DBAP/ DURHAM—Let me get the good news out of the way first, since that’s what the Durham Bulls did tonight.
First, the franchise set a remarkable record: most fans ever to see a ballgame at the DBAP, 11,300 (!). And it was a very comfortable oversell: with the SRO behind the Blue Monster and the party decks out by the foul poles, the nominal capacity of the park (10,000) is a numerical relic. Twelve thousand could easily have fit tonight. It was great to see so many people at the DBAP.
Second, Justin Ruggiano did something that isn’t exactly a record but is quite rare. He was the Bulls’ fourth batter of the game, and hit a grand slam. Finding out how many times that’s been done would require help from the Elias Sports Bureau, most likely. Henry Mateo walked, Reid Brignac singled, Matt Joyce drew another walk, and then I called Ruggiano’s granny. You could feel it. Straightaway center field, and obviously gone the moment it left the bat. The Bulls plated two more runs in the inning off of Pawtucket starter Michael Bowden, the No. 2 prospect in the Boston farm system who had pitched quite well against Durham in Pawtucket less than two weeks ago. Bowden was done after the inning, with an ugly 1 5 6 6 3 1 line. His bizarre, too-many-notes delivery has me skeptical.
Anyway, I think that’s enough of that. The Bulls led after one inning, 6-0, and never scored again, losing the game, 8-6. Mike Potter’s Mudcats post sums up in a one-sentence aside what I’m going to need 1600 words for. Clicking “continue reading” is like opening the closet door in a horror flick, in an over-the-shoulder, POV tracking shot, and you’re a cute teenage girl in a bra and panties.
No one in the clubhouse would ever say this, and most of them probably aren’t even consciously aware of believing it, but it’s hard for me not to think that nearly everyone on the team is pretty sure, deep down, that they lost this game because of two bad relievers.
That may explain why the mood in the clubhouse seemed no lower than it has any other night this week. “Nobody’s died here,” Montoyo quipped when he saw the media corps trudge grayly into his office. (I felt bad for his team about the ghastly loss, and worse when Montoyo had to cheer us up.) He showed us the chart he uses that determines which relievers he can use. (Dale Thayer was still unavailable after throwing 36 pitches on Wednesday.) Montoyo has no control over the chart; it’s simply handed to him; so alluding to it was a partial disclaimer for what happened last night. He played the hand he was dealt, he seemed to be saying.
Both Jon Weber and Reid Brignac gave professional, calm interviews after the game. “It just happens; nothing you can do about it,” said Weber, who did his job and had no reason to feel bad: He went 2-4 with a double and a ninth-inning single that, in some alternate universe in which the Bulls won this game (maybe this should have been a Borges post: “The Garden of Forking Bulls Games”), would have been a crucial hit. Brignac noted, correctly if rather immaterially, that there were “a lot of positives” to take away from the game. Plenty of things went right.
What went wrong? Easy. Joe Bateman and Jorge Julio collaborated on a disastrous five-run eighth inning. Bateman fell victim to his fatal flaw, control, walking two consecutive not especially selective hitters, one with the bases loaded to push across a run, and then serving up a game-tying, two-run double to a guy with a .281/.315/.596 line. For the non-statistically-adept, I can translate: that sucks. Bateman has walked 13 batters in 21 innings for the Bulls (and hit four or five more), and he has allowed 13 earned runs—earned runs allowed often comes out very close to walks allowed. Obviously he knows he shouldn’t be walking all those guys. Obviously he’s trying not to walk them. Bateman’s best pitch is a slider that isn’t even designed to cross the plate most of the time; hitters are supposed to get themselves out by swinging at a ball out of the strike zone. The PawSox just saw Bateman pitch at home a couple of weeks ago; they made their adjustment. Has Bateman got any adjustments he can make? Maybe what you see is what he’s got?
Charlie Montoyo replaced Bateman with Jorge Julio, just as he did after Bateman loaded the bases on Tuesday night, when he also walked two hitters. Montoyo told us after last night’s game that he is trying to use Julio the way he used Winston Abreu. “I’m hoping Julio can do the same,” he said, noting that Julio “is struggling right now.” And Julio struggled some more in another high-leverage siutation last night. On Tuesday, he came on for Bateman against Lehigh Valley and forced in a run by hitting the first batter he faced with his very first pitch; the next batter hit a grand slam. Last night, Julio let the No. 9 hitter, Angel Chavez, .253/.305/.558 (even worse than the guy before him), give the PawSox the lead with a sharp single to left. Julio has allowed runs, either his own or his predecessors’, in three of his five appearances. His ERA is 6.75.
What’s more amazing about this catastrophic inning is that Bateman retired the first two men he faced. Everything happened with two outs, blinkingly fast. The win fell from the sky like a shot bird.
Montoyo noted some other familiar signs of distress in the game. The Bulls, of course, failed to score after the first inning, going totally thanatoid at the plate and striking out 11 times. Catcher John Jaso made a throwing error (on a medium-hard play, it should be said) that led to a pair of unearned runs for Pawtucket in the fourth inning. I’d also throw in the home run that starter Wade Davis allowed to the first PawSox batter of the second inning, right after the Bulls had seemingly ended the game right out of the gate with their six-run first. The homer only made it 6-1 Bulls, but I bet it allowed Pawtucket to descry at least a sliver of sunlight somewhere down the long, dark tunnel of the game.
And of course—HOLY $%@&!—the Bulls made another, another, ANOTHER senseless baserunning gaffe, which shall be dubbed an S.B.G. from now on (since apparently I will be reporting them on a nightly basis and don’t feel like typing all those words): Justin Ruggiano got picked off of second base by the catcher in the sixth inning. He’d have probably scored on Rhyne Hughes’ two-out single. Ruggiano’s two-faced night perfectly summed up the game for the Bulls: grand slam homer, two strikeouts, got picked off second by the catcher, outstanding diving catch in center field, drew a ninth-inning walk that, in some alternate universe in which the Bulls—nevermind. So does he get to be called The Roodge, which I haven’t called him in over two weeks?
No. Because the Bulls lost. And to go back to the beginning, they lost because of two bad relief outings. The rest is mere after-therefore-because sophistry.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a few words about Wade Davis’s performance, since he’s now the ace of the Durham staff. He was quite effective, although he didn’t respond well to Jaso’s error (he’s struggled after fielding miscues more than once this season), walking the next batter and then surrendering a double to the one after that.
What really struck me, though, about Davis’s outing, was the unusually high proportion of breaking balls he threw. I don’t know if he had learned something from his last start against Pawtucket, or if he didn’t feel good about his fastball, or if he was just experimenting. (He was on the training table after the game and I couldn’t ask him.) I didn’t chart Davis’s pitches, but I would be willing to bet that he threw two offspeed pitches for every heater. And he was very effective doing it, fanning nine men and walking two over seven innings. He deserved the win, needless to say, but he knows that the appropriate people in the appropriate places are aware of how he did last night. Two relievers blew the game; he had nothing to do with it.
Shortly before game time last night, a big parade of kids filed past the dugouts on the field as part of some sort of promotion or special event. The song “Under The Sea” from The Little Mermaid was playing on the PA system as the kids walked, and Dave Levine wondered aloud, “What does ‘Under the Sea’ have to do with any of this?” I had, and have, no idea.
And as soon as Rhyne Hughes grounded out weakly to shortstop to end the game—on a 3-1 pitch, with the sacks F.O.B.—we heard Weezer’s “Island in the Sun.” So that explained it: The Durham Bulls are currently sinking to the bottom of the ocean (should have played that Fountains of Wayne song, too), hoping that they’ll somehow float to the surface, despite lungs filled with water, and wash up on some sandy shore. “We just gotta win a game, however that’s gonna happen,” Montoyo said. In order for that to happen, someone on his team will have to defy the laws of density, which force the heavier thing to sink. Why not? As Montoyo said, “This is a crazy game.” The Bulls won their first six games of the season and have just lost six straight. Any reason they can’t win six more, starting Saturday?