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Monday, September 6, 2010

Durham Bulls rally, edge Norfolk Tides: The shortest distance

Posted by on Mon, Sep 6, 2010 at 8:30 AM

Elliot Johnson earlier this season
  • D.L. Anderson
  • Elliot Johnson earlier this season
DBAP/ DURHAM—Over in the International League West Division, the shortest possible distance separates the top two teams: Columbus and Louisville are half a game apart going into Monday's finale. It doesn't exactly matter what happens to those two teams today, because both have clinched playoff berths. One will win the division, the other will be the wild card. That will affect where and whom they play on Wednesday—the difference between a long bus ride and a drive to the ballpark, but not too much else. (Wrong, sorry: both teams host the first two games of the playoffs.) This time of the year, the teams have been significantly changed by promotions, trades and injuries; for example, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, who had pitcher Zach McAllister almost all season, may have to face him this week if they play the Clippers, for whom he now works (and the aerial view is a reminder that the Clippers, not Scranton, were the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate for 28 years until 2006). It doesn't entirely matter whom you play. Your opponent, whoever it is and no matter what the uniform says, will be a transfigured team you haven't exactly seen before.

Nonetheless, Charlie Montoyo told us after Durham beat Norfolk, 6-5, with a three-run, eighth-inning rally, he's pulling for Clippers to win the division. If they do, the Bulls will take a bus to Columbus on Tuesday; if not, they go to Louisville. Why Columbus? "It's the shortest distance," Montoyo replied, laughing.

At this point, that's the main thing for Montoyo and his Durham Bulls. Keep it close, keep it brief, keep it simple. "Omit unnecessary words," goes perhaps the best and most self-exampling writing advice in the world (it's from Strunk and White's indispensable Elements of Style). You will doubtless point out that I seldom do that myself. Right. On to the game—its essentials and what it leaves us.

It seemed fitting that four of the Bulls' five RBIs last night were spoken for by Elliot Johnson and Chris Richard. Those two are the Bulls' lone true threats, really, as the season moves into the playoffs. They hit back-to-back homers in the first inning off of Armando Gabino, who came into the game at 7-0 with a 2.29 ERA. Richard just missed another homer in the third inning when his long drive to right-centerfield was caught on the warning track, right after Johnson beat out a grounder to the shortstop hole for an infield single; when Blake Davis made an ill-advised attempt to throw out Johnson (he had no chance), his throw sailed over first baseman Rhyne Hughes's head to score Fernando Perez, who had walked to lead off.

He's been quiet about it, but Elliot Johnson has had a superb season, for which he was recognized when he was voted onto the International League Postseason All-Star team as the utility player. His OPS is ninth in the league, he has stolen 30 bases (fifth in the league), his fielding has been very good at multiple positions, and almost every facet of his game has improved dramatically. "He's become what I thought he could be," Montoyo said after the game. "He should be in the big [leagues] next year for somebody. I hope it's with us." Montoyo was quick to praise Bulls hitting coach Dave Myers for his work with Johnson.

But what work was that, exactly? I was writing a couple of days ago that I have no idea what managers actually do, and that goes for coaches as well. So I asked Johnson. "I give all my credit to Dave, because I had such a bad first week [of the season]." Johnson began the year 1-25 during the Bulls' opening road trip. "I told him, 'Hey, man, this can't keep happening.' And he said, 'Let's go to work.' We got [home from the road trip]; ever since then I've been playing well. Dave's whole thing is, 'Get a good ball.'" That's an appropriately brief motto on a night devoted to the shortest distance. And what work have they done? Myers leads Johnson in some simulated-hitting drills during practice, a kind of one-on-one hitting game. "We play it pretty much every day," Johnson said, "and it gets me in a position to hit—just making sure I can see the ball, get a good ball, hit it hard no matter what the pitch is." That all sounds rather simplistic, and if you want to know why it isn't, not at all—hitting a baseball remains one of the very hardest things to do in all of sports—all you have to do is imagine Johnson and Myers out there, every day, throwing balls, seeing balls, swinging at balls under every imaginable circumstance, sharpening Johnson's discipline and selectiveness at the plate with drill after drill after drill, pitch after pitch after pitch. It is exhausting and exhaustive work, and it's evidence of how many steps must sometimes be taken in order to cover short distances—say, 60 feet, six inches. As Edward Albee so succinctly puts it in The Zoo Story, "Sometimes you have to go a long distance out of your way to come back a short distance, correctly."

Cut, then, to the bottom of the eighth inning last night. The Bulls trailed, 5-3, but the Tides' very tall reliever, Kam Mickolio, who had sailed through his first two (perfect) innings of work, had tired. He probably shouldn't have been sent back out for a third inning—in fact, he has not recorded more than six outs in any game this season. Fernando Perez, not exactly a titan at the plate this year, fought Mickolio through a six-pitch at-bat, finally delivering a soft single to left field. (Why Mickolio kept going to offspeed pitches when Perez is obviously vulnerable to heat, I have no idea, unless it was simply that his arm was tired.) Then Mickolio walked J. J. Furmaniak on a full count.

That ended Mickolio's night and brought on Dennie Sarfate, the Tides' best relief pitcher. who had thrown 6 2/3 innings against the Bulls this year, and the only blemish on an otherwise scoreless resume was a solo home run by Rocco Baldelli a few weeks ago at Norfolk. He has allowed just 32 hits in 56 innings this season, with 72 strikeouts—that's Winston Abreu territory. The only thing keeping Sarfate from sticking in the big leagues (he's spent ample time there) is his control: he has allowed 27 walks, too many.

Sarfate's first batter was Kyle Holloway, the youngster inserted into the lineup as designated hitter (in the second spot in the order, mysteriously) yesterday because of a thin roster and injuries to Angel Chavez and Justin Ruggiano. Holloway was instructed to sacrifice the runners into scoring position, come hell or high water, but Sarfate's wildness actually stymied the attempt: Holloway took two pitches for balls, but also fouled off two others that might have been out of the zone. Even with two strikes against him, he tried the sacrifice again, surely by decree from Montoyo, and bunted foul for strike three on a pitch up around his eyes—so he didn't survive Sarfate's hell or his high water.

Up stepped Johnson. Sarfate got ahead, throwing 95-96 mph fastballs with heavy sink. Johnson spoiled a couple of them. "I fouled two off that I thought I was gonna hit—that were low, even, and I was underneath them. I was like, 'I'm gonna have to shorten up and try to get on top of the ball"—that's where line drives live—and on 3-2, Sarfate having pitched the count full, Johnson went down on another sinker and lashed a sinking line drive to center. In other words, he got a good ball.

And his hard work and his good ball were rewarded with a bit of good fortune. Norfolk center fielder Matt Angle hesitated on Johnson's hit for a split second. He may not have seen the ball well—it was dusk, for one thing; and for another, balls hit right at outfielders are the hardest ones to read off the bat (did Angle misread the angle?)—but his hesitation cost him. Angle, whose fielding Johnson later praised, looked for a moment like he would play the ball on a hop, which is what he probably should have done: The baserunners had to see whether the ball would be caught and might have advanced only one base. But at the last moment, as the hard-hit liner tailed slightly away from him, he tried to make a diving catch. This proved ruinous, as the ball got past him and rolled to the wall for a two-run triple, tying the game. Sometimes the shortest distance is the hardest one to cover—the ball landed not far from where Angle was originally positioned on the play. Although Johnson hit the ball very hard, it was another fielding miscue by the ragged Norfolk defense.

After the Tides walked Chris Richard intentionally—the correct tactical move in every way—Joe Dillon, the Bulls' third very disciplined hitter (I'm not sure they have any more than that; maybe Furmaniak), fell behind Sarfate 0-2, swinging over two more nasty, plunging mid-90's fastballs. But then he fouled off three straight pitches, and finally connected on the fourth, hitting a surprisingly long fly ball, given the 0-2 count, to deep center field. It was hauled in at the warning track by Angle, but it was plenty deep for a sacrifice fly, and Johnson scored what proved to be the game-winning run.

Closing it out wasn't easy, though. With two outs in the Tides' half of the eighth inning, Joe Bateman had spelled Jake McGee, whose outing was limited to about 20 pitches because he had had only one day of rest—he usually gets two or more. (McGee looked very good, striking out three of the five men he faced.) Bateman retired Miguel Abreu on two pitches to end the inning, and Angel Chavez, the Bulls' third baseman who tossed a scoreless inning in a game last month and would have pitched on Saturday had the Bulls not rallied late, got up and began warming in the bullpen. Bateman had pitched the eighth inning the day before, and Charlie Montoyo was trying not to overtax him.

But with the Bulls now leading, and with no one else available in the bullpen, Bateman was forced to take the mound again and try to save his own victory. (No, that is not really possible.) He struck out Angle (poor devil!) and then survived a liner by Paco Figueroa, which went right to shortstop Omar Luna for the second out. Bateman then got ahead of Jeff Salazar, and had Salazar down to his last strike two or three times, the crowd on its feet and making lots of noise (even a surprised Montoyo noted the unusually lively 10,925 later on); but Salazar took a ball, fouled off a pitch, and finally singled to right field.

That brought up the tying run in the person of Michael Aubrey, Norfolk's leading home-run hitter. Bateman got two strikes on Aubrey, too, but Aubrey then kept fouling off pitch after pitch, up and to the left side. Bateman threw fastballs and sliders, fastballs and sliders, but he couldn't finish Aubrey off. Meanwhile, in the dugout, nervous clicks on the pitch-count gadget were mounting. Bateman was up over 25 tosses in a game he shouldn't even have had to play in.

Bateman's fastball and slider are about the same speed, 88-89 mph. (I may not be identifying them properly, but basically there's a pitch that swerves left, and a pitch that doesn't.) Aubrey couldn't put them in play because they had good life on them and none of them caught too much of the plate; they were all just outside or on the outside corner, good pitches—maybe there was a slider inside, too—but he wasn't missing them, either. Finally, on the 11th pitch of the at-bat, Bateman threw what appeared to be a changeup—it arrived at 78 mph and faded quickly away, a short-distance pitch on a short-distance evening—and Aubrey, finally unbalanced by an offspeed pitch, swung over it to end the game. The crowd roared in triumphant delight, and the Bulls retook sole possession of the league's best record.

The Bulls snapped an increasingly worrisome three-game losing streak. "It seems like no big deal," Montoyo said as soon as we walked into his office after the game, "but that win meant a lot to me and to the team." You could tell, even though the losses were forgivable under the straitened circumstances, that they were starting to affect Montoyo's mood and confidence.

***

Some notes:

* Brian Baker fared poorly in his start, and Montoyo said afterward that Baker will probably not pitch again this season (more on that below). His velocity was down and his changeup wasn't doing much—and the Norfolk lineup was stacked with left-handed hitters against the righty Baker. He gave up hits in every inning, including a homer to ex-Bull Michel Hernandez and booming doubles to another ex-Bull, Rhyne Hughes, and Blake Davis. It was plain to see that Baker had nothing left in his tank, and you couldn't help but feel bad for him. He was the indispensable swingman on the Durham pitching staff this season, working in short and long relief before finally emerging as a starter—and an excellent one—late in the season. The Bulls would have been hard-pressed to find another pitcher to do what Baker did for them, and Baker pitched well in eight of his 12 starts. He was candid and forthcoming after the game about how he feels. "Mainly just tired," he said, rather than sore. He probably used the word "tired" 10 times in five minutes.

Baker threw 121 innings last year, more than he has this season (105), but quickly pointed out that "the last 20-30 innings [of 2009] were horrible." (Actually, it was more than that: Over his last 48 1/3 innings pitched in 2009, Baker allowed 61 hits and 17 walks and had an ERA of 6.14. At about the same juncture this year, the 70-inning mark, Baker's ERA began its rise; from 2.56 on July 28, over the last seven weeks and six starts it climbed to a season-ending 3.86.) "As the game went on, [my arm] started hurting a little more," Baker conceded. "I was trying to get them out with whatever I could," but Baker admitted that he had nothing on his fastball. He was just trying to save the bullpen from having to work too much. "I was hoping [to pitch] at least five innings," he said, and he almost did. But after he walked the first two hitters in the fifth inning, with pitches that practically looked exhausted, Montoyo took Baker out of the game. Baker is supposed to pitch in Venezuela this winter, and will take some time off—starting, probably, today—to rest his arm. He knows he needs to strengthen the muscles in and around his shoulder—some extra leg strength might help, too. As it stands now, the tall, lanky right-hander seems to be prone to losing his effectiveness at the 70 innings mark. In order to establish himself as a legitimate long man out of someone's bullpen (which is what his stuff suits him for), he'll have to show that he can last longer and deeper into the season. Baker is a very nice guy and a valuable role player, and I'm hoping he can come back strong and durable next year. He'll likely be a Bull again.

* Jake McGee told me a few days ago that he's turning his curveball into a slider, but a few of those offspeed pitches he threw last night were pretty clearly curves, with 12-6 break (two of them appeared to drop in for strikes, but Fran Burke called both of them balls). He also worked in a couple of sliders, and got a couple of swings and misses with them. I'm tempted to call his poor outing on Friday an anomaly after yesterday's work. If he, R. J. Swindle (who also looked better in his last appearance), Bateman and Abreu are all in good shape come Wednesday, the bullpen will be formidable for the post-season. That, of course, is assuming that McGee isn't called up to the majors, which remains a possibility.

* Ramon Ortiz's injury was rather freakishly inflicted, which makes it doubly dispiriting. The fourth batter of Saturday's game, Michael Aubrey, rapped a grounder to first base. Chris Richard fielded it well behind the bag and up the line, and had to throw the ball with some zip on it to Ortiz covering first base. But Ortiz, according to a Bulls official, lost the ball in the lights for a moment, then tried to catch it barehanded. It hit his finger and mangled the nail. Ortiz only threw a few more pitches as he discovered that he had no feeling in the finger anymore. That forced him from the game; worse, it ended his season, according to Montoyo.

* With the loss of Ortiz, and now (probably) Baker as well, the Bulls' post-season starting rotation goes back into the pan. Richard De Los Santos will pitch on Wednesday, followed by Aneury Rodriguez on Thursday; beyond that, Charlie Montoyo was unsure. Neither of those pitchers was supposed to be in the rotation this year, and neither were the two likeliest to follow them: Bobby Livingston, who was just signed a couple of weeks ago in desperation, and Paul Phillips. Phillips has just been called up from Montgomery, and should pitch out of the bullpen tomorrow in relief of starter Bobby Livingston. Montoyo also surmised that Phillips would start for the Bulls in the post-season. A career reliever, Phillips's last three appearances for Double-A Montgomery were all starts, perhaps in preparation for what is to come. (They were short starts; he allowed four runs in 14 total innings.) Phillips is no ace, by any means, and his short-distance limitations will tax the bullpen if he starts for Durham; but at this point, you'll take what you can get, and Phillips at least has the experience under his belt of having pitched for last year's Bulls playoff team. We'll wait to hear, meanwhile, whether the Rays want to give either of their top Double-A starters, Alex Cobb and Alexander Torres, a shot with the Bulls.

* No further word on other reinforcements, although Phillips's arrival will almost surely not be the last of the changes made. I'm still betting on the return of catcher Craig Albernaz. Do look, however, for the reappearance on Monday afternoon of Justin Ruggiano in the lineup. He played late-inning outfield yesterday and should be ready to go from here on out—barring another injury, of course, which these days seems far from a certainty in the world of the Durham Bulls.

* The distance between here and the end of regular season can't get much shorter: Monday is the end. The custom is for both teams to go up there swinging at the first pitch and aim to play a sub-two-hour game; last year, the Bulls all shared the same bat, too, Jon Weber's (kind of an in-memoriam homage, since Weber was by then playing for Team USA), before it finally broke, if I recall correctly, in the eighth inning. But Montoyo wasn't sure about extending that tradition in 2010. "I don't know if I want to play that game, because you know what happens? You play extra innings. Everybody wants to go home, everybody's rushing, everybody's making outs, and it's 0-0 in the ninth, 1-1. Come on, man, let's just play. If we win, we win; if we lose, we lose." But then he backed off a bit. "Now, having said that, we'll see what happens, because they [the players] earned [the right] to do whatever they want." He was talking about this afternoon's game, of course, but his words apply to the season as a whole. By stampeding out ahead of their rivals early, the Bulls shortened the distance to the playoffs for themselves, making it possible for the team to endure these late-season injuries, slumps and slip-ups with little consequence. Tomorrow, Durham sends the team off to {Columbus}{Louisville} on what should be a beautiful, warm Labor Day, and you can help the Bulls cover one last short distance. If today's game draws 8,315 fans, the Bulls will reach the half-million mark in attendance for the season. They just missed that figure in 2009, by less than 3,000 fans; it was the first time in four years that the Bulls missed the 500,000 milestone. The final game of 2009 drew 8,189 spectators. To reach 8,315 and half a million in 2010, it'll take just 126 of you. Let it be done.

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