Durham Bulls come back, beat Pawtucket Red Sox: After Dark, My Sweet | Sports
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Monday, June 6, 2011

Durham Bulls come back, beat Pawtucket Red Sox: After Dark, My Sweet

Posted by on Mon, Jun 6, 2011 at 6:00 AM

The Bulls Ray Olmedo hitting the game-winning single last night at the DBAP
  • Photo by Al Drago
  • The Bulls' Ray Olmedo hitting the game-winning single last night at the DBAP
DBAP/ DURHAM—It was about 20 minutes after 8:00 p.m. last night when Ray Olmedo singled in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning, giving Durham a 5-4 win over Pawtucket. The dusk hour. The Bulls had been dozing during the daylight portion of the game, which started a little after 5:00 p.m. The stadium lights came on during the seventh inning, the game's pivotal frame, and it was as if the lights woke the slumbering home team.

With Pawtucket up 4-3 in the top of the seventh, in a rather somnambulant game that didn't seem at all close, Bulls reliever Ryan Reid walked two of the first three batters he faced—the eighth and ninth walks allowed by Durham pitchers to that point. Reid had thrown more than 50 pitches in a spot start just three days prior, and he was probably running out of fuel after throwing 31 more pitches on Sunday.

R. J. Swindle, looking worlds better lately, got two pop-outs to end the threat. After the seventh-inning stretch, Desmond Jennings muscled an opposite-field solo homer off of Red Sox reliever Jason Rice (the internet suggests no relation to former Red Sox Hall of Famer Jim Rice). That tied the game.

Two innings later, under the lights—after Jake McGee turned in two scoreless, hitless innings—Robinson Chirinos drew a four-pitch leadoff walk from Pawtucket reliever Michael Bowden, who had struck out the side while earning the save in the PawSox' win on Friday night. J. J. Furmaniak laid down a good sacrifice bunt up the first base line, and the Bulls got a break when Pawtucket catcher Michael McHenry's throw to first was wide of the bag and second-baseman Nate Spears, covering, tried both to glove it and keep his foot on the base.

But the ball glanced off his glove and went into shallow right field, and Chirinos and Furmaniak advanced a base. Jennings was intentionally walked to load the bases and set up a force at home. "I was talking with D.J. [Desmond Jennings]," Olmedo told us afterward, "and he said, 'You're gonna be the hero.'"

And so he was. Olmedo ripped Bowden's first pitch down the first-base line—just foul, apparently, according to umpire Chad Whitson, although it looked like it might have been fair. Bowden then threw the very same pitch again, a fastball down and in, and this time Olmedo simply looped it into shallow right for the game-winner. Charlie Montoyo called it the team's "biggest win of the year." He'll probably have some occasion to say that again at some point before the season is over, but you could sort of see why he said it last night: The Bulls had lost three straight games, and somehow the difference between three and four seems substantial—a fourth loss, it seemed, would sink the Bulls into a full-blown slump from a mere skid—from the the muck into the mire. Also, Gwinnett won again, so the Bulls maintained their three-game lead in the IL South Division

While the sun was out, the difference in the game was simple. Bulls starter Alex Torres, always prone to control problems, walked six batters in 4 2/3 innings (walks are "a manager's worst nightmare," Charlie Montoyo said afterward), and allowed seven hits. Yet somehow only four runs scored off of him, one of them unearned thanks to a fielding error by first baseman Dan Johnson. The PawSox stranded nine baserunners in the first five innings alone. "We made good pitches every time to get out of trouble," Montoyo said, the only praise he had for Torres. "He needs to make an adjustment," Montoyo said, and when asked why Torres—who he acknowledged has excellent "stuff," as they say—has trouble with his constancy, Montoyo said that that was a question for the pitching coach.

The thing about that line is that Montoyo uses it occasionally, and when he does it is not actually to indicate that we should now ask the pitching coach anything. Neither pitching coach Neil Allen nor his predecessor, Xavier Hernandez, has ever willingly made himself available for questions since I started covering the team in 2009. I suppose Allen might come over and talk to us if we asked him to—he's apparently a very good guy—but my experience with coaches is that they don't tell you much.

And why would they? Where managers like Montoyo give you an overview of the game, smoothing out the knobby details with generalities—and going over injuries, personnel issues, etc.—coaches are concerned with the sorts of narrow, nitty-gritty player-specific points that it's generally unwise to share with the media. If Allen tells us what adjustments Torres needs to make, he could inadvertently broadcast to other teams what Torres's flaws are, and what he's working on, thereby magnifying the advantage opponents already have. In The Game from Where I Stand, ex-major-leaguer Doug Glanville ecounts this anecdote:

After one spectacular game in which he hit two home runs [...] my Cubs teammate Brooks Kieschnick met the press. Asked about his approach at the plate, Brooks went into great detail about which pitch he looked for in certain situations. Afterward, Mark Grace, our All-Star first baseman, took the youngster aside to point out that he had committed an error.

"Don't let them know your secrets," Gracie advised.

(That from the man who spilled the beans about the ballplayer's very special way of breaking out of a slump?!)

In other words, Montoyo's "that's a question for the pitching coach" is a way of saying that Torres's problem, whatever it is, remains for now both essential and inscrutable. "An adjustment" could very well mean a major overhaul, or it could mean a simple psychological shift. The simple yet elusive answer is that Torres needs to throw strikes. He needed an astounding 108 pitches—only 59 of them strikes—to get through 4 2/3 innings last night. (Montoyo made a crack comparing Torres's walks to the old "Keep America Beautiful" PSA in which a single tear runs down the cheek of a stoic Indian chief as he surveys the pollution all around him. Montoyo was really referring to the tear, but the comparison was apter than he probably intended: Walks are the litter of baseball.)

It was worse than just the walks. Torres's fielders stood around in the 90-degree daytime sun while he put runner after runner on base. And he made matters worse by not only throwing lots of balls, which slows the game down, but also by working slowly, wandering off the mound sometimes after his pitches missed the strike zone. At one point, he threw ball two to Daniel Nava and, disgusted, didn't even bother to make himself available to receive catcher Robinson Chirinos' return throw. Instead, he sauntered off the mound toward shortstop for 10 or 15 seconds. Torres also spent time fooling around half-heartedly with runners leading off bases (and once balked a pair of PawSox ahead a base from sheer failure to master himself on the mound). He threw to first here and there, but they were lazy pickoff throws and Dan Johnson was standing three feet from the bag when he caught them. The first half of the game took a punishing 1:47 to play.

Torres worked without purpose—that's what I mean by command. Again and again, one comes back to it. Ballplayers, coaches and managers tend to use the words "control" and "command" interchangeably much of the time, but they really are different. Torres's control was poor, of course; more troubling, to me, was his inability to command at-bats, to make the game follow his lead. To make a comparison with what writers do: You can use words correctly, pick the ones that mean what you want them to mean, and string them into readable order. That's control. Command is arranging them with intent, with vigor, and pulling your reader with you. In order to maintain narrative grip, there has to be surprise, variation, color, melody, pace. It doesn't matter what idiom or aesthetic you words partake of, really, as long as you command them: that's why, for example, authors as disparate as George Eliot and T. S. Eliot—and Elliott Smith—are great writers.

But back to Torres: It didn't help that he threw first-pitch strikes to only nine of 27 batters faced, but you can even get away with that (sometimes) if you can make good use of the area outside the zone—you can be "effectively wild," as they say, and succeed despite throwing a lot of balls. In fairly recent memory, both former Bull Edwin Jackson and then-Marlin A. J. Burnett threw big-league no-hitters despite copious walks. The king of no-hitters, Nolan Ryan, who threw seven of them, issued more bases on balls, 2,795, than anyone who ever played the game, and it isn't even close. The next guy down the list, the tall left-hander Steve Carlton, trails by almost 1,000. A thousand!

So no, the issue is not control, it's command. You can throw balls, lots of them, if you can also throw the right strikes, and here Nolan Ryan is the correct comparison to Alexander Torres (sorry, Alex)—because Ryan also struck out more hitters than anyone who ever lived. And that isn't even close, either. The next guy down the list, the tall left-hander Randy Johnson, trails by almost 1,000. A thousand!

(On the subject of Carlton, by the way, check out his 1972 season for the Philadelphia Phillies. He led the league in starts with 41 and complete games with 30. His ERA was 1.97. That also led the league, as did his unthinkable 346 1/3 innings pitched and 310 strikeouts. Only Walter Johnson's 1913 season ranks ahead of Carlton's 1972 in single-season Wins Above Replacement (WAR) among pitchers since 1894. Not 1994. Eighteen-ninety-four. Carlton was known as a rather surly dude, especially when it came to the media; that's probably why he might be one of the most under-discussed greats in baseball history. Yes, I realize I'm starting to sound like I'm imitating Joe Posnanski. Is that so wrong?)

Alexander Torres is trying to improve not his WAR but his WAAAR (the acronym, I propose, for Wins Above Triple-A Replacement.) Torres has, to this point in his career, overcome his high walk total with a high strikeout total. (He led the Class AA Southern League in both categories last year.) He's fourth in the league with 61 K's, but also first in the league, after last night's six-walk performance, with 37 bases on balls in just 58 innings.

As for "making an adjustment," as Montoyo said, it's not as if there's some specific issue. Torres misses high, low, inside, outside. He misses with his fastball, his changeup, his curve. His delivery isn't smooth. He sometimes looks frustrated, disappointed, tentative. To me, right now, he still looks like a reliever waiting to happen—if, that is, if, if, if he can figure out how to throw more strikes or strike out more batters. The problem last night? Two strikeouts to go with his six walks.

And so on came Ryan Reid with the bases loaded in the last of the fifth, after Torres's sixth and final walk of the game. Reid threw a couple of good sliders to Che Hsuan Lin and struck him out. All fine and good, but he walked three men of his own over the next 1 1/3 innings, and Swindle bailed him out as Reid had bailed out Torres.

By then, the seventh, the sun was gone, the stadium lights had come alive and so had the Bulls. They'd looked kind of lethargic against PawSox starter Matt Fox, who had pitched well against the Bulls twice last season as a Rochester Red Wing. Don't take that for too much, though, because a) Fox's stuff looked only decent last night, and he got away with a lot of fly balls—only three balls hit on the ground against 22 batters faced; and b) only one Bull from those 2010 games was in last night's lineup.

That was Dan Johnson, who did nothing special against Fox in 2010 and not much more last night. He managed to serve a misplaced 0-2 fastball into center field for a single to lead off the fourth inning, but otherwise continued to look diffident since his return from Tampa. He pops out a lot, swings at the first pitch a lot. He did that last night, in a clutch moment, with the Bulls down 4-3 in the fifth and the tying run on second base—he hacked at Fox's first pitch right after a longish visit to the mound from pitching coach Rich Saveur, making it easy on Fox. I suspect Saveur told Fox that Johnson was going to be his last batter and so bear down, etc., and that was the moment for Johnson to take a pitch or two, with Fox up over 90 pitches and in danger of giving up the lead.

But no. Vince Lombardi, the legendary football coach, famously said: "Run to daylight." The Bulls simply waited until the daylight was over. Then they owned the night. Jennings homer, Olmedo single, biggest win of the year—for what that's worth. There are 85 games left to play. Torres will start about 17 of them.

***

Notes:

* Fun at-bat by Chris Carter in the second inning. On Fox's first pitch, Carter was a little out in front and hit a very, very long foul—just foul—way out of the ballpark down the right-field line. Three pitches later, he went down and got a ball that appeared to be pretty low and stroked a line drive, rising, rising, that cleared the right-field wall for a solo homer. I kind of dig Chris Carter. He went to Stanford, was nicknamed "The Animal" by his New York Mets manager and indeed has a caged-panther quality about him. If you'll pardon an obscure comparison, he reminds me of the marginal boxer cum kidnaper played by Jason Patric in the neo-noir film After Dark, My Sweet: dangerous, reserved, distrustful, driven, street-smart, a little off—"He's just got the wrong slant on things," Bruce Dern says of him. But the slant winds up working. What a weird pitch he hit. What a weird arc for a homer. But it worked.

* Desmond Jennings is, it seems to me, hitting more fly balls this season. Over the long haul, that probably won't work for him, but he now is tied for the team lead with nine home runs. He's certainly stronger, in better health, etc., than he was last year, but part of me can't help wondering if he's trying to prove to the Rays that last year's power-outage was just an anomaly, and to get their attention by gong deep more often.

* The Bulls are in one of those RISP funks that all teams go through. (No such thing as clutch hitters, kids! Example: Last year, J. J. Furmaniak batted 81 points below his season average with RISP; this year, he's 59 points above.) After yesterday's dismal 2-14 showing, they are now 6-44 in that hitting category over the last four games. How a team can walk 10 batters and go 2-14 with runners in scoring position but still win is hard to fathom. They got ample help from Pawtucket, which went 2-13 with RISP and left 13 men on base—11 in the first five innings alone, when they could have put the game away (it only seemed like it wasn't close, thanks to Torres's labors) but didn't. And finally, wouldn't you know it, after the PawSox pitching staff (Fox and Rice) allowed zero walks against Durham's 10 through eight innings, Michael Bowden walked the leadoff man in the ninth—and naturally, he came around to score. So much of the game was night and day, and not just because it spanned both.

* Sometimes the gods just seem to have it in for someone, and last night that someone was Pawtucket catcher Michael McHenry, the team's backup backstop. The crucial play of the game hinged on his less-than-perfect throw to first base on Furmaniak's sacrifice bunt (although it was second baseman Nate Spears who was charged with the error). There were also three wild pitches charged to McHenry's pitchers, who all looked displeased—and not with themselves, I thought, because all three of them might well have been stopped by superior catchers. (One wild pitch allowed Leslie Anderson to reach first base after he struck out swinging; another led to a run by advancing Dan Johnson an important base.) In the fourth inning, there was a repeat of a play from Friday night. With a runner on third and less than two outs, a grounder was hit to shortstop. On Friday, Robinson Chirinos ran home and slid under Luis Exposito's tag. On Sunday, Dan Johnson did same and this time McHenry basically just missed the tag—Johnson slapped his palm down on the plate after sliding past it, and he was ruled safe. "I tagged him!" McHenry protested, but plate ump Brad Myers wasn't having it, and I think he was actually right (an ump right, for a change?). Finally, in the ninth, McHenry looked at a borderline pitch near the top of the strike zone for strike one, then two pitches later looked at another borderline pitch near the bottom of the strike zone for strike three. He protested some more as he walked toward the dugout. He had a single and a sacrifice fly, if that helps.

* Jake McGee? Nice job retiring six of the seven batters he faced (one walk, of course), but his fastball went back to the 91-92-93-94-95 u-pick-em velocity range that the Rays would prefer he not mess around with. What gives? I kind of wondered about this little thing: The very first pitch he threw, to Nate Spears, was a 95-mph fastball that looked to be a strike but was ruled high, I guess, by Myers. His next one was a good deal slower—91 or 92, if I recall—as if he was just trying to make sure he got his pitch over the plate and in the zone. And from there, it seemed, he continued to work somewhat cautiously. This is all very tentative speculation on my part, and one shouldn't speculate because it makes a spec out of u later (sorry), but I remain nonplussed, and I do mean nonplussed, by McGee's fastball velocity. It's like he's trying to draw to a straight.

* Here's something all of us reporters ought to task ourselves with: talking to Latino players. My Spanish is serviceable, but at slang speed I can't hang with it; still, a number of the Latino Bulls speak English and can translate for those that don't. If nothing else, we oughtn't succumb to the same lackadaisical fault that mars many clubhouses: As Matt McCarthy points out in his absorbing and controversial minor-league memoir, Odd Man Out, a chasm tends to separate most of the Anglo players from most of the Latino players (or, in the words of Mitch Talbot, trying too hard to be politically correct in 2009, "Latin people.") I've talked with Jose Lobaton and Alexander Torres here and there (I couldn't catch up with Torres last night), but not enough.

Last night we interviewed Ray Olmedo. He had the game-winning hit, of course, but he's also the clubhouse's most upbeat player, and he can sometimes be seen dancing, just a little, to the rhythm of the music on the PA system while he's in the on-deck circle. He wears flashy white shoes sometimes and takes great delight in goofing with Bulls' TV broadcaster Ken Tanner. He was a Bull in 2009, spent a year with the Brewers organization in 2010, and then returned to Las Rayas this year—presumably, they really like him, not only for his middle-infield utility (he can also play third base) but for his sunny presence.

Of interest to me last night was listening to him talk about being a switch-hitter. Olmedo is a natural right-hander who started switch-hitting in 2001 when he was in the Reds organization. As he told it, he was fooling around with hitting lefty in the Arizona Fall League, where it caught the attention of Bob Boone, then the Reds' manager, who encouraged Olmedo to start doing it in earnest "because I'm very fast"—and lefties get out of the batter's box fast than right-handers, giving Olmedo's speed another leg up. (He's never been a good base stealer, though.) As it happens, Olmedo developed more power as a lefty. So far this year, he's got the best OBP of his career, .359. "I want to get back to the major leagues," he said, reminding me that even journeyman types like Olmedo, who turned 30 last week, have that dream.

It also reminded me that although Olmedo has been a Triple-A mainstay for most of the last five seasons, he has almost 200 games of big-league experience to his credit—more than the combined total of veteran teammates Chris Carter, J. J. Furmaniak and Justin Ruggiano. Olmedo had to have Tommy John surgery in 2004. He hasn't been quite the same since. But you can't discount his persistence in trying to work his way back to where he was before the injury—a legitimate prospect, who started almost half of the Cincinnati Reds' games in 2003. Will he make it? Probably not. Is that any reason, despite his bright-white shoes and antics like this one, not to take him seriously? Of course not. Surely the cultural gap (and partial language barrier: his English isn't great) between Olmedo and reporters, most of us as white as his shoes, has contributed to our failure to respect what he's trying to do as fully as we should.

* Got a chance to talk with Ryan Reid, whom Montoyo praised effusively for coming on, just three days after throwing 50+ pitches in a five-inning spot start (his first start since 2006, in rookie ball), and holding the PawSox down until he ran out of gas in the seventh inning. Reid is a former seventh-round pick of the Rays who seemed to have stalled out at Class AA Montgomery—2011 marked his fourth straight season there. He had a dreadful 8.18 ERA in six appearances to start the season, but when the Bulls needed bullpen help due to injuries and callups, Reid was the Biscuit with the most seasoned gravy. He hasn't been stellar by any means, but he throws strikes and has walked only six batters in 22 Triple-A innings, with a 3.68 ERA through 12 appearances. Why had he struggled so badly in Montgomery?

"The reality is, I wasn't ready to compete," Reid answered, forthrightly. "Physically and mentally." Reid mentioned the week-long wait between Spring Training and the start of the Class AA season, and how that got him out of his routine. But "I'm in a good routine now," he said—and surely his overall readiness is on higher alert now that he's facing Triple-A hitters for the first time in his career. "You've got to watch each hitter, even when you're not pitching. The approach up here is night-and-day [compared to Double-A]. Down there, you have guys that can swing a bat, got a quick bat—the first fastball [they see], if you don't throw it where you want it, they're going to hit it. Up here, they're going to see what you've got, let you get ahead [in the count], some of them. The ones that don't, you've got to know who they are, or they're going to hurt you."

Last year, Darin Downs made the most of his opportunity with the Bulls after he was brought up from Montgomery, providing the team with a valuable swingman. Reid has the chance to fill that role this season, and "hopefully to show them that I can pitch here."

* Soon enough it will be after after-dark, i.e. light, i.e. not long before the Bulls and Pawtucket engage in their last showdown of the year at the DBAP—at high noon, pardners, the penultimate day game of the season (there's one more on Wednesday, June 22 against Buffalo). There will be no nightfall to rouse the Bulls from their daydreaming—but there will be a former major-league All-Star pitching for the opponent, which ought to get them out of the barn. Kevin Millwood has won 159 games in his big-league career—that's seventh-most among active pitcher (and, for perspective, 43 more than Josh Beckett)—and he's trying to break back in under the bright lights after a poor 2010 with the Baltimore Orioles, with whom he led the league in losses with 16. (He already latched on with the New York Yankees, briefly, but his velocity is apparently way down, and he exercised the opt-out clause in his contract after he struggled in their minor-league system and didn't get called up. He's making his second start for Pawtucket since the Red Sox signed him to a minor-league deal on May 20.)

This is a homecoming of sorts for the 36-year-old Millwood, who was born in Gastonia, N.C. and went to Bessemer City High School, west of Charlotte. Also, Millwood was originally drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1993, and he pitched for their Class A affiliate in 1996. That team was the Durham Bulls. Of more pressing athletic concern to Atlanta that summer was the Olympics. That's how long ago it was.

Millwood will take the DBAP mound for the first time in 15 years (!) in just a few hours. He will be opposed by the Bulls' Edgar Gonzalez. Did I mention it's a noontime game? Drop everything. Midday baseball awaits you.

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