CHARLOTTE KNIGHTS STADIUM/ FORT MILL. S.C.—Hey, Bulls fans: your team will play five more games at Knights Stadium this season (August 16-18 and 28-29), and if you’re one of those so-called purist types who can’t quite handle the amusement park ethos of the DBAP, you ought to do yourself a favor and go down for a day or two. You’ll get a whole new perspective on your team, and not only because you’ll be seeing them in road grays. You’ll see a bunch of guys trying, like every other Triple-A striver, to make a living and maybe break through to the other side, where the minimum salary is $400,000 per year and you fly in team-owned jets to play ball in glittering cities like Seattle and Chicago before tens of thousands of fans. The good folks at the DABP do their best every night to make the hometown boys look like rock stars. Go see them play in low-key, low-noise Charlotte (or, I’d wager, in Allentown or Toledo), and they look like a buncha no-name guys from the visiting team, whose fans have never heard of ’em.
And right now, they look like bums. Sure, Dan Johnson and Chris Richard homered on Sunday afternoon (Johnson’s was his league-leading 25th), and Fernando Perez had three hits, but otherwise the Bulls—especially their pitchers—again looked glassy-eyed and overmatched against the suddenly potent and dogged Charlotte Knights, who beat Durham 8-4. The Knights took three of four from the Bulls in the home-and-home four-game series, shaving Durham’s nine-game lead down to seven. “Right now I don’t want to say they have a better team than we do,” Charlie Montoyo said of the Knights after the loss; but the mere fact that he felt the need to preface his interview with that disclaimer was revealing. For the first time this season, the Bulls don’t necessarily look like the best team in the South Division, let alone the International League. For the first time this season, they look flat and flimsy. For the first time this year, they look like a different team than the one we might have thought we had. Perceptions have shifted.
The new view, after the jump.
The announced attendance at Knights Stadium on Saturday night was 9182, and the place felt lively and engaged, a fun place to hang out and watch baseball and fireworks on a summer night. On Sunday afternoon, the attendance was allegedly 2429; but unless that was intended to mean that there were 24 fans down the first base line and 29 down the third, it can’t possibly have been accurate. You could hear the meek cries of individual babies. Foul balls into the seats bounced around and came to rest and waited patiently for kids to chase them down. The vendors paused on their routes to chat with their colleagues or just take breaks from the hot, humid boredom. What had seemed like a community institution on Saturday became a refuge for the listless and wayward on Sunday. This was not the same ballpark we’d seen on our first night.
The size and mellowness of the crowd may have explained why the Knight’s quickly-gotten three-run lead was built in a blink and a daze. In the bottom of the first inning, Bulls starter Carlos Hernandez coughed up a first-pitch single to Buck Coats, then a first-pitch home run to Luis Rodriguez, his second of the series, a Knights Stadium special that just barely cleared the wall in the claustrophobic left-centerfield power alley. Hernandez walked Stefan Gartrell, who isn’t especially selective, on four pitches, and one out later walked Brent Morel too. Fernando Cortez, the former Bull, singled Gartrell home. Cortez, who is having his best year by far—his OPS is 150 points higher than any other season he’s had at any level—went 8-11 on the last three games of this series, and has earned the moniker I so wanted to give him: Cortez the Killer.
And so, for the third time in four games since the All-Star break, the Bulls found themselves in a hole early, and again found themselves needing homers with men on base to erase a deficit. That isn’t a good way to consistently win ballgames, and the Bulls haven’t been good at clawing out of disadvantages this year. But yesterday they actually got a couple of those homers and rallied to take a brief 4-3 lead in the fourth inning before Hernandez gave the lead back in the bottom of the frame. He was done after five innings (86 pitches, a surprising 10 swings-and-misses), and the second tier of the relief corps frittered away the game in the Knights’ next two at-bats. Brian Baker needed only 10 pitches to get through the sixth, but two of those pitches resulted in a single (by Cortez) and an RBI double by Jeremy Reed, the erstwhile big-leaguer trying to hit his way back up. That broke a 4-4 tie, regained the lead for Charlotte, and ultimately handed Baker his first loss of the season. In the seventh, Aneury Rodriguez, who along with Darin Downs has become the last resort in Montoyo’s bullpen, got banged around for three insurance runs. The Bulls failed to score after the fourth inning, just like on Saturday. They stranded 10 more baserunners after leaving 11 on base the day before. They had poor at-bats with runners in scoring position, again. They have scored just 12 runs in their last four games.
Chris Richard was promoted to the fifth slot in the lineup, and hit really well in Charlotte (he loves the batter’s eye at Knights Stadium, he told me). He had been batting sixth (earlier this year, the Hank Blalock-Ryan Shealy era, seventh). Charlie Montoyo had been separating Richard from Dan Johnson in an effort to keep two power-hitting lefties apart in the lineup, so as to scramble pitching approaches and matchups. With a frustrated sigh, he said after yesterday’s loss (in which those two lefty sluggers accounted for three of the Bulls’ four runs) that he’d be leaving Richard in the fifth slot behind Johnson. Why separate them if the wedge is going to be unproductive?
It has seemed lately like Carlos Hernandez always puts the Bulls in an early hole; in four of his last five starts, the opposing team has scored first and had a lead by the third inning. (In the one outlying start, last month against Louisville, he failed to last five innings.) Moreover, his early frames seem to go on for a long time—he needed 27 pitches to get through the first inning yesterday—and because he burns through copious pitches in limited innings, his fielders are out there standing around a lot early on. Those fielders are also hitters, of course, and it’s asking much to expect them to erase deficits after slogging through early (and hot) stints on the diamond. Hernandez’s ERA has climbed nearly a run and a half since June 8.
He isn’t alone. Charlie Montoyo lamented the high earned run averages taking hold of his starting rotation; Heath Phillips and Richard De Los Santos have also inflated their ERAs lately. The one pitcher who has been consistently effective, Jeremy Hellickson, hasn’t pitched for Durham in over two weeks. He starts tonight when the Bulls return to the DBAP to start an eight-game homestand. The opponent is the league-best Columbus Clippers.
It’s that time of year, with late July coming upon us, when the rosters of minor-league teams change more and more. This has been a remarkably low-upheaval season so far in Durham compared to 2009, when it seemed like every day brought a new addition or subtraction to the club. But last year’s late July and early August moves were more serious. Matt DeSalvo, James Houser, Jorge Julio and Ray Sadler were all released, Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson called up. Some rehabbing and reassigned veteran players arrived (Joe Dillon, Joe Nelson, Fernando Perez, Akinori Iwamura, Michel Hernandez). John Meloan was here and gone, Winston Abreu gone and here to stay. A trade netted Sean Rodriguez, who hit a big home run for Durham in the Triple-A Championship game and is now in the major leagues with Tampa Bay. Chaff was husked away from wheat. Things were slimmed down, tightened up. The late-season Bulls had no room for freeloaders, refugees and stopgaps. You were either helping the team or you were off the team.
Expect a similar culling of the herd soon. Expect trades, releases and callups. Expect a solution to the three-catcher problem clogging Charlie Montoyo’s bench. These steps may not radically redesign the roster, which is after all much better than last year’s, when you crunch the numbers; but they will re-tone the complexion of the team. Right now, it could use a new game face; the road uniforms—gray, appropriately, like the hue of the team wearing them—aren’t enough of a change, and the wrong kind, anyway.
One final reason to visit Fort Mill, South Carolina, and a paragraph to ignore if baseball’s all that’s on your mind here. Knights Stadium, as I mentioned yesterday, isn’t near much of anything, but not far away is an unlikely restaurant with the truly awful name of Passion8 Bistro (that is not a typo). The place appears to occupy a former adult bookstore, and it’s stuck on a nothing stretch of Highway 51 on the way to nowhere. Cheesy “romantic” music blares over outdoor speakers as you approach the building. The decor is bordello-on-the-fly with a small bar that looks like a holdover from a 1970s Robert Altman film. You would not think to stop here, but do: Your perception will immediately shift. The food, made by a youngish chef from Sorrento, Italy, is a pleasant surprise, if a bit uneven, and much of it is locally sourced. His American wife, who runs the front of the house, is ebullient and charming. The host is a former regular who told us that liked the place so much he got a job there. The wine list is tiny, inconsistent and lopsided, the menu idiosyncratic in ingredients and arrangement (is the strawberry risotto down there at the bottom an appetizer or a dessert?), the clientele indeterminate. But the sweetness of the place and its staff, their willingness to please, the menu’s disarming and often successful surprises (cocoa-studded scallops?! kohlrabi!), and the establishment’s total dislocation from what should be its natural milieu, are almost impossible to resist—as is, above all else, its no-shame enthusiasm for making you feel welcome, invited, and goofy-good-timey. Passion8 a welcome relief from the shiny, bland disappointment of corporate Uptown Charlotte, and from everywhere that packages experience. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Passion8 Bistro is a place for lovers—of life.
See you tonight back at home at the DBAP. Your Bulls need you.