- photo courtesy of Durham Bulls (www.durhambulls.com)
- Justin Ruggiano and The Durham Bulls celebrate his game-winning home run Monday at the DBAP
DBAP/ DURHAM—Justin Ruggiano’s three-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning gave the Durham Bulls a 4-1 win over the Gwinnett Braves Monday afternoon at the DBAP. It was the second homer of the day for Ruggiano, the fifth-year Bull who accounted for all four Durham runs with his pair of four-baggers.
The first home run was a long, third-inning solo blast off of Braves starter Mike Minor, which landed on the second terrace of Tobacco Road Cafe. A total bomb. That homer should have been enough to give Dirk Hayhurst, the Bulls’ starter, a 1-0 shutout win, on which he collaborated—over the game’s regulation nine innings—with two relievers. Hayhurst had a perfect game going through 5 1/3 innings (!), earning a well-deserved round of applause when a double by the Braves’ Shawn Bowman broke it up with one out in the sixth. Hayhurst got Wilkin Castillo to fly out for the second out of the inning, with Bowman advancing to third, and then induced an easy ground ball to second base by Jordan Schaefer. Omar Luna gobbled it up—and then made a terrible, terrible, cover-your-eyes, Little-League, 30-foot throw to first base. It seemed as if the ball had gotten stuck in his hand as he tried to release it. It went almost straight down, it seemed, bounced at Leslie Anderson’s feet at first base and Anderson couldn’t handle it. Bowman scored to make it 1-1.
It stayed that way until Ruggiano’s three-run game-ender, about two hours later, off of Gwinnett reliever Anthony Varvaro.
Every baseball game—every pitch, every pause of every baseball game—is complicated. There’s positioning, guesswork, foxing and outfoxing, plans and foiled plans, luck and chance. And yet there are games, like Monday’s, when all the ambient noise is quieted by individual, irreproachable excellence. Dirk Hayhurst was superb, and the three relievers that followed him were nearly as good. The Durham lineup kept threatening and failing—another dismal day with runners in scoring position—but the Roodge succeeded heroically, decisively, sweepingly. It seemed just about right that, half an our after the game ended, he still hadn’t emerged from the clubhouse to be interviewed. What did he need to tell us that his bat hadn’t?
Nothing—but I’ve got plenty to say anyway, as usual, after the jump.
One thing for which to be instantaneously, noise-cancelingly grateful at first pitch Monday afternoon: After week upon week of hype, of reading his book, of exploiting his status as a Durham Bull in order to preview the 2011 season, of chatting with him at Media Day and watching him gracefully rise to the occasions that have already bombarded him with public, up-on-the-dais attention and all the silly accompanying questions we manage to ask him—in short, after he handled all the distracting non-baseball exposure to which he was subject (and which, it must be said, is good for his career), we finally got a chance to see Dirk Hayhurst do the thing he does, the core reason that his arrival here was so interesting in the first place: We got to see him pitch. It was a little bit like having read Anthony Bourdain’s succés de scandale, the bestselling Kitchen Confidential, and finally having him cook you some food.
Well, it was delicious. Dirk Hayhurst didn’t throw a pitch faster than 87 miles an hour this afternoon. No matter: Durham is a Slow Food town. What he had instead of velocity was a very sharp and precise knife, and appropriate saltiness. He threw four-seamers, two-seamers, curveballs, changeups. I think there was a slider, too. The thing about Hayhurst is that he commanded his fastball so well—and more importantly, had such liveliness on its movement, never running it straight and flat—that it was as if he was throwing almost nothing but breaking balls. Everything moved. He doesn’t throw a cut-fastball, but one of his fastballs swerves a little like one—it has a late veer away from right-handers. (When this observation was made to him, he encouraged us to “circulate it around the land; add some more stuff in there, too.”) His curveball ranged from 68-73 mph; it was almost untouchable. After two years of watching Carlos Hernandez, another crafty veteran, try and fail to stay healthy enough to last a full season, Hayhurst may be the guy who lays claim to Hernandez’s former role of wily conjurer on the Bulls’ staff.
A notable feature of Hayhurst’s approach yesterday: He shook off his catcher, Robinson Chirinos, oftener than most minor-league pitchers do (or the ones I’ve seen, anyway). Jeremy Hellickson virtually never did it; Richard De Los Santos hardly ever does it. Hayhurst did it for one reason, I think: He knew exactly what he wanted to do, and he wasn’t going to let anyone get him to do anything else. Hayhurst referred to “we” in his post-game comments, presumably referring to the battery he made up with his Chirinos, e.g. “we just had a good mix of pitches,” “we established in[side].” Certainly there was plenty of collaboration in Hayhurst’s performance on Monday, but unquestionably it was his game.
For all the “braininess” that has accrued to his so-called reputation via his book, The Bullpen Gospels, and his other extra-curricular pursuits—”the writing gig,” as he summed it up for a reporter yesterday—his outing was a firm corrective to our pretensions on his behalf: Hayhurst out-thought and outperformed his opponent on the diamond.
“He mixes and matches,” Charlie Montoyo said in his post-game assessment, “and he’s quick to the plate.” Hitters couldn’t get comfortable against him. Hayhurst was smarter than the Braves, and braver than the Braves, too: He challenged them all over the strike zone, with pitches that should have been, to measure by mere velocity, easy to hit. Yet they weren’t easy to hit, because their sequence and sum were greater than their parts, and he dominated Gwinnett.
Back in 2009, Bulls pitcher Wade Davis challenged reporters after one start (actually, he was so steely and terse that he challenged us after nearly all of them) by making an adamant but unexplained distinction between “control” and “command.” Hayhurst offered an object lesson in that distinction. “I don’t really have anything baffling,” he said. “I just put it together well.” He threw four-seamers inside and outside, two-seamers to both sides, too, always down. He threw offspeed pitches when hitters were looking for fastballs and vice versa, so that once or twice his 86-mph fastball looked like it was 96. He made Ed Lucas look stupid with a curveball in the first inning, then struck him out again with a fastball (at least, I think it was a fastball) in the fourth. He commanded the game, dictating it pitch by pitch to the Braves’ hitters. He made them hit his pitches, and seldom let them hit what they were looking for.
It helped that Hayhurst was spotting his fastball so precisely. He used the phrase “fastball command” once or twice, and that was a reminder that fastball command is still the most important part of a pitcher’s game. You could tell from the outset—right after he had a bad bullpen, as he told another reporter—that Hayhurst had that command. He struck out two men in the first inning, two more in the second, two more in the fourth—all this from a guy with a lifetime minor-league K-rate of less than one per inning.
And here’s the kicker: The Braves started solving Hayhurst, just a little, in the fifth inning, when Mauro Gomez flied out to deep center field and Dan Nelson lined out to left. But Hayhurst figured out, after that, how to keep Gwinnett off-balance: He had no more strikeouts after fourth inning, but after the slightly less effective fifth he got the Braves to hit four weak pop flies in the sixth and seventh. Had it not been for Luna’s egregious error, Hayhurst would probably have departed with seven complete, two-hit innings, and for his effort been rewarded with a win that went instead to Dane De La Rosa, who pitched a scoreless, 1-2-3 11th inning before Ruggiano’s game-winning homer.
Charlie Montoyo quipped after the game that if Hayhurst “has a couple more starts like that, I’m gonna read his book.” (Hayhurst, informed of that promise, cracked right back: “A couple more outings like that, I’ll read it to him.”) You should read it, too. Not only is The Bullpen Gospels authored by one of your hometown hurlers, it’s an engaging, self-revealing memoir—and a bit more serious than it might appear at first glance; certainly it has more gravity than I was able to get across in my brief mention of its contents in my season preview last week. Hayhurst gives, within his often antic account of the deeply un-PC world of a minor-league clubhouse, an unflinching confession of the difficulties of his childhood and family. He reminds the reader that athletes are human beings, just like the rest of us, who bring to work all of the deeply personal and unsettling preoccupations, conflicts and doubts that you and I do.
As a consequence, The Bullpen Gospels inadvertently misleads the reader into forgetting about the effectiveness of Hayhurst’s actual moundwork. That’s partially because he skips over, for the most part, the details of his convincing performance in the 2008 season with Portland (the Class AAA affiliate of San Diego), when he earned his first big-league callup. At first glance, this seems like false modesty, and there is a hint of that in his general comportment—or maybe he’s just holding onto that story for his next book—but I think it may have more to do with pitchers’ famously superstitious mojo: Whatever I’m doing is working, so let’s not kill it by writing it down and publishing it.
Whatever he’s doing now is working, too, and it was refreshing to be reminded today that the skill that has turned Dirk Hayhurst into a media darling is, at base, what he does on a pitcher’s mound with a baseball in his hand. The rest is of secondary, albeit compelling, interest. Will he finish the season with his current 1.02 ERA, .156 batting average against, and ludicrous .5/9 walk rate? Probably not. But if he’s even close, he’ll be in the majors again soon enough.
Aside: It was satisfying to see Mike Ekstrom come on in relief of Hayhurst, after Cory Wade bridged the seventh and eighth innings, and throw two scoreless relief frames in what should by all rights have been a save situation had it not been for Luna’s fielding goof. Ekstrom and Hayhurst were teammates on the 2007 San Antonio Missions team that won the Class AA Texas League championship. Their roles then were reversed, with Ekstrom starting and Hayhurst relieving; in fact, Ekstrom was the winning pitcher in the series-clinching game over Springfield, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning—shades of Hayhurst yesterday against Gwinnett. (Check this out for elaboration.) It was only too bad that it took Ruggiano’s past-due, 11th-inning homer to settle the ledger of the game, well after Hayhurst and Ekstrom did their work.
And what of Ruggiano? It’s absurd, for all kinds of reasons, that the Roodge is now in his fifth year as a Durham Bull. Practically no one plays that many years with a single Triple-A team. Either he needs to be traded, or sent overseas to cash in, or he needs to break out in such a way that the Tampa Bay Rays, who still have an unsettled outfield despite the sudden efflorescence of the Legend of Sam Fuld, can no longer keep him out of the big leagues. Twice this year, Charlie Montoyo has suggested that Ruggiano’s best chance to advance may be in Japan, or in any case elsewhere: The message from above, tacit though it may be—or at least sent via Montoyo—is that the Rays don’t consider Ruggiano major-league material.
Still, he shows signs of big-league worthiness regularly. His first home run of the game, which went way out of the ballpark over the Blue Monster, came at the end of a diligent, seven-pitch at-bat against Mike Minor, in which Ruggiano showed the patience he doesn’t always bring with him to the plate. Later, in the ninth inning, with the score 1-1 and two men on base, he hit an opposite-field drive that looked like a sure game-winning three-run homer off the bat, but the wind must have knocked it down—it was caught shy of the warning track. Two innings later, given another chance for that game-winning drive to right field, he parked it.
Was he consciously trying to go the other way? Couldn’t say: He didn’t make himself available for questions before I had to leave. Whatever the case, Ruggiano—who turned 29 just last week (thus your heroes Monday were both Aries)—played like a top-level professional. That’s more than you can say of plenty of ballplayers who are currently playing in the majors. This is not necessarily an endorsement of Ruggiano’s application to the major leagues: I really don’t know what goes into the decision-making, and wouldn’t pretend to; certainly I can’t assert unreservedly that he’s better than the Rays’ current outfielders. Instead yesterday’s game was an example of just how close Ruggiano is, just how fine the grade can sometimes be between the turkey sandwich of the minors and the fine dining of the Show.
The Bulls, notwithstanding their win today and their division-leading 8-4 record, still aren’t hitting much. The team OPS is fourth-worst in the IL, as are their SLG and batting average. It’s unreasonable to expect too much out of the triumvirate of J. J. Furmaniak, Omar Luna and Ray Olmedo, two thirds of whom form their middle infield on any given night. Those three will improve on their current mark—a combined .195 batting average and sub-.500 OPS (and a pair of putrid fielding errors in the last two games)—but they aren’t going to be anything like world-beaters. It’s guys like Leslie Anderson, Chris Carter and Robinson Chirinos, all struggling in the early going, whose April showers need to produce some May flowers for the Bulls. Otherwise, watch out for a June monsoon.
Fortunately, they may not need to do it all at once on Tuesday, when the Charlotte Knights come to town. On the mound for the Bulls is Alex Cobb, who is 2-0 and has allowed just a single run in 11 innings over two starts this season. He would probably like to keep pace with his Alex counterpart in the Bulls’ starting rotation, lefty Alex Torres, who was just yesterday named IL Pitcher of the Week for his 10 1/3 inning, five-hit, 17-strikeout (!) showing over his first two starts. Cobb will be opposed this evening by Charlotte’s Gaby Hernandez, already a journeyman at age 24: He’s with his sixth organization to start his seventh professional season. Hernandez lost in his only start (and appearance) to date this year, a week ago, at home, when he gave up six hits, three walks and four runs in four innings—versus the Durham Bulls. Game time is at 7:05 p.m. at the DBAP. See you there.