Durham Bulls lose to Gwinnett Braves, split series: together now, very minor | Sports
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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Durham Bulls lose to Gwinnett Braves, split series: together now, very minor

Posted by on Wed, Sep 2, 2009 at 3:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM---First things first: the "mystery" fifth Bull promoted to Tampa was none other than last night's starter, Wade Davis, Charlie Montoyo said after the Durham Bulls' 10-2 loss to Gwinnett. You can finally get some sleep! You can also rest assured that Davis's promotion had nothing to do with his performance last night, probably his worst of the season. Davis had trouble finding the strike zone for the first three innings, throwing just half of his pitches for strikes. Then, when he did find it, his strikes got hit in the fourth inning, culminating in a disputed grand slam home run by Alvin Colina (more on the dispute later). Davis came out of the game one batter later, having reached a workload limit imposed by the Tampa Bay brass, who want him fresh for his first start as a Ray, which rumor has it will take place in a doubleheader scheduled for Labor Day in a place called [ruffles through papers] Yankee Stadium, which I understand is in one of the outer boroughs of New York City. Congrats to Davis: he's shown himself worthy of the callup; and with his reserved demeanor and his competitive edge, he seems ready for the challenge.

He wasn't last night, though---you'll find some of his thoughts after the jump---and neither were his teammates. The quality of baseball at the Class AAA level is generally pretty high. No surprise there: it's just one level down from the top, and most of the players have or will have played in the majors in their careers. But every now and then, you get reminded where you are.

And so we were last night. The Bulls' fumbling, stumbling loss dropped them back into a tie with the Braves for the IL South Division lead, with six games to play. The two teams split their final series, two games apiece, as well as the season series, 11-11 (although they could meet again in the playoffs). They have identical home records, too: 39-30. Oh, and they also have identical road records. Guess what it is? 39-30.

Suffice it to say that, at the moment, there's a rightness to all of this evenness, which also extends into the future: each team has three games remaining against Charlotte and three against Norfolk.

It wasn't only the Bulls who played like minor-leaguers last night: the Braves didn't exactly look like world-beaters, either. But it was actually two other parties, the umpires and the architects, who set the tone for Tuesday's richness of embarrassments. See how, and also more roster moves, below.

It's probably for fan safety that there is a railing above the wall at the DBAP, although in some spots beyond the wall it isn't clear how the railing is providing that safety. Perhaps it does, in ways I can't make out from the press box; unfortunately, and more obviously, it imperils players' statistics. It's never clear whether the railing is in play or not, or whether the yellow line that runs across the top is supposed to demarcate the boundary---it's yellow, like the foul pole is, and so it seems like the railing beneath it should be part of the field. But there seems to be a gap between the wall and the railing; and so, despite management's assurances earlier this season that the railing is in play, that rule simply isn't practicable under the current construction. There's no reason for a blurry line like that to be allowed to persist in a game of inches, and it needs to be changed for next season so that everyone knows what the score is. At least three times this year, the railing has been involved in a disputed call, and as manager Charlie Montoyo pointed out, the Bulls have lost the argument, probably unjustly, all three times. Both he and Wade Davis mentioned the railing after last night's loss.

Here's why. Chris Conroy, the third-base umpire and crew chief, appeared to be doing something like sanctioned guessing in the fourth inning when he called Colina's long drive to left-center field off of Davis a homer. Replays clearly showed that the ball actually hit the top of the wall and bounced up and back onto the field. Granted, it still would have been a three-run double rather than a grand slam, but it made Davis's stats look significantly worse.

Two problems: Conroy was probably assuming that A) the ball bounced off the top of the wall and then off the railing behind it, which kicked the ball back onto the field, and B) the railing was out of play, behind the wall. Had the railing not been there, he would have been forced empirically to make the correct call. So you could argue that he was in thrall to confusing evidence, and thus did the best he could in the situation.

But he didn't. For one thing, it was fairly clear to the naked eye that the ball didn't bounce off the railing. "The way it came off the wall, it was impossible" for it to have done so, Davis said afterward. So Conroy was either out of position or not tracking the ball carefully. Even so, he---like every other umpire who works games at the DBAP---should have made it a point to be clear before the series started on what's in play and what isn't. Perhaps he did ask, and perhaps he wasn't given a definitive answer; or perhaps the definitive answer he received didn't match up with the evidence before him. In any case, the ensuing confusion made Alvin Colina look like a better hitter, and Davis like a worse pitcher. Careers, and the livelihoods that accompany them, are beholden to such minutiae.

Charlie Montoyo came out to talk it over with the umps, the umps discussed it amongst themselves, and the umps stood by their (incorrect) call. We watched the replay on TV. The call was wrong; it was nothing like the controversial Justin Maxwell homer a few weeks ago.

It turned out not to matter, or perhaps, in an indirect way, it did. As if inspired by Davis's lackluster, abbreviated performance, or by the sluggish pace of Gwinnett starter Jo-Jo Reyes's game (he walked five in six innings), the Bulls infield committed five errors. Henry Mateo muffed Matt Young's grounder in the third inning, and Young later scored on a sacrifice fly. After Colina's disputed homer, the Bulls trimmed the Braves' lead to 6-2, getting leadoff walks in the fourth and fifth innings and a phenomenally lazy two-base error by first baseman Barbaro Canizares. (Canizares was named to the All-Star team earlier in the day; apparently, he decided he didn't need to try anymore. By the way, Jon Weber made it, too!)

Even without Weber (although he was in the ballpark last night, as a civilian, with fellow Team USA mate Jason Childers), the Bulls are a team that can certainly come back from a four-run deficit with four innings to play. Newly promoted (from Montgomery) pitcher Heath Rollins held the margin there, pitching around singles in the fifth and sixth.

In the seventh, though, Rollins allowed a leadoff single to Brian Barton. Barton stole second base, and advanced to third when Michel Hernandez's throw went into center field for an error. Let the record show, however, that it went into the outfield because Henry Mateo was very late covering the bag, and he wasn't in position to catch the ball, which was on the third base side.

The infield came in. Rollins walked Gregor Blanco, and Wes Timmons hit a grounder right to Reid Brignac at shortstop. Brignac faked a throw to second base, then to first, and Barton broke too far from third toward home. He was hung up there, and Brignac threw to Elliot Johnson, who was giving Ray Olmedo a night off at the hot corner. Johnson caught it, took a step plateward in pursuit of Barton, and then realized that the ball had popped out of his glove and landed on the grass behind him in foul territory. Barton raced home and scored; the other two runners advanced to second and third.

Rollins walked Brandon Jones---not the worst thing in the world, because it set up a double play and/or a forceout at home. Sure enough, Barbaro Canizares hit a twin-killing grounder right to Brignac, only Brignac came up on it before he had gloved it and it went through his legs for a run-scoring error. Rollins struck out Diory Hernandez, and then he got Chris Burke to cue a little massé-shot about 75 feet toward Henry Mateo at second base. Mateo approached it timidly, like it was something made of jell-O that would be hard to catch; it bounced and took exactly the side-spinning hop you'd expect it to take; and Mateo flubbed it. Another run scored. It was 10-2 and Rollins's night was over, but not before he got mea culpa pats on the backside from his infielders, who embezzled three outs from him. To add injury to insult, or maybe vice versa (I'm often unsure which), another newly minted Bull, reliever Paul Phillips, walked Colina to make one of the runs off of Rollins earned. Criminal.

Rollins took it all in stride, though, and after the game he seemed composed. He admitted to being "a little nervous" before his first Triple-A appearance, but he pitched pretty well. His fastball sat in the 91 mph range, his curve looked good, and he needs to work on his slider. He didn't throw a changeup, and said that it's a pitch he's still working on. He'll need it in Class AAA if he's going to get lefties out. Sure, it's the minor leagues, but it's still got major-league hitting in it.

Montgomery escapee Paul Phillips, who followed Rollins, touched 95 on the gun, and it was nice to see a new guy throw that hard. We'd grown used to the Bennetts and Nelsons and Oliveroses and Sonnanstines throwing in the ho-hum 80s. Phillips gave up a rocket to Wes Timmons that died in the chilly air and became an out, but otherwise he looked good for 2 2/3 innings, even though he threw one of the wildest pitches I've ever seen, a breaking ball that bounced outside the opposite batter's box and went to the screen.

Even the entertainment was minor-league last night. The National Anthem singer treated notes like they were only suggestions, belting it out with this-sounds-so-awesome-when-I-sing-it-in-the-shower gusto; and the little girl who raced Wool E. Bull around the bases got confused and went from second base to the pitcher's mound. Come to think of it, though, perhaps she was delivering advance apologies to Heath Rollins from Mateo and Brignac.


Davis said after the game that he simply didn't feel fresh---his last start, he reminded me, ended after three innings, when rain delayed the game at Norfolk. He brushed aside the suggestion that the suddenly cool weather might have been a factor, nor did he accept "rusty" as a descriptor of how he felt. He thought he made some good pitches in the Braves' five-run fourth, even though they had four well-struck hits off of him. Davis credited the Braves' hitters with getting the barrel of the bat on good pitches located where he wanted them. It happens sometimes. The 23-year-old Davis has already mastered his interview face, which is unreadable and unbudging. It's quite an act, and it must require a lot of self-control. I bet he goes home and laughs himself silly watching reruns of Sanford & Son or Ren & Stimpy.


Roster moves: Joe Nelson was designated for assignment. I was just yesterday updating the particulars of his struggles, so this was no surprise. Nelson was on the 40-man roster, and a space had to be cleared for Sean Rodriguez, who was finally revealed as the Player to Be Named Later in the Scott Kazmir deal with the Los Anagram Nachos of Applebee's. Rodriguez is a middle infielder with great power. He hit 29 homers for Triple-A Salt Lake City this season, and he has been up in the majors briefly a couple of times this season and last. I'm guessing that a park like Salt Lake's is friendly to home run hitters---all that salted high-desert air---so probably adjust downward a bit for Durham; still, Rodriguez can hit. His lifetime minor-league OPS is .883, with a .502 slugging percentage. He strikes out a lot, but that should make him feel right at home with the Bulls. Charlie Montoyo quipped that, with all those homers, "he'll be my cleanup"---as if Montoyo ever makes decisions based on numbers alone, or as if he has anything like a set lineup.

Meanwhile, the Bulls' pitching ranks keep getting thinner and thinner. They're down to 10 pitchers (most teams have 12) and only two legitimate starters. Is there help on the way? "I don't know," was Montoyo's reply. Who will take those three empty spots in the rotation? "I don't know." Jason Cromer pitches at Charlotte tomorrow, followed on Thursday by long reliever Calvin Medlock, who was added back onto the roster, as expected, along with Joe Bateman. Jeremy Hellickson's next turn comes up on Friday. By Saturday, something else will have probably changed, and a starter will materialize out of thin air or Montgomery, whichever shivers first. It's also quite likely that one of the spots will go to Rayner Oliveros, who worked 4 2/3 innings of long relief on Monday night and was starting down in Montgomery before his promotion.

(By the way, doesn't it seem like Dale Thayer would be of some use up in Tampa again, especially now that his 'stache is back? The Rays used eight pitchers in last night's loss to Boston. Andy Sonnanstine struggled in his return to the majors.)

With seven players suddenly gone from the team, it was very quiet in the clubhouse after the game. "It seems empty," Montoyo said, especially because (he noted) the pasture had been overcrowded with rehabbers before its sudden weeding-out. With autumn abruptly upon us and a bunch of unfamiliar faces suddenly in the mix, there was a weird feeling in the air last night like the season was virtually over---all the energy had deflated, especially in the wake of Saturday's extra-inning loop-de-loop and Jeremy Hellickson's electrifying performance on Sunday. I had to remind myself that the pennant race is in fact reaching its fever pitch; that, in turn, reminded me once again that these are the minors---the one place where the last strides of a photo finish could seem so utterly devoid of intensity, which is of course a byproduct of a team chemistry that can only exist in a stable clubhouse. To repeat: about a third of the players will have left by tomorrow.

My internal attempts to resolve that pileup of contradictions, and to relight for myself the fire under the current situation, prompted me to do something I haven't done all season: mention the standings to Charlie Montoyo. "I'm not supposed to say this," I blurted out, "but: Tied with six games left."

Apprised of the deadlock and the deadline, Montoyo did something he often does: he gave that sly, enigmatic, yet oddly reassuring grin of his, the one he uses to dissemble and defuse, to demur and delay. "There you go," he replied, a classically Montoyan answer. But then he did something he hadn't done all year. He got up from his chair and walked away.

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