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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Durham Bulls beat Louisville Bats: the most dangerous game

Posted by on Thu, May 19, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Joel McCrea!
  • Joel McCrea!
DBAP/ DURHAM—"Have you ever heard of a 7-5 nail-biter?" Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo asked, rather rhetorically, after his team beat the Louisville Bats on Wednesday afternoon. The final score was actually 7-4, not 7-5, but Montoyo's narrowing of the margin to more-or-less nail-biter width said everything you need to know about how much he fears Louisville and its merry band of pranksters, who can in fact cause serious damage to a pitching staff.

The Bulls took a 4-1 lead on Jose Lobaton's second-inning grand slam; extended it to 5-1 in the sixth when Russ Canzler hit an opposite-field home run on Louisville starter Mike Leake's final pitch; withstood a three-run homer by Jeremy Hermida that narrowed the gap to one run in the top of the eighth inning; and then added a pair of insurance runs in the bottom of the inning to provide a cushion for Mike Ekstrom, who, one night after blowing a three-run, ninth-inning lead, retired three Bats on three pitches—a trio of first-pitch groundouts—to preserve the win for Alex Cobb, who pitched—to my eyes—his best game of the season.

Montoyo hadn't noticed that Ekstrom had tied that unbeatable (and widely shared) record for one-inning pitch efficiency. "That's what it took?" he asked. Informed that it indeed had needed just three pitches, he exhaled a brief and tortured breath and said: "Seemed longer."

And so it goes when the Bulls play the Bats. The Bats hit, the Bulls hit (you can delete the spaces in your mind's eye, if you prefer), there somehow manages also to be plentiful good pitching, and it isn't as if Louisville is worlds better than Durham, despite Montoyo's chiroptophobia. In fact, the Bulls are a half game better than the Bats after Wednesday's win, and can of course continue, until at least September, to exercise their bragging rights over having eliminated Louisville from the Governors' Cup playoffs three years running. To some degree, Montoyo's fearful murmurings—based though they are on the Bats' rather frightening lineup, which never seems very far away from a major outburst—are just a tactic to make his team seem like the underdog, which they aren't, neither historically nor circumstantially. They have a better record, started the league's leading pitcher yesterday (Alex Cobb's ERA is half a run better than the next guy's), and were playing at home.

To wit: "They're a dangerous ball club," Louisville manager Rick Sweet said of the Bulls, right after our post-game interview began. "The two of us have the second-best record in the league behind Columbus." (Montoyo pretends ignorance of the standings, which is—let's be honest—a ludicrous pretense: more dissembling on his part.) "You expect every game to be like [Wednesday's]," Sweet added—and then engaged in his own dissembling. Praising Durham starter Alex Cobb, Sweet said: "He's one of the best pitchers in the league. He's kind of like that... what was that kid? Helling?" I helpfully interjected "Hellickson" and saw, chagrined, that I had fallen for Sweet's little trap. "Oh, I remember him," he said, laughing like a trickster. And then, by way of getting my head in the game, added: "Come on!"

And that drove home the point: when these two teams play, the game gets dangerous. You have to keep your wits about you.

On Tuesday night, Louisville banged out 10 hits and eight runs in the game's final three innings to storm back and beat Durham, 11-8. On Wednesday afternoon, less than 12 hours after the previous game's final out, Louisville shortstop Zack Cozart ripped Alex Cobb's first pitch to straightaway center field. Desmond Jennings happened to catch it, and Cobb struck out Yonder Alonso with a nifty splitter. On a 2-2 count to the next batter, Juan Francisco, Cobb tried another split-change, a pretty good one down and in, but Francisco golfed it onto the berm beyond the right-center field wall for a home run. Todd Frazier and Jeremy Hermida followed with hard-hit singles.

Cobb got out of the inning, getting Devin Mesoraco—who was Cobb's catcher in the Arizona Fall League in the off-season, and knew Cobb's weapons well—to fly out to left field (he just got under another splitter).

The Bulls went in order in the bottom the first inning, and in the top of the second, Brent Clevlen and Kris Negron singled with one out. Five of the first nine Bats had had hits off Cobb, and it seemed very much like the momentum they'd built during their tidal-wave comeback late the previous night had carried into Wednesday: seasoned hunters, they had sniffed out new prey in Cobb, and it seemed only a matter of time until they got their fangs into him.

But Cobb got out of the second inning, too, fanning Cozart and getting Alonso to fly out to center field. In the bottom of the second, Louisville starter Mike Leake (about whom much more later) had a disastrous seven-pitch sequence: single, single, single—Lobaton grand slam. There were two mistakes in the seven pitches: Leake's 0-2 to Carter was up and out over the plate, and Carter served it into left field for a base hit; and his first pitch to Lobaton, batting left-handed against the righty Leake was a fastball—Lobaton appeared to be guessing for it—that veered in toward the inner half of the plate. It wasn't exactly a terrible pitch, featuring Leake's characteristic cutting movement, but Lobaton—who told us later that he was trying to pull the ball in the air and at least get a sacrifice fly (which are harder to come by from the shallow left field of the DBAP)—turned on it and yanked it down the right field line, where it cleared the fence by a little and landed a row or two back for a granny. Rick Sweet, defending his pitcher, later said he didn't think it was hit all that hard. For a homer, I guess that's true. But it was a homer. 4-1, Durham.

Yet Louisville was relentless. The lefty Francisco led off the top of the third by smashing Cobb's first pitch the opposite way toward Felipe Lopez at third base, so hard that it bounced off Lopez's glove and nearly knocked him down. Francisco had a single. Frazier followed by whacking a hot grounder up the middle. Cobb, who fields his position well, caught it and started a double play. He fell behind Hermida but got him to ground out to end the inning.

And then the hunted became the hunter.

"Most games, you're battling yourself," Cobb later said. "If you make good pitches, you're going to get a hitter out eight out of ten times. But when you face a good team like this, they hit one of my best pitches for a home run." They were also very aggressive: 13 of the first 21 Bats swung at Cobb's first pitch of the at-bat, and Cobb started to use their aggressiveness against them. After Francisco's homer, followed by his line-drive single to third, Cobb said: "At that point, we didn't really know what to do, so we came back with some curveballs"—this all had a throw-it-and-duck feel to it—"and he was a little out in front of those, so we kept with that and we were fortunate enough to have him roll over and hit a ground ball to first."

That groundout to first was in Francisco' third at-bat, in the sixth inning, and marked the ninth straight Louisville hitter Cobb retired after Frazier's double-play ball erased Francisco. That scintillating, perfect three-inning stretch was the best I've seen Cobb pitch. Here was a lineup of talented, aggressive, strong, cocky, in-the-groove hitters who appeared to have him right in their sights early, but Cobb, as he put it, "had to really change the count around on them": He and Lobaton started throwing more first-pitch offspeed pitches. "You have to out-think them," he said, "out-trick them."

Here's the passage from the iconic (and cheesy-wonderful) story "The Most Dangerous Game" that applies:

His whole idea at first was to put distance between himself and General Zaroff; and, to this end, he had plunged along, spurred on by the sharp rowers of something very like panic. Now he had got a grip on himself, had stopped, and was taking stock of himself and the situation. He saw that straight flight was futile [...]

"I'll give him a trail to follow," muttered Rainsford, and he struck off from the rude path he had been following into the trackless wilderness. He executed a series of intricate loops; he doubled on his trail again and again, recalling all the lore of the fox hunt, and all the dodges of the fox.

Frazier singled up the middle with one out in the sixth to end the three-inning perfect run, and Cobb advanced Frazier to second with a wild pickoff throw. Instead of getting rattled, though ("I will not lose my nerve," Rainsford says to himself), Cobb called Lobaton out to the mound, where they had a fairly long conference (well, as long as mound conferences are ever allowed to get—I forgot to ask Cobb what they discussed). Cobb got Hermida to tapped out weakly back to the mound, but he fell behind his teammate from last autumn, Mesoraco, 3-0. This time, cannily, he pitched around the dangerous Mesoraco, walking him on five pitches to get to veteran Corky Miller. This was a risky move, as it brought the tying run to the plate. (In "The Most Dangerous Game," Rainsford risks drowning in the "Death Swamp" in order to lure his pursuer there.)

Cobb fell behind Miller, too, 3-1, and on the fifth pitch—a 92-mph fastball, if I recall—Miller hit a fairly rousing opposite-field fly ball to deep right field. But Miller is no Juan Francisco, and Justin Ruggiano hauled it in on the warning track to end the threat. Cobb came back out and retired the side in order in the seventh rather easily, including two strikeouts, and left after 103 pitches (67 strikes). Interestingly, just as the Bats started adjusting to Cobb's adjustment—they stopped swinging at the first pitch after Francisco's sixth-inning at-bat, recognizing his changeover to the first-pitch breaking ball—Cobb then started offering more first-pitch fastballs again.

One other item of note here: Lobaton has caught all of Cobb's starts this season, and that can't be an accident. It obviously works very well for him. "I've got my grips before he's putting the signs down," Cobb said: "Really good tempo; we're working really fast together." I'm guessing that Montoyo will try to maintain this battery for all of Cobb's starts, if he can. He certainly should. Cobb's ERA is 1.31, and he has allowed just 44 baserunners in 41 innings pitched over seven starts. I have to think that, if the injured Jeff Niemann can't return to action soon for the Rays, and if Andy Sonnanstine struggles again in his place (he hasn't fared well so far), Cobb is likely to return to Tampa before long. After figuring out how to handle Louisville, with its half-dozen or so high quality hitters, he should be better prepared for the rigors and challenges of solving big-league opponents. He's mastering the necessary trickery, getting the hang, in baseball terms, of "The Most Dangerous Game"'s Malay mancatcher, the Burmese tiger pit and the "native trick he learned in Uganda." Ah, colonial fiction.

***

Speaking of getting back to the major leagues, what to make of Louisville's Mike Leake, the 23-year-old who was drafted in 2009, skipped right past the minors, and made 22 starts for Cincinnati in 2010 (plus a few more in 2011) before finally being optioned to the minors a few days ago? Speaking of the hunter and the hunted, when we went into the visitors' locker room to talk with him, he wasn't in front of his locker, and we reporters looked around like a lost jungle safari.

"You guys looking for Mike Leake?" one of the Bats said. "That's him right there." The short, slender Leake was virtually right in front of us. We weren't sure if the teammate was even telling us the truth—more tricksterism—but then I recognized Leake's face (from this unfortunate video): the Louisville players, just like their crafty manager, little but unsettling fast ones on us.

We asked Leake if it felt weird to pitch in the minors after seeing nothing but big-league action to date. Was it like a Spring Training game? "No, same mentality," he answered. "It's not as nerve-racking. It was more fun for me today, just to kind of relax and work on things." After the Lobaton grand slam, Leake made adjustments and started mixing his pitches a little more—he also threw a little harder, his fastball velocity inching up from 86-87 to 89-90—he even dropped to down to three-quarters on his delivery once. He limited Durham to three hits over the next 4 1/3 innings

Louisville reliever David Johnson had been warming up during the fifth, when the Bulls put a runner on second base, and again during the top of the sixth. But Leake came back out for the bottom of the sixth, near his pitch limit (about 90, Sweet told us after Tuesday's game). He got Chris Carter to pop out weakly to the catcher, right in front of home plate, but left a fastball up and on the outer half of the plate to Russ Canzler, who belted an opposite-field homer to extend the Durham lead to 5-1. (This would prove important: Hermida's three-run shot in the following inning, off of a limp Ryan Reid, would otherwise have tied the score—a crucial psychological edge. Instead, the Bulls held onto their lead.) That did it for Leake, who pitched a little better than his line suggests. Among other things, he threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 24 batters he faced, 13 of whom had at-bats of three or fewer pitches.

Asked if there was anything in particular he was wanting to work on in the minors, Leake said he got too "fastball-cutter-silder happy" in the majors and needed to work his changeup and curveball back into his repertoire more consistently. Intriguingly, when we asked him why he became too infatuated with those three pitches, Leake paused and said, "I'd rather not talk about that one, just so I don't say the wrong thing."

It seemed another vulpine tactic. Was he tacitly accusing his big-league catchers of pushing him toward just three pitches? Hard to say. Leake told us that there was nothing specific he'd been asked by Cincinnati to work on—re-integrating the curve and change appears to be something he's doing on his own, almost in reaction against the big-league club, not in accordance. He seemed to think he was in the minors only because the Reds happen to have a surplus of starters, and not really for any other reason. It's true, they do, but Leake wouldn't have been the odd man out unless he needed to improve. Presumably, he knows that, but if he had that thought he deflected it.

I reminded myself that Leake is young—he's 23 but could easily pass for 17—and although he's the same age as Alex Cobb, Cobb seems much more mature, because Cobb has perspective, humility and seasoning. This Cobb's fifth full year in the minor leagues, whereas Leake went straight from a prominent college program to the majors, essentially stealing his way into the Show without paying any minor-league dues. He can be forgiven for a little arrogance. (Note the way he talked about the aftermath of Lobaton's grand slam: "I made a little adjustment," he said, "and they didn't do too much after that.")

So you could sort of see why this wily-looking, boyish athlete (he actually looks a bit like a fox) might get himself into the hot water of petty larceny: He appears daring enough to try it, but green enough to get caught. Add into that the inevitable sense of privilege that he can't possibly have been able to avoid acquiring, given his already elite history as a player, and it makes sense that he might try something unwise without thinking he could actually suffer the consequences. He has never failed at anything. Why would lifting a few t-shirts be any different?

I have a vivid memory of an experience I had as a young man, older than Leake is now but still well under 30. During a fire-drill training in an office building I once worked in, the disarmingly charismatic fire chief showed us how to feel a door for heat and then the proper way to open it in case there was a fire behind it. He was quite funny, which at first seemed a bit inappropriate, but he told us that he used humor to get us all to listen carefully to him. It worked, he said, except for the young guys: "because the young guys think they don't burn."

A sense of invincibility or entitlement, and privilege: put them together, and you've got a risk-taker, someone who wants, foolishly but rather admirably, to play a dangerous game—and isn't that what baseball is? There you stand, 60 feet from someone who is going to throw a hard ball at you at lethal speeds. Or, from the other vantage point, there you stand, a guy with a club in his hand waiting to smash the ball right back in your face, or in someone's: major-league careers have ended, even lives have ended this way.

Among sports, baseball has always seemed uniquely dangerous to me: you're just standing there, waiting to get hit, wearing only the barest bodily protection, and no amount of speed can protect you: you can't outrun a fastball, or a line drive, which hurtles at you faster than any punch or linebacker. And where the possibility of mortal injury is circumstantially quite rare in other sports, it looms over every single pitch of every single baseball game. Death is the latency that lives in the game's heart.

To a certain degree, ballplayers must be playing because of this danger, not despite it. They are risk-takers, death-defiers. To make a perhaps more appropriately serious literary reference—kids, this recovering book critic has to keep you honest by reminding you periodically that I got into this baseball writing business by accident—one of my favorite sentences out of John Cheever comes from his immortal short story, "The Swimmer." As Neddy stands about to embark on his great and tragic suburban journey, Cheever writes: "He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools."

That is what a ballplayer is, I often think: someone who not only hurls himself into pools, but who must, in order not to dash himself to bits or drown there, carry at least a little bit of "inexplicable contempt"—potent because inexplicable—for those who do not: for all the rest of us who feel the fire door for heat first, rather than kick it open. The respect and wonder that ballplayers deserve from us has little to do with the freakish gift that allows them to throw a baseball 90 miles an hour and/or hit same; it has to do with not only putting themselves in harm's way, but then succeeding in the eye of that very peril. "'Who cares how a jaguar feels?' 'Perhaps the jaguar does.'"

***

A Bulls official was speculating that Chris Bootcheck's unusually long relief appearance last week heralded a move into the starting rotation. Indeed, that is precisely what has happened: Bootcheck will take over the spot currently in the possession of Jeremy Hall, who has handled it... well... rather dangerously. Bootcheck threw 39 pitches in that three-inning appearance, but in fact threw 54 in just two innings at Syracuse this past weekend. I had a long talk with him after Wednesday's game, and although I had my voice recorder thingy pointed unerringly right toward the sound of Bootcheck's voice, I did not observe the formality of actually pressing record.

So take this as a summary from memory, a memory which is a little tired right now but has not yet been pulverized by Twitter: Bootcheck told us that he started a couple of games in Japan last year, when he played for Yokohama, but the stats do not support that claim—the official line says he pitched in 15 games, all in relief. He also searched his memory bank and declared that he last started an American game in 2005, but in fact he started five of them in 2006 for Class AAA Salt Lake City, when he was in the Angels organization. (Maybe that concussion...?) In his defense, he was last a full-time starter in 2005.

It isn't clear to me why the Rays suddenly consider Bootcheck a starter. I guess the idea is simply to get a few starts out of him until Dirk Hayhurst returns from his rehab stint in Port Charlotte, but then it also isn't clear to me why the Rays consider Hayhurst a starter—a consideration that landed Hayhurst on the disabled list well before the end of April. Bootcheck, however, said he's up for the challenge and glad for the opportunity. He also added that, last year in Japan, the pregame practices were much more strenuous than they are here—everyone works at bunting, for example, both right-handed and left-handed (!); everyone runs; pitchers do plentiful long-toss every day (the Japanese pitch-count workload tends to be higher than ours, too). He also said that it's common for relievers to be asked to warm up multiple times during a game, and that he grew accustomed to logging 80-90 pitches just throwing in the bullpen. So he didn't think that starting for the Bulls would be all that taxing.

But he will need to mix his pitches more if he's going to face the same hitters multiple times in a game, in order to keep them off balance—as Alex Cobb did so shrewdly Wednesday—and to that end he said that he learned to throw a splitter in Japan last season. (It's more popular there, where it's sometimes referred to as a forkball.) Bootcheck has gotten away from that pitch this year, but it would make a nice complement to his 93-mph fastball and his 87-mph cutter. I can't quite remember what other pitches he throws, and unfortunately got too distracted by Bootcheck's description of Japanese baseball to remember to ask him. I have dozens of six-figure offers to write baseball books sitting in my inbox right now [ed.: then will you please take one and get out of here already?], but what I think I'd really like to do is spend a season in Japan, learning how they play the game. From Bootcheck's description, it sounds perhaps more dangerous than ours. (I was also intrigued to find out that Japanese baseballs aren't rubbed up before use, an automatic American ritual: they just take them out of the bag, remove the foil wrap, and chuck them into the field. Bootcheck says they're stickier than US baseballs. These geeky little nuances: if baseball is sushi, they're the soy sauce.)

Bootcheck starts Saturday in Columbus, where the league's best-hitting team plays; so that should be fun for him. Jeremy Hall is almost surely ticketed for Montgomery. With the return of J. P. Howell to the Rays, expect Rob Delaney to be optioned back to Durham, leaving no room for Hall, who has pitched poorly as a Bull (although, on the bright side, he recently tweeted that his wife is pregnant with their first child).

The Bulls will be glad to have Delaney back. With Delaney and Brandon Gomes up in Tampa, the Durham bullpen has been thin, not least because of the struggles of Dane De La Rosa and R. J. Swindle. Swindle was called on to begin the eighth inning on Wednesday. He struck out Yonder Alonso, but he couldn't convince Juan Francisco to swing at any of a handful of sliders out of the strike zone, and finally walked him on a full-count fastball. Playing the matchup game, Montoyo replaced Swindle with right-hander Ryan Reid, who promptly walked Todd Frazier.

That scuttled the matchup game, because the next batter was a lefty, Jeremy Hermida, and it was virtually a foregone conclusion that Hermida would hit one of Reid's up-in-the-zone and not-very-fast fastballs out of the park, which he did. The Bulls were very fortunate that, in the bottom of the inning, the Bats David Johnson had tired out—he'd already thrown 1 2/3 innings in relief of Leake—and walked two batters of his own. He was lifted for groundball specialist Daniel Ray Herrera, a southpaw (who throws a screwball!). Herrera threw Lobaton, now hitting right-handed, a fastball (82 mph) inside for a called strike, a curveball or something junky like that (69 mph) for ball one, and then tried that inside fastball again. Lobaton indeed hit a grounder, but he pulled it inside the third base bag for a run-scoring double. J. J. Furmaniak, who is showing signs of coming to life lately, followed with a sacrifice fly.

That cushion enabled Mike Ekstrom, who had blown the save the previous night, to redeem himself under much less pressure—the water in the pool into which hurled himself reasonably warm and not too deep—and Louisville complied by swinging at three straight pitches and making three straight outs. That's as safe as a save gets.

***

I'm not sure I've quite bagged my Bulls game here—sometimes it's better not to wait following an afternoon game and give the thing a scampering head start away from the sights of your memory. But it occurs to me just now, somewhere deep in the basin of night, that I must have kept writing about foxes because I spent the vespers hour parting out a rabbit for dinner. I always forget what order to do it in and find myself once again consulting the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Sometimes I wish Judy Rogers also gave instructions for organizing a baseball blog post. One thing I do know is that they pretty much all end like this: [Pitcher A] Alex Torres starts for [Team X] the Bulls tonight against [Team Y's] the Bats' [Pitcher B] Matt Maloney at [first pitch] 7:05 p.m.at the DBAP. Should be a dangerous game. And the poor rabbit never had a chance.

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