DBAP/ DURHAM—On a very, very busy day in the world of Durham Bulls baseball, just about the last thing that seemed important was the game itself—the Durham Herald-Sun reporter came to an interview session at 4:45 and then left before the actual game started. To dispense with that—and then revisit it a bit later—Durham rode a fourth-inning three-run homer by Chris Richard and five scoreless innings from Brian Baker to a 5-2 win over Charlotte. The Bulls added two insurance runs to Richard’s long ball in the eighth inning, courtesy of singles by Omar Luna and Fernando Perez plus a throwing error and a passed ball; and after R. J. Swindle loaded the bases with no outs in the ninth inning, Winston Abreu bailed him out to limit the damage. The Bulls and Knights play each other for the last time this season—it seems like the 83rd or 84th matchup, but it’s really the 22nd—on Wednesday night. I think we’re all about ready to get off the Charlotte carousel.

Why does all of that seem unimportant (even though every game is)? For one thing, of course, every day that passes is one further away from the now-distant one on which the Bulls clinched the South Division title, a couple of weeks ago now. But more than that, there was a carousel of extracurricular news spinning around on Tuesday, departed players honored and stalwart players promoted—and departed players promoted, too. It was hard to know which of the pretty horses to pick:

1) The International League Postseason All-Star Awards and Team were named, and the Bulls took three of the four “Special Awards,” as they’re known: Most Valuable Player (Dan Johnson), Most Valuable Pitcher (Jeremy Hellickson) and Manager of the Year (Charlie Montoyo.) Elliot Johnson was selected for the All-Star team as the utility player (and showed off why last night: this natural shortstop started in left field, then later moved to right field, from where he made a laser throw to home plate that would have nailed a baserunner there had he been foolish enough to run). I have some thoughts on all of this after the jump, but the main thing is to congratulate all four Bulls, who richly deserve their awards. It was, by the way, the first Manager of the Year award for Montoyo (and the first for any Durham Bulls manager in this league); despite his great work in last year’s championship season, for which he earned the nod, I thought, the honor went instead to Rick Sweet of Louisville, who also won in 2008. The funny chiasma here (I know, chiasmas, what a riot, right?) is that Sweet had a good case for winning it this season—a better one, perhaps, than he did last year.

Also, the Bulls trifecta marked the first time since 1995 that a team has won that many of the Special Awards. Norfolk took MVP, MVPitcher, and Rookie of the Year that season (the Gwinnett Braves’ Freddie Freeman won the latter this year).

2) This was the Day of the Callups, which is not really like the Day of the Locust but in many ways just as unsettling. “This is the toughest day [of the season] for me,” Charlie Montoyo said after the game. He had known since Monday who would be headed for the major leagues today, and had to sleep (poorly, he said) on that confidence that night. The guys who got good news yesterday and got off the minor-league carousel were Rocco Baldelli, Desmond Jennings, Jose Lobaton and Dioner Navarro. (Hellickson was also added, but he has been down with the Class A Port Charlotte Stone Crabs, getting accustomed to getting clobbered working out of the bullpen.) Of those four, Lobaton’s name seems misfitted, but his callup is actually just a technicality. He is injured right now—he fouled a ball off his foot not long ago and is on the disabled list. Lobaton still practices with the Bulls and has caught bullpen sessions but has the foot wrapped in ice every night in the clubhouse. The Tampa Bay Rays are almost sure to put him on the major-league disabled list, which will allow them to bump Lobaton off the carousel in favor of another player later come playoff time, if necessary.

So really it’s just three Bulls, for now, and I have a few stray thoughts after the jump, mostly about a player who didn’t get called up. But again, congrats to the three who moved from Durham to the big-league team, especially to Jennings: It’s his first trip to the majors.

Plenty more spinning of the big wheel follows.

Some thoughts about the game first. Not long ago, one of the Bulls told me that Freddy Dolsi, who started for Charlotte last night, is one of the hardest pitchers to hit against in the league. This was an odd thing to say, because Dolsi has an ERA over 5.00 this season, and in seven appearances against the Bulls to date had allowed 18 hits and 15 runs in only 12 1/3 innings. (He also faced the Bulls twice last year as a Toledo Mud Hen: 3 1/3 scoreless innings in 2009.) So why the laudatory assessment? Well, he throws a hard fastball that touches 94 mph and has good sink, and there’s a pretty good slider, too—two impressive makings of a good pitcher. The problem is that Dolsi doesn’t command his stuff well, and he allows too many walks: 41 this season in 85 2/3 innings (plus 15 homers, too many). He is 27 years old, probably past the point where he’s likely to add much more refinement to his moundwork.

And this year has given Dolsi a new challenge. Dolsi is a career reliever who has been recently thrust into the Knights’ starting rotation due to callups in the White Sox organization. It has been a midstream awkward change of horses for him. Only three times this season had he thrown more than 50 pitches in a game until he was forced to make a spot-start for Charlotte on July 10 at Gwinnett, when he tossed 84 pitches and got the win. He went back to the bullpen, worked a few longer relief outings (the longest, 67 pitches against Toledo on August 7), and then threw 94 pitches in his first start as part of Charlotte’s late-season rotation: That game was against Durham at Knights Stadium on August 16, and Dolsi was torched for seven runs in five innings, including a two-run homer by Chris Richard.

Dolsi cruised through the first three innings last night, however, on just 36 pitches, erasing the only baserunner (Elliot Johnson, who hit an opposite-field single) with a double play. But the second time through the order was a different story. J. J. Furmaniak, who had like Chris Richard homered off Dolsi in the August 16 game, singled through the middle. Elliot Johnson drew a walk, taking some close pitches—ball four resulted in a long staredown from Dolsi to plate umpire Derek Crabill. (We had a new umpiring crew midseries, an uncommon moment for a switch; did it have anything to do with the difficulties of the previous evening?) Justin Ruggiano struck out looking at a slider he didn’t think was over the plate, and Chris Richard stepped in.

Speaking of being past the age when you can refine your work, hitters seem to remain young enough dogs to learn new tricks longer than pitchers do. That’s largely because the physical mechanics of hitting are so much less taxing than are those of pitching, and you can repeat the motion more easily. As long as you can maintain bat speed, which Richard has, you can hone your plate discipline and your approach at bat. And to borrow from Dazed and Confused (@ 45 seconds or so), you get older (and wiser), but the pitchers stay the same age.

This year, Richard has had a lot of at-bats that have found him in a quick 0-2 or 1-2 hole—he’s sometimes overaggressive early in the count. Last night he looked at a pretty hittable first-pitch slider (or maybe a slowish sinker) from Dolsi for strike one, then fouled off the next pitch for strike two. At that point, he did what has become his custom when he’s behind in the count: He walked some steps away toward the dugout, took a deep breath and a practice swing, and stepped back into the batter’s box. He took a close pitch inside from Dolsi, then another down and away, then fouled off another. With the count 2-2 and Dolsi laboring to polish Richard off, Dolsi went to his hardest fastball of the night—a 95 mph sinker, not really that bad a pitch—and Richard went down and blasted it over the left-centerfield wall for a three-run homer. Earlier, he had grounded out to shortstop. After the home run, in the sixth inning, he took Dolsi off the Blue Monster for an opposite-field double (it just missed being his second homer of the night), and to keep the carousel going in the same direction he flied out to left field against Miguel Socolovich in the eighth.

Richard is a natural pull-hitter, and I asked him after the game if he had intentionally adjusted his approach against Dolsi. Nope; he said he “was just trying to see it and hit it.” That sounds like cliche-speak, but in Richard’s case it’s true. He’s got the maturity not to worry too much about anything in a given at-bat beyond getting a good swing on a hittable pitch; results are beyond his control. He allowed that Dolsi throws hard and so his swing may have been a fraction of a second behind the ball; but that fraction sent the ball onto the roof of Tobacco Road Cafe. Even Richard’s second-inning groundout was pretty well hit.

I had a fairly long talk with Richard last night—much of which took place after I accidentally hit stop on my voice recorder (%#$@!)—some of it about the tension and (for those not called up) disappointment that builds around September 1 roster expansion. Richard, 36 years old and a sage veteran of Triple-A, is beyond the anxiety part of the process (and he isn’t on the eligible 40-man roster; plus, the Rays have lots of left-handed power bats at their current disposal, including Dan Johnson and newly signed Rockies castoff Brad Hawpe); but I think that even he knows that you have to keep yourself in a state of constant readiness. He well remembers that last year he got a late-season callup when Rays first baseman Carlos Pena had his hand broken by a C. C. Sabathia pitch, ending Pena’s season. Richard is the active league-leader in OPS—and not only that, he still plays a superb first base. Last night, in the fourth inning, Buck Coats hit a broken-bat grounder to Richard’s right. The barrel of the bat came helicoptering out along with it, not far from where Richard fielded the ball and where pitcher Brian Baker was running over to cover first base, providing an unwelcome distraction to both players. Coats was getting down the line in a hurry, and Richard’s underhand lob to Baker actually led Baker by a few feet, like a quarterback making a pitch to a tailback on an end-run. It was quite a canny and well-placed toss, and probably to the only spot where Richard could have thrown the ball in order to get an out—had Baker had to slow down and wait for the ball, Coats probably would have beaten him to the bag; instead, Coats was out by a half-step.

As if that wasn’t enough, Richard had to move to left field late in the game after Justin Ruggiano departed (Montoyo said) with a knee bruise sustained trying to make running catch at the wall. Richard might as well have played there, since he kept hitting the ball that way. He had only two plays on the lawn—a super-fast outfielder might have made the one Richard couldn’t get to, although it was a fading looper toward the line and he was shaded toward the alley—but it was a reminder that Richard used to be an everyday outfielder and played that position for Montoyo in 2007. “I never knew he could play first [in 2007],” Montoyo said after the game, “because nobody ever told me. So he played left [field] the whole time. Gold-Glover at first base and I never knew.”

What is nice to see is that there is still a place in the game for the archetypal consummate professional. Richard works very, very hard, will gamely grab a glove and trot out to the outfield if called upon to do so, refines his plate approach constantly, and is a generous and genuine presence in the clubhouse. There’s every reason to think that he could play again, productively and well, next year, when he turns 37, if he chooses to do it. He wouldn’t commit an answer to that question, but I’m betting he tries to re-up with the Bulls or another team if the Rays organization decides to give its Triple-A time at first base to Leslie Anderson and another Cuban defector, Jose Julio Ruiz, just signed in June (Richard is aware that those two may force him out of Durham). He doesn’t seem to be slowing down, and can do better at his age many of the things that still stymie much younger players. If you can still ride, why get off the carousel? The fun will end soon enough for every ballplayer, and Richard knows he’s lucky still to be playing at his age. That he happens to be having one of his best seasons is evidence of the importance of never taking your luck for granted.

Speaking of younger players (which I was, sorta), fine work, too, last night, by Omar Luna at second base. He made a Jeteresque catch and jump-throw to nail the slow-running catcher Donny Lucy in the fifth, and then started a difficult double play in the eighth with two men on, ranging in front of the second base bag to field Dayan Viciedo’s grounder and flipping behind his back to J. J. Furmaniak, whose relay beat Viciedo. In the bottom of the seventh, he singled with two outs—an infield squeaker past the mound that Luis Rodriguez had no play on—and then stole second, leading to the Bulls’ first run when Fernando Perez reached out and knocked a swerving outside pitch into left field for a single, a nice piece of hitting by Perez. “[My players] love Luna,” Montoyo said later, “because it seems like every time he’s in the lineup we’ve got a chance to win. He finds a way to make plays.” Luna has that youthful, insouciant vigor: Not expected to stick at this level, he has simply relaxed and played until he was thrown off the carousel—except that, with his loose-limbed positivity, he’s kept his balance and hung on to the end; and Luna (what a perfect name for this player!) is about to play for the Bulls in the playoffs. Which really, really can’t come soon enough.


Some notes:

* Brian Baker was lifted after five scoreless innings and only 68 pitches. Montoyo said later that Baker’s arm has been aching a bit. He wasn’t expecting (or expected) to be a starter this season, and the sustained innings are catching up with him. He doesn’t seem to be at risk of having to be shut down, but look for him and Richard De Los Santos to work short outings from here on out—perhaps even in the playoffs.

* On a related note, Carlos Hernandez, whose spot in the rotation Baker has been speaking for, is no longer with the team in Durham (apparently he has gone down to the Rays’ training complex in Port Charlotte, Fla.), and Bobby Livingston is wearing Hernandez’s jersey number (37). In short, he is done for the season. I was surprised that Hernandez, who missed substantial time in 2009 with injuries, was invited back for 2010, and I’ll be even more surprised if he returns in 2011. With his inability to last a whole season or pitch deep into ballgames, all he seems to do is create problems for managers to solve.

* Not sure what to think about R. J. Swindle. Montoyo had Winston Abreu up and throwing almost immediately in the ninth inning, right after Swindle’s first batter of the night, saying later that Swindle “has been struggling a little bit.” Last night he simply had trouble throwing strikes. He walked the leadoff man and went to three-ball counts on the next two hitters, both of whom singled, his slider sweeping consistently wide of the plate. Swindle has walked only 10 batters this season, but four of those have come in his last three outings. He looked frustrated out there on the mound, and after he allowed hits to Buck Coats and Josh Kroeger, both left-handers (which should have worked to the southpaw Swindle’s advantage), Montoyo replaced him with Abreu. Abreu induced a double-play ball from Donny Lucy; that turned out to be pivotal, because Jordan Danks cracked the very next pitch for a double that could have made it a two-run game with the dangerous Brent Morel on deck as the tying run. Morel, for what it’s worth, got ahead 3-1 and then smacked a very hard grounder that Angel Chavez mishandled a little before recovering to throw him out. “A 5-2 nailbiter,” a visibly relieved Montoyo said afterward.

* Justin Ruggiano may have been lifted for an injury last night, but I wonder if that wasn’t a bit of mercy. He grounded into a double play in his first at-bat and struck out looking in the next two. After the first punchout, he fell to his knees in amateur-histrionic fashion, like a 16-year-old playing Tybalt or Paris in a duel scene from a high-school production of Romeo and Juliet. The second time, he just stood there as if frozen into deep, deep-beyond-movement, deep-beyond-words shock by the umpire’s decision, a decision of an apparent (to judge from Ruggiano’s reaction, or non-reaction) absurdity that simply defied all human response. In fact it was pretty near the plate, if not over it. Ruggiano just didn’t look like he felt like playing anymore. The hot-and-coldest player on the team, in these post-callup days, his presence in the outfield and at the plate is going to be essential to the Bulls’ championship aspirations. Talented as he is—he made a superb running catch last night, and remains, despite his high strikeout totals, a dangerous hitter—here’s hoping he maintains that presence from here on out. he is the highest-prancing pony on the carousel.

* Speaking again of the post-callup September Bulls, look for reinforcements soon. Montoyo said that a catcher was on the way—from Class A Princeton, he thinks (?!), so expect a lot of innings behind the plate for Nevin Ashley. Ashley is suddenly, after a season in Double-A, the Bulls’ only viable catcher. (This is finally where the recent loss of Alvin Colina to a season-ending knee injury—at the time an apparent non-issue with the presences of Navarro and Lobaton—really hurts the team.) Ashley handles the position very well—and he very nearly picked off Luis Rodriguez napping a few steps off first base in the sixth inning. If he can hit at all—that’s been his difficulty so far in the minors—he’ll be fun to watch next season, when he’s likely to be the Bulls’ primary catcher. For now, as backup, Joe Dillon, who caught a game earlier this season in Buffalo, can do it again if necessary, and he is the quintessential gamer who will bravely strap on the gear and get behind the dish; but he’s not really a catcher by trade and will probably be needed in the field anyway. Other roster moves should be forthcoming as well, simply because, for example, when Dillon had to spell Ruggiano last night, that left not a single bench player for Montoyo to call on. The Double-A Montgomery Biscuits have missed the playoffs, so I would expect to see a handful of them after their regular season concludes this weekend, in time to contribute to the Bulls’ playoff drive.

* Jake McGee was a player I thought would be called up but wasn’t. (I suspect he may still reach the big leagues by season’s end; the Rays have some flexibility, and just demoted Andy Sonnanstine to Hudson Valley—i.e., asked him to sit politely and just watch for a while—to free up one roster spot; another is available if they want to monkey around with some 40-man administrivia.) McGee was probably pretty bummed out—he had, after all, not allowed a run, given up just four hits, fanned 20 batters and walked only one in 12 2/3 dominant innings since his recent promotion to Durham from Montgomery. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise to see him leave some pitches up and give up consecutive leadoff hits to Morel and Rodriguez when he came on in the sixth inning. It was only 3-0, Bulls at that point, and Stefan Gartrell, the league’s active home run leader now that Dan Johnson is gone, stepped to the plate representing the tying run. Credit is due McGee for shaking off whatever mood he may have been in, bearing down and striking out Gartrell (not all that hard to do, as Gartrell is second in the league); then getting the dangerous Dayan Viciedo to foul out, and adding another strikeout of Jeremy Reed. In the seventh, McGee allowed another leadoff hit before retiring the next three Knights. The Rays were surely watching. One thing they have no doubt noted is that McGee has just one consistently effective pitch, his fastball. His curveball is still erratic, sailing or hanging (one was smacked for a hit). One of the curves he threw struck out Reed swinging, but it was more a slurve than a curve. He still has to refine the pitch if he’s going to succeed in the majors; you can get by with a great fastball alone as a triple-A reliever, but not in the Show. And I’ve barely seen the changeup McGee is said to throw, if I’ve seen it at all.

* Enough out of me for now, though there is plenty more to say. Tonight is your very last chance of 2010 to catch the Charlotte Knights, whether you like it or not. They send to the mound Jeff Marquez, making something like his 74th start against the Bulls this season. Conversely, it’s your first chance to see the Bulls’ starter, Bobby Livingston, signed recently in desperation when injuries took down three Bulls starters. The lefty Livingston’s first three starts all came on the road. The first of those was at Charlotte, and he didn’t pitch well, knocked out after just 3 1/13 innings. But the Bulls came back and won the game for him, pouring it on against the Charlotte starter: that, sportsfans, was none other than Freddy Dolsi. Ah, the carousel: It can keep going around only so many times before the same horse comes back around.