- Photo by Al Drago
- Reid Brignac drove in the game-winning run for the Bulls on Sunday.
DBAP/ DURHAM—The storm clouds approached in the mid-afternoon, just before the non-waiver trade deadline. The sky turned that ominous shade of deep pewter that is somehow both dull and iridescent at once, and promises a tempest. The wind gusted, exposing the undersides of the leaves on the trees. Stray, heavy raindrops fell like pebbles.
But then it passed. There was no storm. The trade deadline passed, too, and the Tampa Bay Rays, like the weather, left the day unchanged. B. J. Upton remained a Ray, as he hoped he would. So did Casey Kotchman, Johnny Damon, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, all of the rumored expendables—indeed, all of the Rays are still Rays, for now.
And for the first time in what seemed like ages, the Bulls remained the same, too. That made sense, and not just because their parent club held steady: Saturday night’s game was rained out, and the Bulls have an off-day on Monday; so Sunday’s game sat buffered on either side by quiet, inaction, rest. Nothing changed, not even the prospective lineup from Saturday’s washed-out game. Only the starting pitcher was different, Ryan Reid’s spot-start rendered unnecessary by the rain.
Two off days out of three is a rare happening in Class AAA, whose regular season incorporates just seven of them (with the whims of the rain tossing in a few more). A battle against depletion, exhaustion and overwork defines the campaign, along with the hazards of constant change—change which imposes on most Triple-A teams a kind of incessantly corrective equilibrium. The teams affiliated with talent-poor or mismanaged farm systems are unrelentingly bad—Buffalo, Norfolk, Rochester—but the rest, that large and generally indistinct majority, with clubs like the 2010 Bulls exampling the occasional exception, spend the season in a purgatory of ups and downs, none of which take them too high or too low. The almost unbroken run of 140+ games, and the influx and outflux of talent, are so constant that fatigue and unpredictability are almost guaranteed to catch up with any team that succeeds for too long.
On the flip side, few clubs will remain terrible all year. The best players, lost to the majors and gutting the Triple-A team, will return. The Double-A prospects will be promoted to the next level. One or two of the so-called “Four-A” veterans will get hot and carry the team for a while, or even for a whole season while his inconstant teammates ride out their streaks and slumps. Thus it is that almost unaccountable engines of success will hitch themselves to even the most abject and downtrodden Triple-A teams, and make them look like triumphant world-beaters for a series, a week, a homestand.
In the long run, though the daily picture changes, the weeks, the months, the season achieves a sameness of direction, as a tacking ship makes its inexorably straight progress toward some landfall. The Bulls, for example, haven’t had a winning or losing streak longer than five games this season. They have been within three games of first place, either up or down, for all but three days in 2011. Is the team on its way up or on its way down? Overachieving or underachieving? It depends virtually on the day of the week, on the mood in Tampa Bay, on the guy at the plate. Triple-A is almost impossible to assess, to characterize, to predict.
So it was nice to have Sunday’s isolated game, with none the day before and none the day after: a respite from the blur, the grind, the pileup of days and ways, of games and changes; a chance to absorb and to consider. Sunday was a respite, too, from the blazing hot weather that has installed itself in the Triangle over the last couple of weeks. After the storm front passed, with little incident, the evening grew cool and mild, and finally partly sunny, like some favor from pitying gods. The crowd at the DBAP was small and sedate, a rather reflective and peaceable Sunday gathering—which was, unfortunately, bellowed into occasional frenzies and then, finally, beaten into sunset submission by the Bulls’ relentless and relentlessly loud PA system.
The locals needed a win on Sunday. They were just 4-4 in the first eight games of the homestand, taking three of four from sluggard Toledo and losing three of four to keen and cutting Gwinnett, which held the Bulls scoreless for the final 19 innings of the four-game series and made them look not just punchless but punched out—like they might never score another run. The little two-game cushion the Bulls had built into their division lead evaporated in just two days, and Gwinnett had already created another virtual tie for first place earlier Sunday by beating Indianapolis.
That put pressure on Durham to keep pace, as did the accidentally bright spotlight of a game surrounded by gameless days on both sides. And the Bulls delivered. Reid Brignac’s RBI double broke a seventh-inning tie and the Bulls bested Charlotte, 3-2.
Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo used five pitchers in last night’s game. He made three mid-inning pitching changes, two of which arranged for same-on-same matchups with hitters. That’s not Montoyo’s style at all, although it should be said that he rarely has the luxury of indulging in such situational tactics, even if he’d like to do it more often. Usually, his bullpen is in some degree of depletion and he just goes with what he’s got, squeezing everything he can out of each arm available to him.
Not so last night. Not only had Saturday been rained out, Andy Sonnanstine pitched eight innings on Friday and Matt Moore eight on Wednesday (Moore’s game seems like a lifetime ago now). As a result, Montoyo had at his disposal seven relievers who were not only rested but in fact in need of work. It was so extreme that Lance Cormier was throwing in the bullpen in the eighth inning of last night’s game, just to get some work in, even though he wasn’t going to be called on to pitch.
But it wasn’t just workplace fairness that led Montoyo to make four pitching changes last night. He wanted to win. His team hasn’t been scoring runs (and didn’t, really, again). The Bulls have looked rather listless much of the time, coming to life mostly just in the form of Moore’s marvelous performance on Wednesday. The formidable top third of the order—Desmond Jennings, Brandon Guyer and Felipe Lopez—has been refitted with a demoted, struggling shortstop and some Double-A overstays. The league’s reigning MVP, Dan Johnson, is in a desperate slump. The superb Gwinnett pitching staff had shut the Bulls down.
So when Montoyo paced out to the pitcher’s mound with two outs in the fifth inning last night, with the Bulls and Knights tied 2-2 and starter Matt Torra having put two men on base but still at only 69 pitches, his gesture toward the bullpen summoning reliever Ryan Reid could only be read as a pointed one. Montoyo has frequently stuck with pitchers performing far worse than Torra had to that point, and at far higher pitch counts. Moreover, Torra was one out away from qualifying for a win, should the Bulls have scored in the bottom of the inning. (They didn’t—and by the way, wins may be a meaningless stat to most enlightened baseball observers, but they mean the world to pitchers.) Montoyo deprived him of the chance, and Torra looked first stunned and then aggrieved to see Montoyo coming out to the mound. The Rays signed Torra and sent him to Durham basically just to eat innings for a team starving for a starter, and here was his manager sending him to the showers still hungry. Torra’s trudge back to the dugout had in it not dejection but a quiet, stifled resentment.
In Montoyo’s defense, it’s not as if Torra had been pitching brilliantly, either Sunday or in any of his previous five starts as a Durham Bull. He came into the game with a 6.86 ERA, a 1.68 WHIP and batting average against of .294. He had allowed consecutive one-out singles in the first inning yesterday, and avoided a big inning when catcher Stephen Vogt’s peg to second caught Eduardo Escobar stealing. Three batters hit fly outs to the warning track off of Torra, whose fly ball/ground ball ratio was 3:1. In the fifth, four batters before his removal from the game, he’d allowed a tape-measure home run to Josh Phegley, Phegley’s first in Class AAA since his July 14 promotion from Class AA Birmingham.
Still, Montoyo’s timing was an unmistakeable vote of no-confidence, and an assertion of his desire to get a win out of a team that, he may have felt, couldn’t afford to fall behind, given the inability of any lineup he has recently constructed to score many runs. That vote was (assertively) ratified by Reid, who hadn’t pitched six days and struck out Escobar to the end the fifth, preserving the 2-2 tie. Reid followed that with a scoreless sixth, and was replaced to start the seventh by Jay Buente, who hadn’t pitched in five days. Buente got two outs, walked ninth-place hitter Kyle Shelton—a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill alum—and was yanked for Cesar Ramos. Ramos pitched on Friday, the last time the Bulls played, but the lefty is recently down from Tampa Bay, where he’d spent the entire season as a lefty specialist until his demotion just days ago. Montoyo may have specific orders to use Ramos in certain situations, and here was an opportunity to bring in the lefty to face another lefty, in a close game with a runner on base.
Tyler Kuhn—like his teammates Phegley and Shelton a newish arrival from Double-A Birmingham—greeted Ramos with a single to put runners on first and second with two outs. Switch-hitter Eduardo Escobar followed with a low line drive, but it went right to shortstop Reid Brignac, who caught it for the inning’s final out.
In the bottom of the seventh, Ray Olmedo laced a leadoff triple into the right-field corner, his trip to third enabled by Lastings Milledge, who had trouble with with the ball as it banked around the side wall and onto the warning track, like those hockey slaps you sometimes see that roll around the corner of the rink. John Shelby, in his first-ever game in Class AAA, followed with what should have been a sacrifice fly to medium center field; but Olmedo broke too early from third and had to retreat to the bag or risk being called out on appeal, which he probably would have been. “It was obvious,” Montoyo said later of the premature departure, praising Olmedo’s wisdom in going back to third. That was an honorable though clumsy attempt at defending his player—like Montoyo an undersized utility infielder who has never been able to stick in the majors—but it didn’t obscure the glaring mistake. Leaving too early on a sacrifice fly is a little-league gaffe—an SBG, in fact, of which there have been blessedly few this season.
So Brignac came up with Olmedo still on third and one out. The inning had all the makings of a choke-job—the failure to score the run the first time, on Shelby’s fly ball, might have bolstered the confidence of a pitcher, Zach Stewart, who had already given up nine hits but pitched around them with good control and a sinking fastball that touched 94 mph. The new-look, Double-A-heavy Bulls—more Bullheaded than ever before—were helping Stewart do his work by swinging early in the count. They drew no walks last night (for the third time this homestand) and only five of their 28 at-bats against Stewart lasted more than four pitches. Stewart, making his first start for the Knights since the White Sox acquired him the other day from Toronto, may have felt like he could get out of this little spot of trouble. (Here’s a scouting report on him.)
Stewart threw Brignac a curve, which he’d only thrown a handful times all night, and Brignac laid off of it for ball one. That forced Stewart to go back to his fastball, and two pitches later Brignac got one down and in, right where left-handers like it, and ripped it to the left-center field wall for an opposite-field, go-ahead double. It was, amazingly, just his fourth extra-base hit of the year.
That did it for Stewart, and it was a good thing the Bulls got to him before he left. His replacement, recent Double-A callup Addison Reed (sounds like the name of an investment banking company), is a well-regarded White Sox prospect, ranked in the top ten by most experts, or anyway “experts.” (Another scouting report.) Reed totally overmastered the Bulls for 1 2/3 innings with what was undeniably major-league stuff: a fastball that hew threw at 96 mph every time except for one 97-mph specimen, all over the lower part of the strike zone; and a wicked slider that ranged from 81-84. We’ve gotten to see some dynamite arms during this homestand—Matt Moore, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino—and Reed compares well with them. He probably needs a third pitch, but for now he looks like he could already help the big-league club. Reed pitched at San Diego State with some guy named Stephen Strasburg. The Aztecs know from talent. Well, they ought to, considering who manages the team there.
I linger on the details of White Sox prospects like Stewart and Reed (Stewart & Reed ought to be a London tea purveyor or haberdashery, no?) because lately, the most exciting thing about the life of the DBAP has been the blue-chip talent, regardless of which dugout it inhabits. The Bulls are, to be honest, rather dull to watch most of the time lately. Sure, they’re the third best team in the International League, but they’re also a minor losing streak away from being the seventh or eighth best. With the exception of Matt Moore, none of the recently risen Montgomery Biscuits are more than filler (which is what biscuits are, y’all), and the Triple-A prospects have either been erratic (Alexander Torres) or injured (Brandon Guyer). Even the close games, like last night’s, lack aura, lack snap; the players are like functionaries, corporals, middlemen. They work sedulously but without elan. One misses Jon Weber, Winston Abreu.
On a cool and luminous Sunday evening, then, you can’t help looking for quiet but invigorating excitement. Reed provided it for the night, throwing 17 of 20 pitches for strikes, his fastball humming and buzzing, his slider slicing and diving.
But there was more quality pitching after Reed, and it came from the Bulls’ Dane De La Rosa. Cesar Ramos came back out for the eighth inning and got a pair of groundouts, but then he gave up a single to left-hander Jordan Danks (I thought he was supposed to get lefties out?). It was fun to mark the progress of Danks, a free-swinger who is in the IL’s top ten in strikeouts for the second straight year. Last night, he saw 19 pitches and swung at 13 of them. He did, however, draw a walk and make a nice diving catch of John Matulia’s shallow fly ball to center field. (He also lost a fly ball in the late afternoon sun; it landed behind him and resulted in a “triple” for Russ Canzler.)
After Danks’s single, Montoyo made his third mid-inning, matchup-based pitching change of the night. He called on De La Rosa, who last pitched on Wednesday, when he saved Matt Moore’s shutout of the Gwinnett Braves. De La Rosa looked really good again last night, adding a notch or two to his fastball—it was at 93-94 mph and touched 95, with good life; it had been 92-93 for a while—and mixing in his much-improved breaking ball. He phanned Phegley to end the eighth, started the ninth with two more swinging strikeouts (Gookie Dawkins, Andrew Garcia), and got Kyle Shelton to foul out to first base—an appropriately quiet and unassuming ending to a quiet and unassuming win by a quiet and unassuming first-place team.
Even Charlie Montoyo, after the game, piecing through the evidence of the win, said “I don’t even know how we scored.” When informed that seven of his nine batters had had hits, he replied, “It didn’t feel that way.” His team seems to be at rest, in a recovery mode after the frenzy of personnel moves that spun the team like a top all through July, its component parts flying off and reattaching on a daily basis. Yesterday, the last day of the month, was the second in a row of calm seas, free of the waves of roster changes, and made freer still when Tampa Bay decided to stand pat at the trade deadline, leaving Durham’s roster unexploded. The latest arrival, John T. Shelby III, was in the lineup for the first time, putting a face on the team’s last mystery-man. There will, of course, be further changes, and many of them, before the season is over; but for the moment the Bulls we have before us feel reasonably solid, a graspable unit, a regrouped and reassembled regiment that could very well stay close to intact for a few weeks.
Speaking of “John T. Shelby III,” that is how his name was announced over the PA system when he came up to hit, all three times he did so. Now batting: John. T. Shelby. The third. Those were my three favorite moments of the night. The fourth was when, during the customary mid-inning distraction when birthdayers’ and group attendees’ names were sequenced on the big media board, amidst the “Happy 80ths!” and the churches and the Kiwanis Club, the words “Time Warner Cable” flashed on the screen, and everyone booed.
Shelby III was fun to talk to, affable and outgoing, and I verified that his nickname is indeed “Treybone.” His uncle came up with it, and “I just went with it,” Shelby III said. His uncle’s brother is Shelby III’s father, whose nickname was “T-Bone.” I asked Shelby is he was nervous in his first Triple-A at-bat. He admitted that he was and that “I was trying to do too much.” (He struck out.) Overall, though, Shelby said he felt comfortable with the Bulls and at the DBAP last night. To take the second part first, Shelby was in the White Sox organization until just before the season started, so he knew pretty much all of the Charlotte Knights well.
Asked why he thought he was traded, Shelby III gave the straightforward answer that the White Sox simply have too many outfielders in their organization. They were candid yet kind to Shelby III, he said, in informing him that they were planning to send him to a team that might give him a clearer shot at the majors. Just before the season started, he was dealt to Tampa Bay. Less than three weeks later, another White Sox outfielder, Stefan Gartrell, was traded to Atlanta, largely because Lastings Milledge—younger, still a prospect, if only barely—hadn’t made the big-league team and was outrighted to Charlotte. (See this post for more.)
Shelby said he was very happy in the Rays organization, and his promotion to Durham was a fairly smooth transition. After all, a third of the current team was playing with him in Montgomery for much of the season, and Shelby said that he also knew Russ Canzler and Brandon Guyer a little from having played against them—as well as all of last year’s Biscuits—last season in Class AA. He ought to fit in well in Durham until Guyer returns from the disabled list, at which point he’ll probably return to Montgomery, unless he happens to get and stay hot, which could make John Matulia the odd man out. Until then, you can recognize Shelby III as the guy who isn’t wearing batting gloves!
Reid Brignac said all the right things about his demotion from Tampa Bay, and he has already shown discipline and focus since returning to Durham. He talked about how baseball humbles you and this time it was he who was humbled. He knew his results in Tampa Bay were poor, although he thought the quality of his at-bats was good. He acknowledged that he never found a rhythm and that Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon’s habit of rejiggering his lineup every day played a small part in keeping him from finding it, but did not blame that too much for his .193 average, his nine walks in nearly 200 plate appearances, his dismal .219 slugging percentage. Through all of Brignac’s talk, you could see and hear a very disappointed young player who earned a starting job in the major leagues, held it down for more than a year, and lost it—and who knows he lost it.
Brignac seems prepared to play the role of elder statesman in Durham. He has been seen wrapping his arm paternally around teammates, giving them the pats and squeezes that older athletes use to encourage and congratulate their younger colleagues. That seems curious, given that Brignac is still just 25, the sixth-youngest player on the Durham roster. But in terms of experience, and especially the pains of experience, he is older than most of his teammates, who are still striving upwards or know that they’ve already risen as high as they’re likely to go. Brignac was just 1-4 last night, but he hit the ball hard three times. He is comfortably installed in the leadoff spot in the Bulls’ lineup, and I suspect he’ll do well there. His fielding ability is unassailably major-league, especially in this detail: he not only makes the sort of deceptively hard plays that tend to bedevil weaker shortstops, he makes them look easy.
Speaking of the pains of experience, Dan Johnson went 1-31 during the homestand with 10 strikeouts. In the postgame locker room, his left wrist was wrapped, a treatment for some mysterious nerve damage resulting from when he was hit on the wrist by a pitch back in April. Apparently, it’s still hampering his swing. Is that the whole problem? Is there some mental/psychological hangup? Who really knows? Is an injury that sounds vague (some might even call it phantom) enough to turn the league MVP into a journeyman with an August 1 SLG not much higher than Matt Angle’s?
To Johnson, the problem is purely physical, and he speaks with the grim exhaustion of a guy who knows that his best, which he captured just one miraculous season ago, is out of his reach and out of his physical control in 2011, despite a season-long effort to get his nerve up again.
Johnson seemed to do precisely that during the Bulls’ most recent road trip, a 5-6 day at Rochester capping a 10-game surge that raised his batting average from .240 to .275 and his SLG from .381 to .429. After the disastrous homestand, his batting average has plummeted right back down to .241, his SLG to .373. He turns 32 in 10 days. It’s going to be a glum birthday for him unless he finds his stroke again, and quickly.
And speaking of 32nd birthdays (such smooth segues today!), a happy one to J. J. Furmaniak, who reached the milestone last night and was rewarded with a day off. Today, all 24 Durham Bulls get one of those, a little moment to reflect, recuperate and relax on this rabbit-rabbit-rabbit day. Tomorrow, they get to take their shortest bus ride, the 150-minute hop down to Charlotte where they’ll play these same Knights twice before coming back home for eight more home games. The first four of those will be against one of the league’s best teams, Lehigh Valley; the next four are against one of the league’s worst, Rochester. But let’s not overlook these two in Fort Mill, S. C. In the first of them, young ace Matt Moore pitches for Durham, and he’s followed the next night by fellow left-hander Alexander Torres. Those two started back-to-back games against Gwinnett, and in 13 2/3 combined innings they allowed just six hits and not a single run.
I’ve got some thoughts about the Tampa Bay Rays’ surprising stillness at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, and if you’re very unlucky I may decide to write them down and post them here while the Bulls are away. But for now, in the wake of a long homestand, I could use a little quietude myself. I’ll see you, refreshed and ready for more ballgames, on Thursday night at the DBAP.