Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Notes on 2014 and South Division Championships

Or, How about them Rays?

The contract between the Durham Bulls and the Tampa Bay Rays has just been extended for another four years. Last night that led to some chatter on the air regarding the terrific seven out of eight year South Division championship run.

Color commentator Scott Pose ascribed that success to the Rays system finding and flowing prospects through the Bulls. As much as I like Mr. Pose, and he’s forgotten more about baseball than I will ever know, I’d like to disagree. Having prospects playing for the Bulls has little to do with winning championships. In fact, in probably hurts.

However, the Rays have have been very, very smart on their off-season hires, that obscure category of player that shows up at spring training with the label, “minor league contract, non-roster invitee.” Just take a look at this year’s list (the players marked with the † are the ones in that category). Or just look at the players who are on the Bulls roster right now. The “prospects” are Hak-Ju Lee, Tim Beckham, and Mikie Mahtook among the position players, Mike Montgomery and Nathan Karns among the pitchers. Only one of those (Mahtook) made any significant contribution to the Bulls championship run. Essentially all of the rest on the current roster, even those on the 40-man like Vince Belnome and Cole Figueroa, were never in any “prospect” class. But they have been huge factors in the Bulls winning this year's championship. And players like them were who won championships in the past years.

Notice those on that list with † by their names who really helped this year: pitchers Matt Andriese, Steve Geltz, and Merrill Kelly; position players Jayson Nix, Ray Olmedo, Justin Christian, Wilson Betemit, Jeremy Moore; not to mention a couple that I couldn’t figure out at the time, catchers Eddy Rodriguez and Ali Solis. Ballplayers like that win championships, and we are grateful for the astuteness of Rays scouts for finding and signing them.

And then we have to appreciate what it takes to keep a team like this together. Charlie Montoyo’s crew of Dave Myers and Neil Allen are self-evidently doing a great job.

Prospects, in my observation, don’t usually help the Bulls all that much, especially pitching prospects. Often as not the pitchers are out on the mound working on a particular aspect of their own "development," winning a game sometimes appears secondary. For position players, the Bulls sometimes see them for a while, but sometimes they don’t hang around very long (Even Longoria, Wil Myers) or can’t get into synch while with the Bulls (B.J. Upton, Delmon Young). Those that are truly developing can help a lot (Mikie Mahtook this year, for example), but sometimes they are at the low end of the scale (Hak-Ju Lee this year). Not that it isn’t fun to see the kids play ball, because you sometimes got to see flashes of real brilliance, but they don't win championships. Guys like Chris Richard, Dan Johnson, Joe Dillon, Ray Olmedo, Mike Fontenot, Justin Christian, Leslie Anderson, Shelley Duncan and a host of other unfamiliar names are the guys the Rays found, signed, and sent to Durham, and who won us all those championships.

That’s why WDBB is happy to see the Bulls re-sign their deal with the Rays. If they keep finding guys like this year's crowd, we can hope to go on seeing good baseball and winning championships.

Season Wraps Up With Win; 5 Hits, 5 Runs

Season: 75-69
Wrap, Box

Justin Christian must not have gotten the memo about it being the last game of the season. Instead of relaxing and being careful, he hit a home run and a double off the wall, stole third base, scored two of the Bulls five runs, and made a couple of nice plays in center field.

He was just part of a very pleasant (a bit warm) afternoon at the DBAP. We saw some good baseball, including four double plays by the Bulls infield. I doubt that’s a record, but still very welcome on a day when your opponents are getting on base. We were reminded what a smooth, competent infielder Ray Olmedo is as he started two, and was the pivot man in the third double play. Pitcher Doug Mathis started the other one, a 1-6-3.

Speaking of pitchers, this was a bullpen day as Charlie Montoyo apparently wanted to set his rotation to begin on Wednesday in Columbus. They did a remarkable job. Doug Mathis had not pitched since August 15, but got through his three innings only giving up a bases-empty home run. Similarly, Jake Thompson last pitched on August 13, but he got the win and pitched three scoreless. Lastly, newcomer Cory Burns made his 6th and longest appearance as a Bull, also going three scoreless innings.

Oddity of the game? Every Bull who got on base scored, all by hits. Nobody was going to wait for a walk, it seemed. That is, in my experience, unique: 5 hits (two doubles, a homer, and three singles), 5 runs.

A very good year that we’ll be writing about a bit as we start closing things out. But this was just a nice baseball game all by itself. Thanks, guys. It was fun.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Two Down; One to Go

Season: 74-69; Home Stand: 0-2; Games Remaining in Season: 1
Wrap, Box Game 142, Box Game 143

Interesting day at the ballpark yesterday afternoon and evening. At first we seemed to have the place to ourselves and then the DBAP filled up. They had a record ticket sales for a game—11,104—but they didn’t all use their tickets. Lots of empty seats. Too bad. They missed seeing a triple play. That just doesn’t happen very often. The Bulls set an all-time season attendance record, the most fans in the team's 100+ history — 525,199.

The first game was a resumption of Saturday’s shortened game over in Norfolk. The Bulls picked up two runs, but they needed three. The big deal, for Bulls’ fanatics, was seeing right-hand reliever Bryce Stowell on the mound. The Rays are going after the Bulls’ bullpen, so the Bulls are going to need Mr. Stowell this week. At 27, he’s been working hard for this opportunity and he’s had a fine 50 innings in Montgomery this year. He only gave up two hits yesterday. Stats.

The second game was notable for the triple play in the 3rd inning. With runners on 1st and 2nd, a sharp grounder to Mike Fontenot, who stepped on 3rd, threw to Nick Franklin at 2nd, who relayed to Vince Belnome at 1st. Very pretty.

On the other hand, even a double play in the 1st inning and a triple play in the 3rd inning wasn’t enough to keep Nathan Karns from being charged with 7 earned runs, his 9th loss of the season, and the worst ERA of any Durham Bulls starter (we’re not counting Jeremy Hellickson’s painful rehab assignment). On the other hand, it looks like he’s going to end the season tied for most strikeouts of any pitcher in the International League (153). So he’s a mixed bag of talent and readability by his opponents (sometimes).

Update (10:20): You can watch the triple play here.

It really did look like the Bulls had this one in the bag after Jeremy Moore’s three-run homer topped off a 4-run 1st inning. Then Hak-Ju Lee hit just his 4th home run off his countryman Suk-min Yoon in the 2nd. With one more run in the 3rd it was looking good. But the 5th was a mess for Karns. Even with bases-loaded opportunities later in the game, the Bulls could not come back (not a strength this year).

But a lot is going on in the bigger picture outside the game...

Rosterification —
  • Brandon Gomes and Steve Geltz have been called up to Tampa Bay. Gomes has been back and forth a good bit this year, but this is the first time that Geltz has been to the majors since a couple of appearances for the Angels back in 2012. Here’s hoping that he gets his shot and he does well. Geltz wasn’t on the 40-man, so some sort of move is going to have to be made there as well.
  • Jake Thompson and Doug Mathis are back from Limbo, or wherever it was the Rays stashed them for the last few days. In fact, Mathis is scheduled to start today.
  • We’ve mentioned Bryce Stowell up from Montgomery. With his two innings he looks to be a lock to be this year’s winner of the Moonlight Graham Award for pitchers.
  • Seen wearing catcher’s gear in the bullpen was Luke Maille, a young catcher who spent this year with the Montgomery Biscuits. If he gets to bat today (or during the playoffs) it will be his first game in Triple-A. But no roster transaction has been announced. Stats.
  • Merril Kelly was sent off to Limbo to await recall. Soon, we hope.
Playoff Prep —
  • The Pawtucket Red Sox are to be the International League Wild Card team. They will be playing the Syracuse Chiefs for the first round of the playoffs.
  • The Bulls rotation, per broadcaster Kinas, will be 
           Alex Colome
           Enny Romero
           Matt Andriese
           Nate Karns
           Mike Montgomery

  • Here’s hoping the Bulls can sweep the Clippers in three ... 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Reset! 3:30 at the DBAP!

After winning three in a row, the Bulls were behind 4-1 last night at Harbor Park in Norfolk, Virginia. The lights in right field had been a problem that was just getting worse. The umps suspended the game in the 7th inning. In a variant of the timelessness of baseball, we are about to be treated to skip in space and time.

At 3:30 pm today, the umpires are going to reset the stage the way it was last night at 9:34. It was the top of the 7th inning. Jeremy Moore had drawn a walk. Wilson Betemit hit a fly ball to right field that was caught for the first out, but Ali Solis reached 1st base on a fielding error by the same right fielder, who may have lost the ball in the darkness. Ray Olmedo was at bat.

That’s how the game will resume. The gameday link will show you the setup as it stood last night. My guess is that Charlie will stick with the lineup except bringing someone in to replace Matt Andriese, who might not have started the 7th anyhow (6 innings, 76 pitches).

Here’s our problem: Do we show up for the 3:30 game, watch the final innings, and then hang out until 5 o’clock for the second game? Or do we listen to the first game and keep with the schedule we already had in mind.

Your/our choice. Should be fun in any circumstance. Today and tomorrow are the last regular season games of the year.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Good-bye to Gwinnett

Wrap, Box

Season: 71-67; Trip: 0-2; Games Left in Season: 6
Wrap, Box, Gwinnett Daily Post

If this sort of play continues, it’s going to be a really short post-season for the Durham Bulls. Consider their performance against the second-worst team in the International League these last two days, a team playing just to stay out of the cellar.

Over those two games in Lawrenceville, the Bulls scored just two runs (both on home runs) on 8 hits (all singles except for the two homers), drew only 5 walks, and struck out 23 times. Two Bulls hitters (Nick Franklin and Hak-Ju Lee) are hovering around the Mendoza line (.200), one is firmly below it (Acosta, .128). Meanwhile Bulls' pitching gave up 15 runs on 27 hits, aided and abetted by five walks, one HBP, and 4 errors. Four of the 15 runs were unearned.

Too much champagne? Maybe. From the video, they had a really good time Monday night.

After last night's game, they were off for a long bus ride to Norfolk. They play four games over the next three days before coming back to Durham.

Outside the Game —

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Champs of the South!

Season: 71-65; Home Stand: 6-4; Home Games Remaining: 2
Wrap, Box

With this win the Durham Bulls cannot be caught. They are the Champions of the International League South Division! They play the winner of the IL West Division in a best-of-five series beginning 3 September. The Wild Card slots remains unsettled. It looks like Columbus in the West and Syracuse in the North.

This was a very satisfying win for the fans (mostly) and for the Bull (surely). We got to see the Bulls clinch the South Division title of the International League for the 7th time in 8 years. A very big deal.

In Triple-A baseball bragging rights rightfully go to the teams who win the division titles. September is a crap shoot. In September the majors can expand their roster to include all the players on their 40 man roster and those players come from their Triple-A teams. Every team takes a different approach to the call-ups. Some bring up almost all of the roster, others are very selective. That means that the team that’s in the playoffs may not be anything like the team that got them to the playoffs.

How did the Bulls get there this year? Mostly through good pitching and especially good relief pitching. Last night was textbook for 2014. Matt Andriese had a decent enough 5⅔ innings, albeit with several worrisome long outs for a pitcher who normally induces a lot of grounders. Then Steve Geltz and Josh Lueke did not allow a single base runner for the next 3⅓.

Hitting over the year, was not so much of a factor. But last night key hits by Justin Christian and Cole Figueroa and smart base-running Hak-Ju Lee got the first two runs in. In the 6th a double by Mike Fontenot and a single by Cole Figueroa put Fontenot on 3B where he scored on a Mikie Mahtook ground out. That put the Bulls ahead, although Fontenot and Figueroa set the table for another Mahtook RBI in the 8th that made things a bit more comfortable.


I was disappointed that the Bulls chose to celebrate their championship by rushing off the field, not even bothering to acknowledge the fans who were also cheering. Sure it was a small Monday crowd, but the team did the same thing last year. That annoyed me then, it annoyed me last night.

That rush from the field to me just shows how wide the gulf is between those who play baseball and those who watch the game. You will note that all the photos of recent celebrations, including yesterday’s, are taken inside the clubhouse. The 500,000 folks who came to Bulls games this year just don’t seem to count. And maybe we don’t. Nevertheless, I think that at least a modest effort to share the celebration would be appropriate.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate among ourselves.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Nice Win; Nice Day at the Park

Season: 70-65; Home Stand: 5-4; Home Games Remaining: 3
Wrap, Box

Seems like a very long time since we were at the DBAP. The Bulls are still pitching well, but hitting remains below average, but usually enough to win a game. Also on a slightly upward trend.

Last evening the pitching was not good enough to keep runners off the bases — Gwinnett did get 10 hits and 4 walks — but the pitching was good enough to strand 12 Braves runners.

Enny Romero’s last couple of outings have been impressive. No doubt the young man can throw hard. 96 and 97 mph readings were typical for the night. He was certainly helped by some smart baseball from Nick Franklin and Cole Figueroa keeping runners from scoring.

Hak-Ju Lee’s triple in the 5th was the big hit. And it was a huge thrill for the fans. Sunday’s are “Kids Run the Bases” games and often enough the place is seething with folks not paying particular attention. But for that one moment they were. Everyone came to their feet to watch the hit go into the right field corner and see Lee move around the bases.

Not much hope that Lee will see a big improvement in his performance this year. But maybe this is a good sign going into the playoffs?

Adam Liberatore came on to close out the game, not his typical role, and gave up a home run. That moment just highlights how important he’s been this year. It was the first home run he’s given up this season (and he only gave up 1 last year). In 51 appearances and 62 innings he’s got stunning numbers: ERA - 1.74; WHIP: 0.94(!); FIP: 1.43. Pitches per out a mere 5.03. And he’s clearly (until recently) Charlie’s premier fireman. Over the year he has come in the game with a total of 27 runners on base, far more than any other Bulls reliever. Only 3 have scored. Best of all, from a Bulls fan point of view, he isn’t on the 40-man. However, after these last two years it seems inevitable that he will be, but let’s hope not until after the playoffs. By the way, he got a save.

Outside the game —

Just in case you missed them, several roster moves while I was up in the mountains.
  • Brandon Gomes came back from Tampa Bay
  • Vince Belnome came back from Tampa Bay
  • Wil Myers finished his rehab and returned to Tampa Bay
  • RHP Jake Thompson was put on the temporarily inactive list
  • RHP Doug Mathis went on the Disable List
  • Reports have Tampa Bay catcher Ryan Hanigan and outfielder David DeJesus rehabbing elsewhere in the Rays system. Just how their progress might affect the Bulls is hard to predict. The Rays might, however, try to stretch things out to September so they don’t really have to do anything at all. 
  • We're still keeping track of the Rays' trek to .500 here.