Durham Bulls shut out, sweep Syracuse Chiefs: Mothers Day | Sports
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Monday, May 9, 2011

Durham Bulls shut out, sweep Syracuse Chiefs: Mothers Day

Posted by on Mon, May 9, 2011 at 12:17 AM

Brian Baker pitched six scoreless innings for the Bulls
DBAP/ DURHAM—After the Durham Bulls shut out the Syracuse Chiefs, 4-0, on Sunday, thanks to a two-hitter thrown by Brian Baker and Chris Bootcheck, it occurred to me that some of the wailing and flailing you hear and see from babies as they're born must owe to their first, terrifying exposure to light: they open their eyes, for the first time, to the world's blinding, pitiless glare, and the first thing they see is a menacing figure—a doc, a dad—who probably looks, to their virgin eyes, like a predator, an enemy. No wonder they come out crying.

I thought of this not only because it was Mother's Day, but also because of the ballgame's start time. At 5:05 p.m. in May, the grandstand shadow is just beginning to creep out toward home plate from the backstop. By the second or third inning, it has enveloped the batter's box, but the pitcher's mound is still in full daylight—a vexatious contrast for a hitter; and the sunlight glares distractingly off of the windows of the Fox 50 building out beyond right field. At this hour of the day, the pitcher you're squinting at cuts his scariest figure to the poor, bewildered hitter, who might be moved to cry like a baby. But of course, there's no crying in baseball.

"It's tough to see." Those were the first words out of the mouth of Bulls' manager Charlie Montoyo after the game. "I don't want to take anything away from [Brian] Baker"—who threw six shutout innings, allowing just one hit and two walks and striking out six—"but I was happy we scored in the first inning." That's because, in a game played around dusk, one run could conceivably be enough to win—and it was. In the bottom of the first, Justin Ruggiano drew a one-out walk from Chiefs starter Ross Detwiler, stole second base, and scored on a single to left field by Felipe Lopez, in his second game as a Bull since being outrighted from Tampa Bay.

You could say that the victory was born prematurely, I suppose, but it had to be nursed for nine innings, and Baker and Bootcheck (s)mothered the toothless Chiefs right through to the end. The parturition of their labor—midwifed by the Bulls' three-run seventh inning, which put the game away—was Durham's fifth straight win, and their eighth in the last nine games. The Bulls maintained their two-game lead over Gwinnett in the IL South Division.

The babies Bulls were on board for Mother's Day at the DBAP on Sunday. The W. G. Pearson Elementary School "Advanced Band" played the National Anthem—quite admirably for a bunch of little kids—Justin Ruggiano sported a pair of pink spikes in right field as part of a promotion to raise money for breast cancer awareness (they're up for charity auction on eBay), and Craig Albernaz had a pair on, too.

There was plenty more in the spirit if not precisely the (red-)letter of the day: J. P. Howell, down on major-league rehab from Tampa, observed the longstanding custom of springing for an upscale postgame spread for his less flush minor-league teammates (Dirk Hayhurst tweeted his gratitude and concern), and nothing speaks to a mother's love like good, nourishing food; also, it seemed that the Tampa Bay Rays' entire roving coaching staff—including former Bulls manager Bill Evers, now "Field Coordinator" (whatever exactly that is)—was in the clubhouse, mothering their young charges; and after the final out was made, co-"Star of the Game" Ray Olmedo spent Chris Bootcheck's portion of Ken Tanner's onfield interview impishly rubbing Tanner's ample midsection. It's usually intended as a Buddha-belly ritual to bring Olmedo good luck, but after Sunday's game it much more closely resembled a soon-to-be papa showing some proud love for mama's imminent delivery.

It was a beautiful afternoon and evening, the sky having cleared up just before game time, and the resulting late-afternoon sun cheered Brian Baker. "Every year there's a pitcher who gets crappy weather" for all his starts, Baker said. "I guess that's me.... As soon as I woke up and saw it was cloudy and rainy a bit, I said, 'Oh, I must be starting today.'" So perhaps the sudden, last-minute change in the meteorology was a sign that Baker would have his first good start of the season. But of course it was more than just a sign: that bright sun and glare, coupled with the shadow, was his ally.

Still, he had to pitch in the weather, not just bask in it. Montoyo praised Baker for throwing strikes—he went to just three three-ball counts—and Baker told us afterward that he made a point to work quickly (an underrated part of a pitcher's strategy, I've always thought) and keep Syracuse from establishing any command of their at-bats or the tempo of the game.

Baker doesn't throw hard at all. His fastball is an 86-mph local, and he complements it with a curveball and changeup that both tend to hover in the 74-77 mph range. The changeup is probably Baker's best pitch, but every pitcher's most important pitch is his fastball, and Baker's been working recently to improve his. It has to be down and away, he said—its modest velocity makes it too hittable if it's up in the middle of the plate—and it hadn't been getting enough sink. He'd walked eight batters in his previous 10 innings. But in his recent bullpen sessions with pitching coach Neil Allen, Baker has tried to stay over the pitching rubber longer during his windup: he was beginning his lunge in toward home plate too soon, he discovered, with his arm dragging behind—resulting in a release point too far back. On Sunday, he was able to correct his delivery.

Baker also mentioned that Saturday's starter for the Bulls, Alex Torres, had thrown "a good amount of changeups and [Syracuse] didn't make that much of an adjustment." Noting that detail, Baker figured that if he could establish his fastball for strikes, the changeup would be an effective out pitch. The fastball was on point early, but it took two innings for Baker to find the feel for the changeup. In the second inning, Michael Aubrey lined out to center field and Jeff Frazier flied out to the warning track—both on fastballs, I think, perhaps because Baker wasn't comfortable throwing the change. He needed another weapon, and he found it: as he put it, "it just felt like everything clicked right then." Starting in the third inning—precisely when the encroaching shadow made hitting quite a chore—he found the feel for his changeup. Baker struck out four batters in a row—quite possibly the first time he's ever done that professionally, I'd suggest—and allowed only one other baserunner, on a one-out walk in the sixth inning.

Meanwhile, his counterpart, Chiefs left-hander Ross Detwiler, was just about as good. Like Baker, he allowed no hits from the third to the sixth inning, struck out five, and walked a batter. Detwiler was the Washington Nationals' first round draft pick in 2007, the top pitcher taken after the Rays selected David Price. The Bulls saw him in 2009 (and walloped him), and then he tore his hip labrum and had to have surgery.

So it's hard to gauge what kind of pitcher he is now, post-surgery. He has apparently changed his delivery since returning to action, and the 12-6 curveball one scouting report noted he once had was nowhere in evidence: it was a harder, tighter pitch, and sparingly used (there seemed also to be a slider, something in the 82-83 mph range). Mostly he threw a 91-93 mph fastball, and at least one Bull in the postgame clubhouse was unimpressed by it—"more power to you if you can get me out with a fastball right down the middle" was the extent of his generosity (he did go 0-3 versus Detwiler, though)—and it wasn't clear if Detwiler's pitches had convincing action on them or if he was the beneficiary of the play of light, like Baker.

It's tempting to guess the latter, because by the seventh inning the evening shadow had settled comfortably over most of the infield, and the glare from right field had lost some of its intensity. Russ Canzler hit Detwiler's first pitch of the inning the other way into right field for a leadoff single, and then Detwiler walked Jose Lobaton.

The Bulls then got the break they needed when Leslie Anderson hit a slow ground ball past the mound that Syracuse second baseman Alex Valdez gloved but too late to make a throw. Anderson had an infield single, and the bases were loaded with none out. The Chiefs were still down just 1-0 on Lopez's first-inning single that scored Ruggiano—although the deficit seemed larger, somehow, so low was their energy after three straight dispiriting losses at the DBAP (not to mention that their Sunday lineup had a whopping six hitters in it who are batting under .200).

The Chiefs brought their infield in, and I would be curious to see the results of some obsessive stat-head's survey of the effectiveness of this convention of infield positioning in close games, when an important run is on third base with fewer than two outs. It does mean that almost any ground ball hit to an infielder will result in a force-out at home plate, but it also leaves much more room for balls to land safely that would otherwise be caught by fielders. Moreover, if there are no outs, it requires that not one but two balls in a row have to go where fielders can catch them. Those odds don't seem good to me.

With Detwiler showing signs of tiring, up around 100 pitches by now, he went to a full count on J. J. Furmaniak—and sure enough, Furmaniak hit a soft liner to the approximate spot where the second baseman probably would have been playing had he been at normal depth. It landed right near the lip of the infield grass and bounced into right field for a single that scored a run. Detwiler ran the count full again to the next batter, Ray Olmedo—his fastball sailed well out of the strike zone once or twice during Olmedo's at-bat—and on the eighth pitch he saw, Olmedo hit a grounder to about where the shortstop would have been if (etc.)... but instead it sneaked into center field for a cheap two-run single. 4-0, Bulls.

Would Baker, who had thrown 82 pitches after six innings, also lose his mojo with sun going down and pushing the shadow into a more hitter-friendly position? We'll never know, because Charlie Montoyo had already replaced him with Chris Bootcheck. (Baker himself said after the game that this was a good move; he wasn't tired, but he wanted to leave on a good note and not "hang myself in the seventh inning.") This was an extended save opportunity for Bootcheck, who struck out two Chiefs while retiring the side in order in the seventh (when the score was still 1-0), then fanned two more—and made a nice play on a liner back to the mound, as well—en route to a 38-pitch, one-hit, three-inning save. Bootcheck's fastball topped out at 93 mph, and his 87-mph cutter (at least I think it was a cutter) complemented it very well. He's a pitcher to keep an eye on, especially if Montoyo is able to use him for 40+ pitches, making him a valuable member of the bullpen. The tall (6-foot-5), lean Bootcheck also has experience as a closer—he saved 20 games for Indianapolis in 2009 before pitching in Japan in 2010. His importance rises with Sunday's promotion of Rob Delaney to the majors. (Brandon Guyer was optioned back to Durham and will be in Monday's lineup, Charlie Montoyo said.)

Speaking of Indianapolis—from whom the Bulls took three of four games on the recent road trip—they come into town for a four-game series starting Monday, where they will take on the home team at the old Durham Athletic Park. (It's an appropriate moment for this one-off game: If "home" is the connotative sense, the soul-meaning of "mother," then the DAP is like the Bulls' womb.) This is the sequel to last year's Bull Durham tribute game, and it should occasion the inevitable cries of "lollygaggers!" from the bleachers, somebody reminding the pitcher to breathe through his eyelids (parental advisory on that clip, mom), and folks trying to sing Tim Robbins's alternate-lyrics version of "Try A Little Tenderness." Well, you can hardly blame them, after all, on the day after Mother's Day: there's nothing so tender as a mother's love.

Game time is at 7:05 p.m. at the old DAP, corner of Corporation and Morris, and you'll kick yourself if you miss it. See you there.

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