Jason Botts as a Nippon Ham Fighter, 2008
  • photo: marinerds.blogspot.com
  • Jason Botts as a Nippon Ham Fighter, 2008

DBAP/ DURHAM—The smoke was at its thickest around noon yesterday, blotting out the blue of the sky. It seemed to let up in the late afternoon, but by the middle of last night’s game it had gathered again. The DBAP’s stadium lights made it seem denser than it probably was. The smoke added to the haze and heaviness of the already humid air. And why not? This was once a tobacco town. The Bulls got their name from the stuff.

The smoke, which gave the locals headaches and caused much involuntary clearing of throats, actually drifted over from elsewhere: a long-burning, lightning-ignited wildfire in Dare County, on the North Carolina coast a few hours east of Durham.

Dare County encompasses part of the state’s precious Outer Banks, as well as resorts like Duck and Nags Head. It also contains some precious history, even in its very name: Dare County is named for Virginia Dare, the first known child born in what is now the USA to English parents. The Dares were part of the famous “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island, a 1580s settlement that disappeared, more or less without a trace—but without signs of violence—20 years before the Jamestown colony persevered after making landfall, 20 years later.

Dare County also happens to be home to a small town named Kitty Hawk, N.C. You probably know what happened there.

So you get the idea. Pioneers. Risk takers. Explorers. Prodigies and progeny. The New World, on land and in the air. Daredevils. (Kill Devil Hills is the apt name of a town near Kitty Hawk.)

And yesterday was the first official day of summer: more of that sense of being first, of optimum light, of frolicking and play—like the Bulls, tops in their division, where they’ve finished four straight seasons.

And you know what the Bulls did on this auspicious summer day, under the propitious Dare County smoke? They played one of their worst games of the year and lost 9-1 to the Buffalo Bisons.

One thing that has gone relatively unnoticed so far this year is the Bulls’ fielding. After last night’s four errors, the team has now committed 63 of them—more than a quarter by one player, Russ Canzler—tied for third-most in the league. Last year’s Bulls team committed 85 in twice as many games. League-worst this season so far happens to be Buffalo with 69 errors, but another stat reveals more: The Bulls lead the league in unearned runs allowed, with 44. (Syracuse is best, having permitted a stingy 12.)

There are other figures clouding this fielding deficiency. Although the Bulls have committed a lot of errors, their opponents have, too: it’s a 63-62 margin, as though something about the Bulls’ hitting causes opponents to make more mistakes than normal. That is probably just a coincidence, and it doesn’t explain the whole story: While Durham has allowed 44 unearned runs via their 63 errors, their opponents’ 62 misplays have resulted in just 28 unearned runs for the Bulls, who haven’t capitalized as well as their adversaries do.

It’s a haze of data, to be sure, because a fair portion of it must be due to the smoke of luck and chance. Still, there is no getting around the Bulls’ generally weak glovework, which can’t be explained away by hotshot youngsters possessed of great range who make rookie mistakes or flub tough grounders they should have no business even getting to in the first place. I can’t find UZR stats—UZR is an advanced defensive measurement schema that quantifies players’ range in the field—for Class AAA players, but from the Press Box it doesn’t look as if guys like Canzler and Omar Luna cover an unusual amount of ground the way, say, Eduardo Nunez seemed to do when he came to the DBAP with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last year (or the way Reid Brignac did when he was a Bull). Ray Olmedo seems like a pretty good shortstop, overall, but he also makes preventible mistakes at times, as he did last night, costing his team a run. Compared with other shortstops in the league, Olmedo seems just about average in terms of fielding percentage (.964). His range, it seems to me, can’t touch that of Brignac or Elliot Johnson. He does turn flashy, nifty double plays sometimes, but getting excited about that is like getting excited because sometimes a guy hits a triple—fun, but too infrequent to make a real impression. (A triple will, however, make an impression later on in this post.)

And so, sportsfans, after a sloppy National Anthem—sung, admittedly, by a little girl who had, let’s just say, a rookie’s grasp of pitch—it made a fair amount of sense that Luis Figueroa grounded Lance Cormier’s very first pitch of the game to Felipe Lopez at second base, and Lopez misplayed it for an error.

On a 3-2 pitch to the next batter, Michael Fisher, Figueroa broke for second base, and Fisher singled. Figueroa made it to third easily. Cormier balked—not exactly a fielding mistake, but closer to that than perhaps anything else. That scored Figueroa and moved Fisher to second. Zach Lutz singled Fisher to third. Valentino Pascucci grounded into a double play, scoring Fisher. Cormier walked Jason Botts and gave up a single to Nick Evans, but got Jesus Feliciano to ground out—again to Lopez—to avoid further damage. He’d already thrown 25 pitches, though, and was doomed to a short night, limited as he was to about 75-80 pitches. (I guess you could say that Cormier, like the National Anthem singer, had a rookie’s grasp of pitch last night.)

Cormier made it harder for himself in the next inning, committing both a fielding and throwing error on the same play, which didn’t cost him a run but did require him to throw five extra pitches to get through the inning. In the third, Botts belted a double to left-center field. Evans singled up the middle, almost beheading Cormier, to score Botts, and advanced to second on the throw home. Feliciano followed with a medium-tricky bouncer into the shortstop hole, and Olmedo might have had a play on it, but it ticked off his glove and into left for a hit. Evans scored. In a weird decision, the Official Scorer credited Feliciano with a single but also charged Olmedo with an error: He reasoned that it was a tough enough play to call it a hit, but also that Olmedo could have made sure at least to knock the ball down in order to hold Evans at third. Also, he argued that Olmedo had his eye on trying to throw out Evans at third, which may have caused him to play the bouncer awkwardly.

In any case, it was 4-0, Buffalo, on a night when they turned out to need only the two runs they had gotten in the first four batters of the first inning, the night after they’d scored only one run in nine innings.

But the fifth inning sealed it, after the Bulls loaded the bases with no outs in the fourth but scored only one run. Ryan Reid relieved Cormier and fanned Lutz for the first out, and then Pascucci hit what sounded like a broken-bat grounder down the third-base line that Dan Johnson couldn’t quite glove—he knocked it foul and Pascucci had a single. Botts, who is every muscular bit of the 6-foot-5, 250 pounds at which he’s listed, followed with his second opposite-field boomer in as many at-bats. Bulls left fielder Leslie Anderson gave chase and was closest to it, but center fielder Desmond Jennings was faster, and they converged near the Blue Monster. It appeared that Jennings was planning a major leap in an effort to catch the drive, but I’m not sure he had a viable play on it: it was moving fast. In any case, it seemed that Jennings saw Anderson rushing to the spot just as he arrived there, and he either realized he had no play, after all, or didn’t want to risk a collision.

In either case, neither player was backing up the other, and Jennings looked disgusted as the ball hit the Monster on the fly and bounded back toward the infield. By the time Jennings could run it down, Botts had his first triple in affiliated baseball since 2007. Pascucci scored.

The Bulls brought the infield in with Botts on third, and Evans broke his bat, as Pascucci appeared to do moments earlier. He hit a little doink that landed perhaps 20 feet past the pitcher’s mound and, horribly, rolled between the drawn-in middle infielders for a cheesy run-scoring single. Had Botts not been on third—he shouldn’t have been—it might have played out differently.

As it was, that made the score 6-1, and the game could at that point be safely slotted into the variables of the Buck Showalter Theorem. Bad fielding, bad pitching, bad hitting: Bulls lose.

Botts, meanwhile, added a seventh-inning homer off of Reid, a rocket into the Diamond View seats way beyond the right-field wall, and after Lutz added a two-run dinger off of Mike Ekstrom in the ninth, Botts came to the plate needing just a measly single in order to hit for the first cycle at the DBAP since Jason Kipnis did it for Columbus just last September, in the Clippers’ Governors’ Cup-clinching win over the Bulls. Botts worked Ekstrom through a nine-pitch at-bat but finally flied out to center field. Oh, well. It’ll be, probably, another four years until Botts’s next triple, at which point he’ll be 35 years old. I hope he gets the cycle then.

Why’s that? Because A) for a big guy, he’s disarmingly nice and (dare I say) gentle, up close; and B) Botts has had a long, strange trip in baseball. In 1999, at age 18, he was drafted out of Glendale (Calif.) Junior College by the Texas Rangers in the 46th round. He is the only player from that round in 1999 ever to make it to the majors (only four even made it as far as Class AA), playing for the Rangers in parts of four seasons from 2005-08 and suffering a broken hamate bone at one point. He went to Japan in 2008, joining the Nippon Ham Fighters. He struck out a ton but also hit okay when he wasn’t whiffing, and Botts returned for more ham fighting in 2009. But he didn’t make the big-league club and wound up in the Japanese minor leagues.

Asked what the Japanese minors were like, Botts first replied, “Oooh,” as though we’d asked him not only to describe but also pronounce the scientific name of a painful rash he’d once had. He basically lived in a dorm room in the team’s minor-league complex out in the suburbs, and described his life thus: “There’s early work, there’s a workout, there’s a game and then there’s extra work.” He concluded with a vast understatement: that the Japanese minors are “not the place you want to be.”

Botts started out last year playing for Camden (New Jersey) Riversharks in the independent Atlantic League before the Nationals picked him up and assigned him to Triple-A Syracuse, for whom he hit a prodigious homer at the DBAP off of Durham’s Aneury Rodriguez. In the 2010 off-season, he signed with the Colorado Rockies, but was released around the end of Spring Training. He returned to the Atlantic League, this time with the York Revolution—where one of his teammates was former Bulls pitcher Matt DeSalvo (another ex-Bull, Chris Nowak, arrived later)—and the Mets picked him up not long after that.

And on the first day of summer, in the Dare County smoke, Botts nearly hit for the cycle, and finds himself once again just a short step away from the major leagues, where he could be showering in Evian and kibitzing with Carlos Beltran. The New World, the sky’s-the-limit Show, awaits.

Why spend so much time on a guy like Botts? To some degree, most Triple-A players, especially visitors, seem to fall into a few crowded categories in which they all tend to resemble one another: those 26-year-old starters who throw an 89-mph fastball and a couple of other pitches; those speedy, 5-foot-9 middle infielders hitting .267; those second- and third-round draft picks from major college programs who are 26 or 27 years old and have stalled out at Triple-A; those righty relievers who throw a 93-mph fastball and an 81-mph slider and a bad changeup; those power-hitting AAAA first basemen with familiar names who can’t quite stick in the big leagues.

There are countless numbers of these players—the Bulls have a few of their own—and they all tend to haze together after a while. I was at an industry wine tasting the other day, slurping and spitting as a prospective buyer for the restaurant where I work when I’m not covering baseball, and the experience isn’t unlike evaluating minor-leaguers. There are more indistinct Gruner Veltliners, more oh-okay Italian Rossos, than are dreamt of in our oenology. Sometimes, for better or worse, what you need is to have your head turned by some out-of-the-way grape, aroma, region—some unexpectedly mature or perhaps unusually powerful bottle or Botts.

And speaking of 89-mph fastballs and a couple of other pitches, Bisons righty Chris Schwinden was either really effective—or not—in holding the Bulls to four hits and one run over six sleepy innings. To my eyes, it looked like he threw some hittable pitches that the Bulls just didn’t hit, and as Charlie Montoyo pointed out, “He had a lead [early] and he threw strikes.” But Montoyo also noted that for whatever reason his team hasn’t hit well over the last few days, and said that sometimes teams just go through that—such as his, right now. He seemed to be suggesting that Schwinden caught Durham at the right moment, even if Schwinden pretty effectively moved his pitches around the zone. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, when a pitcher with Schwinden’s stuff performs well, whether it’s he or the guys facing him who are responsible for it.

Credit Bisons manager Tim Teufel for taking Schwinden out of the game just when he appeared to be tiring. After needing 66 pitches to roll through the first five innings, Schwinden labored in the sixth, throwing 26 more pitches, walking his first and only batter (Dan Johnson), and allowing a single to Felipe Lopez (who was actually caught off-balance by a curveball but poked it into center field). But he got Canzler to ground out to end the inning, and from there the Bisons’ smoke-throwing bullpen did the rest.

Of particular interest was another former Japanese-league player, this one actually from Japan: Ryota Iagarashi dialed his fastball up to 96 mph, mixed in a couple of good alternative pitches, and struck out three Bulls in two innings, pitching around Robinson Chirinos’s two-out seventh-inning double. His successor, John Lujan, also threw hard but had trouble finding the strike zone, and he didn’t have the smoke to blame, as it had cleared out in the eighth inning thanks to some gusts of wind. Lujan threw three fastballs near Chirinos’s torso in the ninth with two men on and two outs, a sort of late-hour hazing before Chirinos flied out to the left-field wall to end this sluggish, foggy game. As someone in the Press Box put it during Mike Ekstrom’s rough top of the ninth inning, “At least in football blowouts, they can just run out the clock.”

That you can’t do that in baseball is precisely why I like the sport, among other reasons, of course. That sense of hope, of promise, of one’s chances never being snuffed out until one exhausts all one’s effort and tries all one’s tries—like the colonists, like Orville and Wilbur Wright, like Jason Botts—is right there at the top of baseball’s enduring, great qualities.

So is baseball’s daily opportunity to clear the smoke and start over. Where other sports make you wait days, a week, to try again, in baseball you go out there the very next day in search of redemption. Indeed, that is true today—literally—not tonight. In less than 12 hours, at 1:05 p.m., the Bulls get another stab at the Bisons at the DBAP. This is the final home day game of the season, and it pits Dirk Hayhurst, who was one pitch away from a terrific start in his last outing—a three-run double by Julio Lugo spoiled it as Hayhurst neared his pitch limit—against Buffalo’s Mark Cohoon. The 23-year-old lefty Cohoon (he’s about the same age as the Bulls’ Alex Cobb and Alexander Torres) is a well-regarded prospect, albeit one who has struggled in four starts since his promotion to the Bisons from Class AA Binghamton. Cohoon has allowed five homers in just 20 Triple-A innings. The Blue Monster will loom, menacingly, behind him.

So it’s your last chance for daytime baseball this season. It’ll be hot, you’ve probably got an iron in some fire that’s putting out smoke of its own, or maybe you’re waiting breathlessly for smoke signals from without. But this is it, sportsfans, one more sunlit tilt before the tyranny of night baseball conquers 2011. Get out to the ballpark. I virginia dare you.