DBAP/ DURHAM—It’s obligatory for Bulls beat writers to make the occasional Bull Durham movie reference. After the Bulls lost a lead and then rallied to beat Syracuse last night, 5-4, the line that popped into my head was this one: “This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.”
There are nights, though, when baseball seems almost unbelievably complicated and intricate. To underscore that, last night’s between-inning entertainment was provided by a character named Breakin’ BBoy McCoy, who updated 1980s pop-locking, electric boogie and other staples of the decade, all deployed in crowd-pleasing routines. And by crowd-pleasing, I mean that Bulls’ utility infielder Omar Luna watched BBoy McCoy do a routine atop the home dugout with a rapt, beaming, beatified look on his face, the kind you might see on a child’s at Disneyworld.
It was also impossibly hard to fathom doing it yourself. The choreography is extremely complex, and executing it requires extreme body control. BBoy McCoy shook as though electrocuted, jiggled as though seismic waves were running through his nervous system, moonwalked and pelvis-popped like Michael Jackson to a medley of the King of Pop’s greatest hits. His limbs seemed, each of them, to be on a separate neural processor, like the Who’s Keith Moon’s. McCoy wore glasses, as though his moves were so scientifically precise that you had to spend hours in a lab or study to perfect them.
McCoy was the right model for last night’s game, which was played at a high degree of difficulty with little room for error—and in fact, no statistical errors were made. But it was not by any means a crisply played game. The little sinkholes and mistakes where the game was decided, though, were smaller than errors, tinier than hits, off the map of stats, and some of them wouldn’t show up in a box score. And passions ran visibly higher than usual in the tight-lipped, close-to-the-vest game of baseball: for the third time in the last four games at the DBAP between Durham and Syracuse, dating back to last summer, there was an ejection. These two teams go after it and each other, even with Syracuse now under new management (Tim Foli, who helmed the club in 2009, has been replaced by Trent Jewett).
To break it down for those who don’t make the jump (which means, I must point out, that you’re playing it about as safe as people who refuse to leap from a sinking ship), Joe Dillon’s bases-loaded single in the eighth inning broke a 4-4 tie and made a winner of Dale Thayer. But if you’re content to think that that’s all you need to know about this tense, challenging, game-within-a-game battle between two good ballclubs, you’re missing out on a ton of fun: hard, dangerous, edgy fun. See you on the other side.
So to get back to something I was harping on yesterday, WALKS! The long view is that walks generally—and leadoff walks specifically—drove last night’s game. Bulls starter Brian Baker, who went six excellent innings in place of the injured Carlos Hernandez, walked Chiefs right fielder Justin Maxwell to start the fifth inning. Maxwell later scored on a double by former Bull Luis Ordaz. Durham reliever Joe Bateman walked the first two Chiefs in the eighth inning, and they both scored. Chiefs reliever Ron Villone walked two batters in the bottom of the inning, and hit another, to help push the tying and winning runs across the plate for Durham. It’s just that simple.
But to backtrack a bit, here’s a quick look at Baker’s outing. What stands out is that he struck out eight Chiefs in six innings. Syracuse isn’t a big strikeout team, so credit goes to Baker, who had only 34 Ks in 59 innings coming into the game and had struggled against this team the last time he faced them, walking three and allowing a run in a relief inning in Syracuse back in June. Last night, he recorded only three outs on the ground (with seven in the air, including a superb diving catch by Desmond Jennings in center field); you’d like to see that ratio reversed, but few of those airborne outs were hit hard—the hardest was Jason Botts’s lineout to short; Elliot Johnson had Botts perfectly played, positioned well over toward the second-base bag.
Baker told us after the game that all his pitches felt good last night, especially his changeup, which helped him produce 15 swings-and-misses with just 91 pitches. He allowed only two hits and two walks; after the second one, which came with one out in Baker’s sixth and final inning and imperiled his chances of finishing it out, he was visibly angry with himself. But he bounced back and struck out Chase Lambin (who fanned four times) and Botts to end the frame.
Although Baker is generally described as a soft-thrower, it should be allowed that his fastball reaches 90 mph, which is plenty zippy enough to set up other pitches. It’s no coincidence that the Bulls got good starting for the second straight night, and won both games. And now that Baker has pitched 65 innings as a Bull this season, his 2.48 ERA, which he has pulled from a mixed bag of spot starts, long relief outings, and short-stint late-game appearances, can’t be construed as a fluke anymore. He’s having a good season. If Carlos Hernandez has to stay on the disabled list for a few more starts, that might not be so terrible for the Bulls.
But Joe Bateman and Dale Thayer ruined Baker’s confection. Bateman got through the seventh unscathed, even though he hit a batter and gave up a single, and got into deeper trouble when Dioner Navarro couldn’t handle one of his pitches and was charged with a passed ball.
That brings us to the crazy eighth. With Durham leading 3-1, a score that had prevailed since the fifth inning (the game had been lulled nearly to sleep), Bateman walked Boomer Whiting and Seth Bynum. Charlie Montoyo replaced him with Dale Thayer. Thayer pitched two scoreless innings in Wednesday’s 12-inning loss to Columbus, although he allowed a leadoff double in the 11th inning and needed a terrific sliding catch by Desmond Jennings to end it. Not as reliable this year as he was in 2008 and 2009, Thayer was a dangerous if perhaps inevitable choice to spell Bateman: for a year and a half, Thayer has been half of Montoyo’s 1-2 punch at the back end of Durham’s bullpen along with Winston Abreu. But he is prone to missing high with his fastball, and that’s something you don’t want to do when there are two men on base and a three-run homer could put the opposing team ahead.
Guess what Thayer did? After he fanned Lambin (who complained to Damien Beal about the wide strike zone—this will come back later on), he missed with a fastball, and Jason Botts drove the 1-1 pitch over the fence in straightaway center field for a game-changing three-run homer. It was now suddenly 4-3, Syracuse. And after Thayer struck out Justin Maxwell, he surrendered a double into the right field corner to Leonard Davis. The next batter, Luis Ordaz, had been hit in the back by a Bateman pitch in the previous inning (it looked quite painful). This time, Thayer’s second pitch bounced, kicked off the top of Dioner Navarro’s mitt, and ricocheted up and hit Ordaz in the face. That was enough punishment for one night. Ordaz went to the clubhouse and Pedro Lopez took over the at-bat.
On the next pitch, Lopez hit a medium-soft grounder into the hole between first and second. It was one of those agonizingly slow-to-develop plays in which you could practically already see the ball bouncing into right field for a single, easily scoring Davis from second base. But J. J. Furmaniak ranged way over to his left and made a diving grab of the ball. That saved a run right there, but to top it off he rose to his feet, heavily but determinedly, like a soldier who has been wounded but must, must take down the last enemy standing in order to save the troop, and threw to Dan Johnson at first base to beat Lopez by half a step. It was an extremely difficult play just for the effort it required, especially toward the end of a hot night; the crowd at the DBAP erupted.
In the bottom of the inning, things got really complicated. Syracuse starter Matt Chico had been effective through seven innings, allowing three runs on a pair of homers: the obligatory Dan Johnson long-ball in the first inning, on a 2-1 fastball, Johnson’s 27th of the season (that’s nearly a third again as many as the guy behind him); and a Desmond Jennings fly to left field that surprised some of us by carrying over the Blue Monster, much like Justin Ruggiano’s the other day. Jennings’s homer was just his second of the year. Otherwise, Chico pitched out of mild trouble in the second after a bloop single by Jose Lobaton and a two-out double by Fernando Perez, who took advantage of sluggish outfielding and used his speed to stretch what should have been a single into a two-bagger; after that, Chico retired nine straight batters until Jennings’s homer.
But with Chico at 100 pitches, Chiefs manager replaced him with Ron Villone. Villone was a first-round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners—in 1992. He is 40 years old and has played for 12 different organizations, with 717 major-league appearances on his resume. (He was also named in the notorious 2007 Mitchell Report that listed 89 reputed users of performance enhancing drugs.) Through 2009, Villone had allowed 872 bases on balls in a little over 1500 career innings, and he wasted no time in adding to that ungainly total: With one out in the last of the eighth inning, he walked Elliot Johnson.
And here things get very complicated again. One thing to keep in mind is that Johnson is tied for fourth in the International League with 24 stolen bases, and to allow him to reach second would have put the tying run in scoring position. Another thing to factor in is that Matt Chico had picked Johnson off of first base after Johnson’s infield single in the first inning. Thinking, perhaps, to both protect a lead and exploit a weakness, Villone threw over to first base four straight times. This drew increasing ire from the DBAP faithful, who seemed unable to appreciate the nuances of the situation.
And there was another one: by throwing over to first repeatedly, Villone was keeping the batter at the plate, Justin Ruggiano, out of rhythm. Ruggiano had to stand in and ready himself, then uncoil each time as Villione threw to first. On two of these throws, Johnson was in fact leaning toward second base, and he was nearly picked off again on one of them.
But finally, with the crowd jeering Villione, he threw ball one to Ruggiano. And on his second pitch, he did somethng no one was expecting: he bunted. Ruggiano had not, to my knowledge (and Charlie Montoyo had the same memory), bunted a single time this season. He has no sacrifices on his ledger for the year. But it was a perfectly dropped bunt toward third base, and Ruggiano reached without a throw. It was a brilliant ploy.
Villone then walked Dan Johnson. Not entirely a surprise: You don’t want to let the other team’s (and the entire league’s) best hitter beat you. Bases loaded, one out. Villone attacked Dioner Navarro, getting ahead 0-2. A strikeout would have put the Bulls’ rally in serious jeopardy.
But Villone’s next pitch hit Navarro—or did it? Navarro trotted down toward first base and the crowd erupted as Elliot Johnson came home to score the tying run. But Villone immediately and vehemently protested that the pitch had actually hit the handle of Navarro’s bat. Manager Trent Jewett joined him. Replays we watched were inconclusive. The umpires huddled and Damien Beal’s call stood. Tie game.
Villone was done and was replaced by Josh Wilkie, a former nondrafted free agent whom the Nationals picked up in 2006 and has steadily climbed up through their farm system; he pitched at the DBAP last year and notched his first Triple-A save against the Bulls.
But he didn’t see Joe Dillon then, or in August of 2009 when the Bulls visited Syracuse; nor did he face Dillon during the Bulls’ trip to Syracuse last month, which Dillon missed with a hamstring injury. Dillon is still recovering from a virus that gave him nausea and aches for three days, and dropped his body temperature down to 97 degrees (the initial news that he had had a fever was, of course, incorrect). Had Angel Chavez not had to miss the game with a sore shoulder, Dillon might very well not have played at all last night.
Dillon also came into the game riding a 9-66 slump, which has knocked about 40 points off of his batting average. He fell behind Wilkie, 0-2. Then he parried him for 10 more pitches, an assortment of changeups and sinking two-seam fastballs that Dillon fouled off or took for balls, and most of these pitches were very good ones, any of which could have struck Dillon out had Dillon not been so canny in fighting them off. It was an accomplished, mature, dogged and very intelligent at-bat.
“He threw me a first-pitch changeup,” Dillon later explained, “so I figured that was his pitch. As the at-bat went on, I started picking up the changeup a lot better, but he was still making pitches with his two-seamer in, trying to keep me honest.” With the go-ahead run on third base and one out, “the worst thing I can do is strike out there. I was just trying to put the ball in the air [for a sacrifice fly],” Dillon said.
On the twelfth pitch of the at-bat, Dillon punched a looping flare out over shortstop Pete Orr. At first, it looked like Orr would be able to chase it down in shallow left-centerfield; the play had the same tortuous unwinding as Furmaniak’s diving catch in the top of the inning. Finally, surprisingly, the ball carried just too far for Orr to catch it, and Ruggiano raced home with the go-ahead run. It wasn’t a hard hit by any means, but the soft single was a kind of reward for Dillon’s hard work throughout the at-bat. He got the nod for Ken Tanner’s “Star of the Game” interview afterward. And his narrow-margin hit became hugely important when Jose Lobaton followed by hitting into a pitcher-to-catcher-to-first-base double play to end the inning without adding insurance runs. 5-4, Bulls.
So many close, difficult plays; so many strenuous efforts, so many heady gambles; so much labor and skill—and mistakes. So much water so close to home.
And speaking of close to home, one last flare before Winston Abreu—back on his horse after being thrown for the loss in Wednesday’s 12th-inning meltdown versus Columbus—nails down his lucky-13th save of the season. Leading off the ninth inning, Pete Orr takes Abreu’s first two pitches for balls. (Remember what I was saying about leadoff walks? Nervous yet?) But Abreu squares the count at 2-2, and Orr takes the fifth pitch, which is clearly outside by several inches at least. But Damien Beal calls Orr out; and Orr, perhaps still frustrated by that tantalizing flare off the bat of Joe Dillion that he couldn’t quite catch to keep the game tied in the bottom of the eighth; or perhaps up-to-here with Beal’s evasive strike zone, which Chase Lambin had barked about not long before; or perhaps boiling over in his layers of uniform, a Syracusian sweating profusely in the sticky July heat—whatever the case, Orr did something you should not try at home: First he flailed backward in a modern-dance gestis of tragic disbelief; then, not coolheaded enough to stop there, he turned on Beal and began berating him. Beal immediately ejected Orr. Orr then used his bat to draw a line in the sand, albeit one that marked his interpretation of the location of the pitch, about six inches northwest of home plate. Then he tossed his bat toward the dugout and kicked it as he stormed that way himself. It was quite a performance, and a fitting final note on a game—more an eighth inning, really—that was as deliriously vexing and dramatically weighty as Wagner. and since it was Friday, the postgame fireworks didn’t hurt either.
Quick roster note: Alvin Colina hurt his knee running the bases on Thursday night, and had an MRI scheduled for late Friday. We’ll let you know when we hear a report on the results. In the mean time, he has gone on the seven-day disabled list (his stay there will almost certainly be much longer), and utility man Omar Luna, who has been on the DL himself but with the team all along, was activated.
Quick schedule note: Just got word that Sunday’s game time has been pushed forward to 7:05 PM from 5:05 PM, because of the anticipated 100-degree temperatures that day. Plan accordingly. Sunday is also when I return to the park; on Saturday, Bulls’ staff ace Jeremy Hellickson, who hasn’t turned in one of those classically dominant performances of his for quite a while now, takes the mound looking to rebound from a poor start on Monday versus Columbus, when he lasted only 3 1/3 innings. He’ll face Jeff Mandel, whom the Bulls knocked around for six runs in beating him at Syracuse on June 5. Let me know who gets ejected.