Matt Torra, still an enigma as of August 21 (photo taken August 11)

HARBOR PARK/ NORFOLK—I owe Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo an apology. Not long after the Bulls beat Norfolk, 4-3, in 10 innings, I told him his team had a six-game lead in the IL South Division with 15 left to play.

Montoyo actually tried to interrupt me before I could say the word ‘”six.” “Don’t tell me!” he pleaded, too late. Then he looked down at his desk, a little glumly, like a kid who has just been informed three days before Christmas what his presents are.

It’s well-known that Montoyo works very hard not to know exactly where his team stands, even late in the season, as long as “we’re playing for something.” That phrase, which Montoyo has used a few times recently, is a surrogate for “heading for the post-season.”

The Gwinnett Braves had already lost to Charlotte before the Bulls even took the field yesterday. Montoyo noted, almost resentfully, that the Harbor Park scoreboard cycles through the International League scores all during the game, making it impossible not to know how his closest rivals had fared.

He had other things on his mind early. Durham and Norfolk combined to score six runs in the first three innings of last night’s game, collecting 10 hits and six walks in that early stretch. Tides starter Chris George allowed five hits and five walks in just three innings of work, yet the Bulls scored only three times off of him, grounding into a double play, getting caught stealing, and stranding four runners in scoring position through three times at bat against George.

Meanwhile, the Bulls’ Matt Torra, not sharp and victimized by first-inning bad luck, gave up five hits and a walk of his own. The score was tied, 3-3, after 2 1/2 innings, and we appeared to be headed for one of those ugly 11-8 games. Rain fell steadily from the second inning into the middle part of the game. There was lightning. There was also smoky haze that had drifted up from a fire in Dismal Swamp, the (currently closed) state park down over the North Carolina border. It seemed we might be here all night, peering through the polluted night at a polluted game.

But then, oddly, the game totally changed its course. Neither team scored again from the third inning until the top of the 10th, when Tim Beckham hit the third of three consecutive one-out singles to score Ray Olmedo. The Bulls held on, Dane De La Rosa laboring through two tense innings to earn the win, and Rob Delaney benefiting from two good fielding plays to save it for his bullpen comrade.

I owe Matt Torra an apology, too, and I’ll tell you why below. That apology has to do with why tonight’s post will again be relatively short. I’ll be back later Monday—an off-day for the Bulls as they gear up for their final home stand of the season—with more detailed notes and thoughts about the game, the team and Norfolk. I’ll also have some cheering news about the future of our Bulls coverage here at the Independent. Read on, and then check back later for more.

Matt Torra “didn’t have it tonight,” Charlie Montoyo said. He says that fairly often, when a starter struggles. Early on, that was certainly true. Kyle Hudson led off the game with a ringing single right back through the box, Torra ducking under it. Then Torra walked that pesky, persistent Matt Angle, currently the only Norfolk position player worth getting excited about.

The next batter, Brandon Snyder, reached out and poked an outside pitch down the right-field line for an RBI single, the cheap kind. Then Torra got Jake Fox, who homered off Torra the last time he faced him, to hit a rather weak grounder wide of first base. Leslie Anderson, not a great first baseman, didn’t so much dive for it as fall for it, the ways a tree falls. The ball rolled under him for another single, Angle scored, and it was 2-0.

The Bulls got a run back in the top of the second inning when Daniel Mayora finally, finally got his 10th RBI as a Bull—he’d been stuck on nine since August 3—by punching an opposite-field single to score Russ Canzler, who had drawn the first of his two walks.

Torra hung a changeup to Brendan Harris in the bottom of the second, and Harris drilled it just inside the left-field foul pole for a solo home run, widening the lead back to two runs at 3-1. The Bulls tied the score quickly in the top of the third. Brandon Guyer tripled on a ball Angle unwisely dove for; it rolled to the wall. Matt Carson scored Guyer with a booming double to straightaway center field. One out later, Leslie Anderson tomahawked a high fastball down the right-field line for another double, scoring Carson.

Torra got himself into more trouble in the last of the third. Angle singled to left, and one out later Jake Fox doubled to left field. Angle probably could have scored on the play, especially after a weak throw home, but Tides manager (and third base coach) Gary Allenson held him—not a bad idea, really, as Norfolk now had runners on second and third with one out. Torra got out of it, though, striking out Rhyne Hughes with consecutive changeups and getting Tyler Henson to line out softly to third.

Torra proceeded to retire the next six hitters he faced on 19 pitches, 17 of them strikes. Only one ball was hit hard, a line out by Snyder to end the fifth. At that point, Torra had thrown only 68 pitches, and he was clearly getting stronger as the game wore on.

But Montoyo, evidently still convinced that Torra “didn’t have it,” lifted Torra after five innings and brought in Torra’s Pittsfield, Mass. buddy, Joe Bateman.

Granted that Bateman, De La Rosa and Delaney combined to throw five scoreless innings in relief of Torra, so you can’t argue with results. But Torra probably has a quiet beef with Montoyo’s rather early hook—not the first of those with which he’s been yanked. He seems to be subject to a different set of rules than some of his peers. Montoyo will let pitchers like Andy Sonnanstine (a guy he’s worked with and trusted for five seasons) and Alexander Torres (a rising prospect) work up over 100 pitches even when they aren’t sharp—allowing Sonnanstine to do so cost the Bulls the game on Saturday night, in fact—and even handle-with-care prize package Matt Moore gets his 80+ pitches as long as he isn’t getting shelled.

Not so with Torra. Montoyo inherited the veteran in a mid-season trade. Torra is neither a personal favorite of Montoyo’s, as Sonnanstine and Ray Olmedo are, nor a young prospect, as Moore and Torres are. He’s just a blunt object in Montoyo’s tool chest. That he happens to have a 2.25 ERA over his last four starts hasn’t yet convinced Montoyo of Torra’s shipworthiness. That’s going to have to change when the playoffs arrive and Montoyo finds himself relying on Torra to help him win another Governors’ Cup.

The issue is perhaps simple: Montoyo just doesn’t know Torra. Right now is the discovery period, during which the manager is developing a relationship with a player he had probably never laid eyes on before July 5. Montoyo has to learn to trust Torra, and Torra has to earn that trust. Time is running short for that to happen, but it hasn’t run too far short. Torra is scheduled to make two or three more starts in the regular season.

The apology I owe Torra? It’s that, in my haste to get out of the post-game locker room and on the road for a three-hour drive back to Durham from Norfolk, I neglected to ask Torra himself what he thought of Sunday’s performance, and what it was he adjusted that allowed him to settle down and keep his team on a steady course over his last 2 2/3 innings of work—I walked right by him in the clubhouse, anxious to hit the pavement. I’ll try to remember to ask him on Tuesday, and preface it with a mea culpa for Sunday’s haste.

Which brings me to this: After three hours in the car, I sat down to report on last night’s game very late. I will have more later today, but I do want to close by mentioning more fine work by Tim Beckham, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2008 draft who has made an impression since his callup to the Bulls not long ago. Montoyo said last night that Beckham makes all the easy plays, while noting that high-ceiling, high-pick prospects have a tendency to muff those routine chances out of urgency, oversight or even nerves. The infield in Norfolk is in pretty bad shape, and Beckham stayed with its crazy bounces and made his plays at shortstop.

He also continued to show poise at the plate. Beckham went 2-6 last night with two singles and two strikeouts—one caught looking at a pitch that was almost certainly outside—but it’s his last two at-bats that warrant notice. He fought Zach Phillips for eight pitches in the eighth inning, fouling off a number of tough breaking balls down in the zone before finally grounding out to shortstop. And in the 10th, he got his game-winning single on a full-count pitch: J. J. Furmaniak broke for second base, and Beckham wisely served the ball the opposite way, through the vacated hole, to score Olmedo.

Two more little notes: After Beckham’s single, the Bulls had runners at the corners with one out and a chance to break open the game, but Brandon Guyer popped out (he went 3-5 with a walk, don’t be mad at him) and Matt Carson grounded out. The Bulls left 14 runners on base last night. They could have put this game away early and never needed Beckham’s late-night hit nor the stoic relief work of De La Rosa, who threw 46 pitches, or Delaney, who needed 17 more. Good thing they have a day off today.

The second note is that Justin Ruggiano is back with the Bulls—he has been for a few days, in fact. So why hasn’t he started that rehab assignment that was scheduled to begin a week ago? Well, whether he had “knee bursitis” or not, it turns out that he did develop a nagging little oblique strain after the bursitis officially sidelined him. Ruggiano told me last night that he feels close to 100% and expects to get into the Durham lineup perhaps as soon as Wednesday. He’s anxious to see some action, as he really hasn’t played in a month.

Matt Moore, the ace of the staff if not the league, starts for Durham against—yep, again—Norfolk on Tuesday night, against eternal Tide Chris Tillman. It’s another silly “home-and-home” “four-game” “series.” The Bulls are getting quite close to putting the division to rest, and you have only nine more chances to see them in regular-season form, starting tomorrow. Even if the Bulls make the playoffs, recall that those take place after the September 1 roster expansion date has come and gone. Recall further what that did to last year’s team, which was merely the ragged hide of the Bulls throughout the post-season, and which was finally trounced by Columbus—the team which, if the season ended today, the Bulls would play in the first round of the playoffs. So you’d better get out to the DBAP now, while the Bulls you know are still, you know, the Bulls.

I will be back with more later, including the post-mortem from a good talk with Dane De La Rosa. I’ll also be back with Moore later—on Tuesday, to be precise, at 7:05 p.m. at the DBAP. See you there.