DBAP/ DURHAM—The DBAP is where you go to take in a Durham Bulls game. You know that, of course. But here’s the thing: The ballgames aren’t played at the DBAP, strictly speaking. The DBAP includes Wool E. World, the grandstands and bleachers, the concourse and concession stands, and so on; but the games themselves, the pitches and hits and outs and runs and all the rest, are conducted on Goodmon Field.
The field was christened thus in 2007, in honor of Jim Goodmon, the President & CEO of Capital Broadcasting Company, which operates the Durham Bulls—although, through some business arrangement too complicated for a simple wage-earning book critic like me to understand (it probably involves Panama and George Soros), CBC doesn’t actually own the Bulls. But that’s for another post.
I bring up this name-within-a-name because one is seldom reminded of it: It’s the DBAP, to all intents and purposes. Oh, there’s a big lit-up sign way, way out there that says GOODMON FIELD, but it’s on the brick wall that rises above the berm perhaps 30 or 40 feet beyond the outfield wall, roughly 450 feet from home plate. There’s really no reason ever to look there and spot the sign, despite its size, unless you’re bored or tracking the flight of an errant hawk.
Well, so, last night there was a reason to look there, and it was provided to us by Justin Ruggiano. In the bottom of the second inning, Ruggiano stepped to the plate with Durham already leading, 2-0, against the timid, shaky and ultimately overwhelmed Charlotte starter, Gaby Hernandez, who had walked Ruggiano the inning prior. This time up, Ruggiano looked at the first pitch Hernandez threw him, deemed it acceptable, and hit it to the Goodmon Field sign. Not to the grass berm in front of the Goodmon Field sign. Not underneath the words GOODMON FIELD. Off the brick wall. Next to the N in Goodmon. Which is above the word “FIELD.” Like this:
A prodigious blast, even more so than the one he hit onto the second rooftop of Tobacco Road Cafe on Monday.
Three innings later, Ruggiano hit another homer, this one maybe a measly 400 feet.
For fun, he added two singles after that.
Alex Cobb fought some control issues to push through five effective innings, and Maulin Roodge and the Bulls put the Charlotte Knights through the mouli (if this were an away game, they’d have been run through the Fort Mill, ha ha), winning 9-1.
Ruggiano, as you may recall, had hit two home runs on Monday afternoon, as well, so he now has four homers—his first four of the year, by the way—in his last two games. In his last six plate appearances, he’s 5-5 with three homers, two singles and a walk. He is locked in, as they say.
Is he doing something different? Does the sudden power surge have anything to do with the recent visit from Texas by his wife (and young son, I assume)? Did she point out a flaw in his swing? Did he switch toothpastes or start doing ashtanga yoga?
Of course not. No one can really explain why or how hitters suddenly can’t help hitting ropes all over the yard, or out of it, or next to the N in GOODMON—and then just as suddenly, can’t stop grounding out to second base. Ruggiano told us that he’s “adamant about getting the pitch that I’m looking for.” But that’s what all hitters will usually tell you, even when they’re in slumps, and he added that “sometimes hitters just get in a groove.” He invoked the word “timing,” and then went right on to cite not the next-to-the-N homer or even the one to left-centerfield later on—no, instead he referred us to the single that he hit in his final at-bat of the night. There were two outs and no one on base, the Bulls were up by eight runs, and Ruggiano had fallen behind in the count, 1-2.
You could have forgiven him, at that point, for taking the rest of the at-bat off. The night was over, the game’s outcome long decided, and Ruggiano had already done more than his fair share of damage, what with his two homers, three RBI and four runs scored. At that moment I scribbled a note to myself: “Does Roodge care about 7th-inning AB?” This was a simple question about keeping your drive when there’s nothing to drive for, about staying focused and giving effort and attention when neither is really necessary, as in a 9-1 game when you’re already behind 1-2 an have hit four homers in your last nine at-bats. Ruggiano particularly has been known to take a couple of plays off here and there.
And on the 1-2 pitch, he was looking for a slider from Charlotte reliever Josh Kinney—”he probably could have gotten me out with a fastball,” Ruggiano said later—and got the slider. A bit of a hanger. Ruggiano clubbed it into left-centerfield, and had he gotten under it a bit more he might have had his third homer of the night—he hit it hard enough. As it was, he settled for an emphatic single, and an on-base average of 1.000 for the night.
Ruggiano is a big-game kind of a guy. He had a three-homer game against Gwinnett back in 2009, and he tends to bunch his gold-star plays together. But if he can hold onto the sort of maturity and discipline that got him that last base hit on Tuesday—much more important, really, than the explosive but unrepeatable home-run swings that preceded it—he’ll be well set up for another trip to the majors. The Johnsons of 2010, Dan and Elliot, also longtime minor-league toilers, didn’t suddenly turn into stronger, bigger, faster athletes: They turned more focused, more consistent, more insistent: I am a major-leaguer; let me prove it to you, Rays, at-bat by at-bat, day by day. Now it’s 2011, and major-leaguers is what they are.
It was pretty obvious from the get-go that Alex Cobb couldn’t locate his fastball well last night. He walked the second batter of the game, Jim Gallagher, and although he struck out the side in the first inning, he needed 24 pitches for the project, and 23 more—only 11 of which were strikes—while pitching around another walk and a single in a scoreless second. It took a non-pitch—a pickoff of Jordan Danks at second base—to clamp the valve of an incipient Knights rally. It was a canny, heady play, with Alejandro De Aza ahead in the count 3-1 at the time and Cobb looking wobbly with two men on base.
The momentum from the pickoff seemed to help Cobb regain his form in a 1-2-3, 12-pitch third inning, but he was using a lot of breaking balls and offspeed pitches to do his work. Nothing wrong with that, and ultimately it worked well enough, but Charlie Montoyo said afterward that he was hoping Cobb would be stubborn and try to pitch his way through the difficulty by sticking with more fastballs. (I’m of two minds about this: On one hand, it’s a developmental league, and players are to be lauded for working on their problems in game situations, even if it means sub-par results, e.g. getting hit around; on the other, a pitcher is supposed to get outs, and development or no, it shows maturity and advanced gamesmanship when you make use of the weapons you have on nights when your best one isn’t firing straight.)
But Cobb wasn’t done struggling a little. Tyler Flowers singled and Dallas McFearsome (I might have misspelled that) doubled off of him to open the fourth.
Somewhere in there, though, Cobb must have figured out how to fix the problem that catcher Jose Lobaton had noticed and told him about: Cobb’s release point was too far back and out, he said later; he needed to push it forward, and Lobaton helped matters by calling for a lot of fastballs down, which helped force Cobb into a better arm slot. (This was a reminder that sometimes catchers are nearly as responsible for a pitcher’s success as the pitcher himself—and a reminder to talk the the Bulls’ catchers more often.)
Cobb retired six of the final seven batters he faced, including a run-scoring groundout, allowing only a walk to De Aza, Cobb’s third—he had allowed only two in 11 prior innings this season so far. That last run of effectiveness enabled Cobb to get through five innings and earn his third win—he was permitted 92 pitches, a little more than usual for this early in the year, in order to secure it. That’s tops in the league along with two other pitchers. He was quick to agree when it was suggested that pitching with a large early lead had to have helped him ease through the disjointed outing, without high pressure bearing down on his every pitch.
And let’s not overlook this fact: Cobb may have “struggled” a little or “not been as sharp,” but the results show that he went five innings, allowed four hits and one run, and struck out eight batters. Pretty successful struggling, no?
There are three Durham starters in the IL’s top ten in ERA. Even after allowing 18 runs to Gwinnett on Sunday, the Bulls’ team ERA is 2.59, second in the league. Take away the ruinous 10-run sixth inning that Paul Phillips pitched against the Braves that evening—remembering that Phillips, intended as a Double-A reliever, is really just in Durham as a placeholder until Chris Bootcheck is reactivated from the disabled list—and the team ERA is 2.01.
Three injury notes:
* Bootcheck, who suffered a concussion in the now legendary Knights-Stadium/in-the-corridor/with-the-water-pipe incident, has been cleared for athletic activity. He’s eligible to come off the disabled list on Thursday, but under team rules he has to do some bullpen sessions and other formal back-to-action routines before the Rays will let him play again. Don’t be surprised if he isn’t reinstated until the Bulls leave for their upcoming road trip.
* Russ Canzler left Sunday’s game early, not long after being hit by a pitch. It didn’t look terribly painful, and Canzler appears to be made of something developed collaboratively between Dupont and Lockheed Martin for naval warfare; but when he missed the next two games we assumed that he needed a couple of days to bang out the dent. Turns out the HBP had nothing to do with it: He had back spasms, and Montoyo said he’ll play Wednesday afternoon.
* Richard De Los Santos has shoulder tendinitis, and is likely to be out for at least three weeks. Brian Baker keeps De Los Santos’s rotation spot warm in the meantime.
Caught up with R. J. Swindle, who rebounded from a rough relief appearance on Sunday to throw a more effective eighth inning last night—albeit blemished by a ripping single off the Blue Monster by Tyler Flowers. As I noted the other day, not without reservations, Swindle’s velocity is back up to where it apparently used to be before he became a Durham Bull—fastball at 81-83 mph, slider at 71-74—after a year (2010) that saw a drop, thanks to the oblique injury that delayed the start of his season. He said that he felt like he was never quite himself after that. But although his velocity is back up to normal levels, he’s still finding his groove. His slider remains too tight—”thin,” he called it—and lacking its wide swerve; it’s his bread-and-butter pitch, and until he toasts it golden-brown, and can throw it for strikes more consistently, his 82-mph fastball isn’t set up properly. He has come into hitters’ wheelhouse with the fastball too often, as he did with Flowers on Tuesday, and been punished.
As for Swindle’s famously slow curveball, he hasn’t thrown a single one this year. It’s a feel pitch for him, and he hasn’t found that feel yet. In Spring Training, he said, he hung a few and they were hit for homers. He’s been fiddling with it in the outfield during practice, but it still doesn’t feel right, and he said he’d even considered abandoning it. But that would be like Nicole Kidman abandoning Ewan MacGregor (if I remember rightly), and Neil Allen, the Bulls’ pitching coach, was having none of it. I’m looking forward to that gratifying moment, whenever it comes, when Swindle finally unveils the curveball; I can’t help hoping that he throws it to Gwinnett’s Dan Nelson, who swings and misses so hard and awkwardly that he falls down. Well, a guy can dream, anyway, and life’s a cabaret. What have I got Toulouse? (Oh, gosh.)
The Bulls play today at 1:05 p.m. again today, two days after their last daytime ballgame (only four others remain this season), and let me put in a good word for the venerable tradition of the weekday afternoon baseball game. They were all played this way before there were lights, every single day—the stands full of men in suits and derbies, and women in dresses—and it continued to be so, very often, long after night baseball arrived. There is something about a day game, downtown, that evokes not nostalgia, that bugbear of romantics, but its opposite: an ineffable sense of everyday, of this-day rightness. If baseball is the National Pastime, it belongs right smack in the middle of our consciousness—on a Wednesday afternoon, as the world does its business, as the teeming buses and trains rush through the city, as the mail is sorted and bank tellers cough and the gears of commerce and government mesh and turn together. Baseball belongs to the action of the day, not apart from it. It’s the more elegant, more authentic lunch than the three-martini kind, because it reawakens one’s consciousness and expands one’s awareness, rather than shrinking us and blacking us out. An afternoon day game is not an escape from your day, it’s the middle of your day, and prepares you for the rest of it: the deal, the verdict, the accomplishment. And yet it still carves out its own space in time and invites you in for as long as it takes to play out. That’s why it’s right that baseball has no clock. A weekday game redeems you.
Oh, you wanted that Maulin Roodge? You kids today. Happy to oblige, while noting that they misspelled a word, too. But do me a favor: After it’s over, strip your eyes away from the monitor, stretch your legs and back, and head over to the ballpark on this warm and windblown Wednesday afternoon, when the Bulls’ Edgar Gonzalez takes on Charlotte’s Lucas Harrell, a pitcher we’ve seen so many times he’s like an old friend. You know you can-can. Justin Ruggiano and I will see you at Goodmon Field.