The Pawtucket Red Sox Daisuke Matsuzaka warms up in the visitors bullpen at Durham Bulls Atheltic Park, May 17, 2012.
  • Photo by D. L. Anderson
  • The Pawtucket Red Sox’ Daisuke Matsuzaka warms up in the visitors bullpen at Durham Bulls Atheltic Park, May 17, 2012.

DBAP/ DURHAM—”It felt like Opening Day,” said Jim Paduch, the Independent League veteran who is only in Durham because Alex Torres finally pitched his way out of a starting job and who, with 10,000-plus on hand at the ballpark for an All Nippon Airways type showdown between two of Japan’s most famous baseball players, ever, threw six shutout innings against the league’s best team and made a loser of Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Bulls blanked the PawSox, 5-0.

Henry Wrigley was drafted in the 14th round in 2005 and toiled for six years in the Rays’ farm system before finally playing his way up to Triple-A. Now he has hit a home run off of Dice-K: a three-run blast, a moonshot, on a hanging 3-2 breaking ball, way over Ye Olde Snorting Bull. It put the game away in the sixth inning.

On Wednesday night, after the Bulls lost their second straight game and fell to 15-26, manager Charlie Montoyo pinpointed two reasons why his team was in last place: too many walks, and too many guys left on base.

Thursday, they walked four—as opposed to 11 (!) the night before. They put exactly one runner in scoring position, and that one only because of the second catcher’s interference call on Ryan Lavarnway, with Hideki Matsui batting, in as many nights.

That one RISP scored on Wrigley’s homer.

This… is a simple game. You hit the ball… (etc.)

Let me take this opportunity to revive a limerick I came across on teh internets a few years ago and seems to have mysteriously disappeared. If the author is out there, identify yourself for proper attribution! The version below is from memory; please pardon any mistakes.

It is entitled, “Voicemail left by the Seibu Lions for the Boston Red Sox, November 14, 2006.” The Seibu Lions are the team for which Matsuzaka pitched before he jumped to the United States. After the 2006 season, the Red Sox won a cloak-and-dagger sealed bidding war and paid the Lions over $51 million for the right to negotiate a contract with Matsuzaka:

We’re certain that you will find Daisuke
Worth every cent of the praisupe
When he beats the Yanks.
We just called to say thanks
For shopping with us. Have a naisude!

Between the “posting fee” and the multiyear deal the Red Sox gave Matsuzaka, he has cost them over $100 million, or a little more than $2 million per win (he has 49). A heavy praisupe, Boston! Is he a bust? Probably—or anyway, so far it seems so, and his contract expires at the end of the season. About a year ago, he had Tommy John surgery, i.e. the one where they replace your ulnar collateral ligament. Who knows where he’s headed, in terms of both geography and career?

Matsuzaka used to throw his fastball in the 91-94 mph range, apparently, but last night it sat at 89-91. He is basically, at this stage of his career, a junk-baller, albeit one with great movement on his pitches. His changeup breaks just like a screwball—it seems to be the pitch people were once fond of calling his “gyroball,” which is as mythical a monster as Godzilla himself—his curve has great late bend, and he throws a cutter and, I think, a splitter.

You’ll pardon the Durham-specific and totally unfair comparison, but he reminds me in many ways of former Bulls left-hander Carlos Hernandez, albeit a better version. It’s all craftiness and deception with Matsuzaka now. He won’t blow anyone away anymore. He threw 95 pitches last night and got only five swings-and-misses, including a foul tip by Reid Brignac. He allowed two homers: Wrigley’s bomb in the sixth inning, and Jesus Feliciano’s squeaker just over the right-field wall on Matsuzaka’s fifth pitch of the game. (I’m not sure it was really a homer. It hit that railing above the wall, and heaven knows we’ve had enough controversy over that thing.)

In other words, Dice-K no longer has much room for mistakes, and the Bulls got to him for seven hits (and multiple hard-hit outs), including a triple by the very fast Cole Figueroa, who hesitated as he approached second base after his liner into the right-field corner, then turned on the jets again and blazed into third well ahead of the offline throw from Alex Hassan. Figueroa scored on a sacrifice fly by Mayobanex Acosta, who got his first career Triple-A RBI. He does not have a Double-A RBI.

What I think I’m getting at here is that the game of baseball does not care who you are. It was undeniably exciting to witness this matchup of monsters: Matsui is Godzilla, as you probably know; but did you also know that Dice-K is aka “the Monster of the Heisei Era”? Yet the excitement was all about the history they brought with them, the electricity of fame, the cultural broadening of the DBAP, with its legion Japanese (and Red Sox) fans bearing Japanese banners and its Japanese reporters—48 in all, by one count—making this an event of international importance. (It was broadcast on Japanese television.)

It was undeniably exciting, and I will freely admit, even crow, that it was pretty cool to get to talk one on one with Hideki! Freaking! Matsui! in the Bulls deathly quiet, almost empty locker room after the game—well, one on one except for an intermediary translator, that is. But the fact is that this game belonged to players who could scarcely have been further from the summit of celebrity where Matsui and Matsuzaka have been perched like demigods for years and years.

Jim Paduch? Jim Paduch made one appearance in Triple-A in 2006, with the Louisville Bats, a four-inning relief stint. Then he spent the next four years in the Independent Leagues, pitching for such powerhouses as the Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats (dig those two word mashups) and the Lincoln (Neb.) Saltdogs, never straying very far from his Chicago home. What is a saltdog?

n.b. The RailCats and Saltdogs play in the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, whose teams are scattered up and down the longitudinal middle of the continent, from Laredo to Winnipeg. I’ll give you one guess where the American Association has its headquarters.

Durham, North Carolina.

And the American Association Commissioner?

Miles Wolff, better known as the man who brought the Bulls back to Durham in 1980, after more than a decade without baseball here.

And so Jim Paduch—a pleasanter guy to talk to in a baseball locker room is harder to imagine—fits right in as a Durham Bull, six and a half miles from the administrative heart (1415 Hwy 54 West, Suite 210, Durham, NC 27707) of the outlying (if not quite outlaw) entity that kept him pitching during part of the four years when he was out of affiliated baseball.

One of the things he did in those four years was learn how to throw a slider. (Why not, it’s indy ball?) And it was his slider, complementing a fastball that is 91-93 mph and has surprising giddyup—I think Paduch’s fairly relaxed and simple delivery has something to do with that—that helped him keep the Pawtucket Red Sox quiet for much of the night. He struck out Ryan Lavarnway with the slider. Nate Spears, too, looking. Paduch kept his pitches down, and as Charlie Montoyo noted later, worked both sides of the plate. “In and out, in and out. He had them off-balance.”

There was a changeup, too, but it wasn’t as convincing a pitch as the fastball and the slider, and it evidently didn’t need to be. Paduch walked two, struck out three, gave up few hard-hit balls, and lowered his ERA to 2.74. Only Brandon Gomes, who hasn’t allowed a run in eight appearances so far this year, has a lower ERA among current Bulls pitchers. Alex Cobb’s ERA is second-lowest among starters, and it is almost a run and a half higher than Paduch’s. If you guessed that Paduch would be the Bulls’ most reliable starter along about Memorial Day… well, again, the game doesn’t care who you are. It only cares what you do tonight, from one pitch to the next.

Will it last? Is Paduch’s current line as a Bull just a miracle of BABIP? (It’s currently a tiny .216.) Will the rest of the league solve his useful but limited arsenal upon repeat viewings? Is he really just Paul Phillips with better location? There must be some reason, other than nearness to home, why Paduch spent his entire mid-twenties pitching against teams like the River City Rascals and Wichita Wingnuts. It’s going to be fun to follow Paduch as he presses onward toward, not unthinkably, the major leagues. And it was fun to follow him last night, as he stole the show from the Japanese celebrities and, along with Henry Wrigley, dictated the terms of the game. He also wanted to know where the best mall in the area was. Southpoint?

As for Matsui, his night was quiet except for one moment of loud out-making. He hit into a fielder’s choice in the first inning, probably the most anti-climactic outcome imaginable in his hallowed faceoff against Matsuzaka. In the third inning, he swung at a 3-0 fastball—could have been a cutter, I’m not sure—and flied out weakly to left field. In the sixth, he reached on catcher’s interference for the second time in two games. (Later, he said he didn’t know whether it had to do with his swing, Lavarnway’s stance or mere coincidence. I have a crack research team investigating the Matsui/CI case, and will report back.)

And leading off the eighth, facing a different pitcher, the PawSox’ Tony Pena, Jr., Matsui jumped all over a first pitch fastball and positively blasted it to center field. Off the bat, it looked like a sure home run. But Matsui hits line drives, and the ball’s loft faded just enough for Che-Hsuan Lin, the Taiwanese speedster, to make a superb leaping catch at the wall. He saved a double, possibly a triple.

Sorry, Hideki. You may be the most famous hitter in Japan, but last night at the DBAP, it was another Asian islander, from a country yours ruled not so long ago, who stole your extra-base hit and, in some ways, the show. It was Lin, who, the previous night, had made a tremendous diving catch of a Jeff Salazar liner—he had no business even attempting the catch, were it not for his great pursuit speed—and then hit a pitch after it bounced.

And on Thursday, in the inning prior to his catch at the wall, with Cole Figueroa on third base, Acosta hit a fly ball to deep center field for a cakewalk sacrifice fly. Lin caught the ball near the warning track, about 380 feet from home plate. Rather than lob the ball in to second base and concede the run, however, Lin unleashed a throw all the way to home plate, on the fly. Moar Linsanity pleez! It was a little up the third base line, and frankly Lin had no chance to get Figueroa even with a perfect throw. But it wasn’t much up the line, and it was close enough to make a play of it, and a message loudly sent. It was the most wow play of a wow night. I am not sure I’ve ever seen a throw that long in any baseball game, ever. (Unfortunately, Lin’s night at the plate was ho-hum, with two groundouts, a strikeout and a walk.)

You know who looked better, much better, last night? Dane De La Rosa. The embattled reliever, plagued by control problems for much of the season so far, threw two hitless innings last night as the bridge between Paduch and Gomes. He has not allowed a run, or even a hit, in five of his last six appearances, totaling eight innings. The only blemish in the last two weeks was a two-run homer against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Empire State/Rochester Lite/Yankees, Jr.

I’ve spent some time this season worrying about De La Rosa’s fastball, which seemed to have lost velocity, but Charlie Montoyo zeroed in on a different issue: De La Rosa’s slider, which had much sharper teeth last night than I’ve seen in a good while. His breaking ball has tended to mush a curve and a slider together, and to miss the strike zone. Last night, he threw it for strikes when he wanted to, “getting guys off his fastball,” Montoyo noted. (The fastball was back to 92-94, too.) De La Rosa, like Jim Paduch, did ample time in the Independent Leagues, and like Paduch he is a good guy to talk to. You can’t help rooting for him to succeed. A night that shone with two of the great stars in baseball—a historic night at the DBAP, in fact—seemed to throw some of its glitter on the guys whose names no one knows, the Paduchs and Wrigleys and De La Rosas (and Lins) who don’t attract fans bearing handmade banners, who aren’t followed all over the world by a tribe of reporters, who just want to know where the nearest mall is—and who won the game.

Tonight is the final game of the season series between Durham and Pawtucket. (That was fast.) The matchup boasts no Dice-K, but it is a promising one nonetheless. The Bulls’ Chris Archer, who has been in a good groove lately, looks to stay funky against the PawSox’ Ross Ohlendorf. Ohlendorf is one of those promising right-handers with good stuff who hasn’t quite put it together and is thus no longer promising, despite a pretty successful 2009 season in the majors with Pittsburgh. Through seven starts this season he has been only okay (4.91 ERA), but who cares about that when there is this?

Ohlendorf majored in Operations Research and Financial Engineering at Princeton University where in 2002, as a freshman pitcher, he was named the Ivy League Rookie of the Year. Ohlendorf, a second-team All-Ivy selection, was 3rd in the League with a 3.02 ERA. He finished with a 6-2 record. As a student, he penned a 140-page senior thesis entitled Investing in Prospects: A Look at the Financial Successes of Major League Baseball Rule IV Drafts from 1989 to 1993. Ohlendorf was one of six Ivy Leaguers on major league rosters at the beginning of the 2009 season.

Ohlendorf completed his degree at Princeton in 2006 while in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ farm system. He received the George Mueller Award from the university for combining “high scholarly achievement in the study of engineering with quality performance in intercollegiate athletics”. In his senior thesis, Ohlendorf used sabermetrics to demonstrate the return on investment from the Major League Baseball Draft.

Ohlendorf loves to read, especially history books.

He was chosen as the third smartest professional athlete by the Sporting News.

I wonder how he computes his own return on investment? Or is that a conflict of interest, so to speak?

And will he talk lit with Archer, who also loves to read? Will this be a nerd-on-nerd game of brainiac baseball? Will they leave famous quotations for one another on the pitching mound?

From the silkworms, I guess, to the bookworms, then.