for the Bulls because, basically, Alex Torres was a total disaster.
And guess who's starting tonight? Alex Torres.
It's the time of the season.
But the miracle of baseball is its clocklessness. It can change on you like that, because it has, essentially, a limitless opportunity to do so in every game. Time of the season? It's the timelessness of the season, and every day in baseball is its own season.
To wit, last night: First, Dan Johnson got called up. I mean, DAN JOHNSON GOT CALLED UP! I'm so happy for him I can barely express it. He was leading the IL in games played. He was imprisoned in Triple-A. He's been freed.
Then, second, Kevin Kiermaier came into the game for the Bulls.
The Bulls have a player named Kenny Kervmaier? Carny Kevmaier? Now just hold on there, fella.
I will if you will.
If you're departing here but might like to hear what I have to say anyway—and I literally mean "hear"—tune your dial to 620 AM today at noon. I'll be joining Patrick Kinas and Charlie Montoyo on the air during the second half of the Bulls' weekly Saturday radio show.
It was the Bulls' sixth straight victory, their longest winning streak of the year. The last five of these wins have come at the expense of the Norfolk Tides, and there is a little precedent for this. The Bulls and Tides played a home-and-home seven-game series in 2010, and the Bulls won six in a row, the first five at Harbor Park in Norfolk. The Bulls were the class of the International League that season, on their way to an impressive 88-55 record, and the Tides would finish last in the South Division.
Things are much reversed this time. Norfolk was in contention for the playoffs when the just-concluded series began. After the Bulls five-finger-discounted them, though, they're about finished. Last night's loss drops Norfolk under .500 and 5 1/2 games back of wild-card leader Pawtucket with only seven games left to play, and two other teams, Lehigh Valley and Columbus, between them.
And for the Bulls, not only have they played spoiler, but a moral victory is at hand, too. They are now 3 1/2 games better than last-place Gwinnett in the IL South. Barring a total collapse, Durham will at least finish the year out of the basement, which they shared with the G-Braves less than a week ago. It's certainly possible that the Bulls will go into a final, week-long slump and end the season on a low note, but as it stands now, they've very nearly salvaged 2012 in these last six days. The team lost 13 of 14 straight road games in April, spoiling the soup before it was even on the stove. Had they gone 7-7 on that trip, not an unreasonable outcome to hope for, they'd be a .500 team as of today. That one freakish and ruinous stretch is the scar on an otherwise decent body of work.
So how have they turned themselves around?
DURHAM BULLS ATHLETIC PARK It’s a bit too late to do anything about the pennant race, but the Durham Bulls are very hot right now.
And they’ll have a solid arm on the mound on an unseasonably cool, as big Jeff Niemann (0-0, 8.31) will make his second rehab start. Zach Clark (4-1, 1.44) will go for Norfolk.
The Bulls get the fourth save in five days from Dane De La Rosa, who gets his 19th of the season in the 5-3 win.
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.
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.
DURHAM BULLS ATHLETIC PARK The Durham Bulls play the back half of their two-game set with the Charlotte Knights, who are closing in on the South Division title.
It’s the fourth game of the Bulls’ last extended homestand of the season, and Durham is on a five-game losing streak.
Former Bulls Dan Johnson and Hector Gimenez are in the middle of the Knights’ lineup.
Lance Pendleton (7-5, 4.76) will try to right the ship for the Bulls’ beleaguered pitching staff on a mild evening, while Dylan Axelrod (7-4, 2.97) will go for Charlotte.
This time it’s an actual pitchers’ duel, with the Bulls getting a couple of runs late to win 3-1.
The Bulls are tied for last place in the South Division with the Gwinnett Braves. To borrow from Tolstoy (there, I'm a book critic), all good teams are alike, but each bad team is bad in its own way. The Bulls' method is traditional and expedient: allow sh*t-tons of runs. The Braves, it seems (I don't really know; I only pay attention to them when they play Durham, although I did go to a G-Braves/Tides game down in Georgia recently—and I have proof and more proof), ah, the Braves seem to have the capacity to lose in such weird ways that it is almost wonderful. Their loss to Norfolk last night warrants this little detour down I-85:
Gwinnett took a 3-0 lead into the top of the ninth, having allowed just four hits, only to have the Tides tie it up against the Braves' late-inning B-squad relievers. Manager Dave Brundage had had to burn up the A-list the previous night in order to enable his team to rally and beat Durham in 11 innings. And it was the 11th that would decide the game again for Gwinnett last night. Reliever Ryan Buchter, who had faced five Bulls on Sunday night and walked four of them, came into the game and walked three more batters. He did manage to erase one of them at third base on a sacrifice bunt attempt, but cancelled that out by committing a throwing error on another sacrifice bunt.
After the third walk, Dave Brundage removed Buchter from the game with the bases loaded and the go-ahead run already in for Norfolk. The thing is, Brundage really didn't have anyone to replace Buchter; that's what consecutive 11-inning games will do to your bullpen. So he called on a position player to pitch, but not one on his bench. No, shortstop Josh Wilson walked over to the mound, replaced at his position by Brian Friday. (I guess Wilson pitched rather than Friday because Wilson, 31, is a minor-league soldier type and Friday is 26, still hanging onto prospect status.) Wilson, in Albernazian fashion, was actually making his third pitching appearance of the season. Guess who the second was against? The Durham Bulls, in a 16-8 loss on July 25. Wilson tossed a scoreless ninth inning against the Bulls.
So Wilson trots over the mound from shortstop and promptly allows a two-run single to L. J. Hoes. That makes it 6-3, Norfolk, which will be the final score, but the Braves do add a little more fish to this bicycle: The Tides' Ryan Flaherty follows Hoes' single by popping out to... Brian Friday at shortstop—and I can kind of imagine Wilson standing on the mound and kvetching, enviously, "That's my putout!" And finally, in the fruitless bottom of the 11th, Wilson is the only Brave to reach base when he singles with one out.
Sure, you can make this stuff up, but fortunately you don't have to. You have the Gwinnett Braves and the Durham Bulls, tied for last place, doing it for you by being nice to other teams, allowing 52 hits in three days and putting shortstops on the mound in tense extra-inning games. And you probably know what the vicious and venerable manager Leo Durocher said about nice guys: "Nice guys finish last."
That's why the big cognitive dissonance thing going on at the DBAP these days—other than the sight of a Charlie Montoyo-managed, five-time division champ stumbling around in the late-August basement, of course—is the constant sound of Alice Cooper's "No More Mr. Nice Guy" on the PA system.