Indianapolis Indians beat Durham Bulls in extras: Fireworks and late bloomers

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Photo by Elizabeth Matheson.

Preludes do not have to chirp out the tone of exactly what is to follow. A boys choir gave a slow, elegiac, almost mournful rendition of the National Anthem last night, some of the crowd singing along as if in sympathy, and the mood of the ballpark was a touch graver afterwards, in that liminal moment before the game’s first pitch. It was thrown, minutes later, by Durham Bulls newcomer Merrill Kelly, a fastball that rode way up and in on Indianapolis’ Josh Harrison, who spun out of the way—and the game announced its character with a tower-buzz of excitement.

For seven innings, this was perhaps the liveliest home game of the season so far. It was scoreless through four innings. Indianpolis plated four runs in the fifth and sixth to take a 4-0 lead, but for the second night in a row the Bulls mounted an energizing rally, this time tying the game in the seventh—against a pitcher, Indianapolis’ Erik Cordier, who drew astonished gasps from the crowd when he lit up the radar gun with a 101-mph fastball. From there, things slackened, and the game dragged out to nearly four hours in nine regulation innings, replete with mid-inning pitching changes, little delays, serial longueurs.

(Aside: The league’s umpire evaluator was on hand to observe the blue crew, stopwatch in hand, bemoaning how long it takes between pitches these days. Players and coaches so rebelled against umpires’ league-authorized attempts to enforce rulebook punctuality and speed up games that the umpires had no choice but to abandon the plan. The game last night actually grew tiresome to watch: The umpire evaluator’s presence in the press box attuned me to just how much time hitters take up walking out of the batter’s box between pitches, wandering around, fussing with gear.)

Not all ballgames should go nine innings, even tie ballgames. Is it necessary to have a winner, I sometimes think? Can we not appreciate seven innings of rich, rip-snorting baseball and then, satisfied, go home?

Well, of course we can’t. Sports are married to outcomes. We are beholden to the black and white of win and lose, and sometimes (though not often) this is unfortunate. After the seventh inning, last night’s drama was over. Its three-inning epilogue was pro forma, as we simply waited for the inevitable lopsiding to occur. It did that in the tenth inning, when Bulls reliever Steve Geltz, who has generally been pretty good this season, fell prey to the fatal flaw inscribed in his trademark high fastball: He allowed a pair of solo homers, and Indianapolis won in ten innings, 6-4.

A healthy portion of the large crowd stayed for the whole game, including the luffing final innings, in order to be juiced again by postgame fireworks. That drove home the point of the whole game: We’ll stick around being bored, well after 11 p.m., just waiting for the promise of that adrenaline-laced high, like the kind we got from the Bulls’ rallies, Jerry Sands’ monster home run to the third balcony, and Cordier’s triple-digit fastball. We need sports because they give us that high many times throughout a game. The sapped comedown that followed the Bulls’ rally was something like a hangover, instantly cured by the postgame pyrotechnics: a pêche d’enfer, not to be too hammy, or peachy, about it. Me, I was in the clubhouse by then, interviewing FNG Merrill Kelly, and didn’t see the lightshow. I had plenty of interest in Kelly’s earlier works, and didn’t need to see the ones that came after the game.

Kelly is a finesse pitcher with five different offerings: four-seam and two-seam fastballs, a changeup, a slider, and a show-me curve. His career pro strikeout rate is 5.7 per nine innings pitched. The baseball world is in a golden age (or Iron Age, if you prefer) of strikeouts, and Kelly’s rate is comparatively pallid. His career high for strikeouts in a professional game before Friday was six.

He struck out ten batters in 5 1/3 innings last night. After the game, he told me that it was almost surely a personal lifetime record for him.

Why? How? I have no idea. He seemed to have a good changeup that complemented his fastball. The slider was okay, the curve a little-used exception. Certainly it seemed an advantage that not a single hitter in the Indianapolis lineup had ever faced him. It worked in his favor because Kelly revealed himself after the game to be a highly intelligent pitcher with an even, steady demeanor. He was not nervous before his Triple-A debut, despite what the brushback pitch to Harrison might have indicated. It was obvious that he had a plan, that he wasn’t going to let nerves or unfamiliar surroundings interfere with executing that plan, and that he was going to throw strikes.

There are ways you can tell a pitcher is mature without talking to him or observing his demeanor at all. I noticed that Kelly pitched from the extreme first-base side of the pitching rubber. This seemed a striking yet very deliberate, considered choice. I asked Kelly about it after the game and he said that he had gradually moved over there throughout his pro career, in order to give his four-seam fastball a better chance to hit the outside corner against right-handed hitters. Long a two-seam specialist, he had added the four-seamer in order to have a glove-side fastball, but needed to be able to spot it better (it’s a 90-91 mph pitch, not overpowering enough to throw past hitters most of the time).

That’s the sort of tinkerer’s thought process I can get behind, and it was a pleasure to talk for about ten minutes, with midnight approaching, to the unassuming Kelly after the game. His line for the night doesn’t look all that good, but he pitched really well for a guy making his Triple-A debut against the league’s best team. He was ultimately the victim of a managerial decision that, made differently, could have changed things radically. Through five innings, Kelly had allowed one run on four hits, had walked no one, and had struck out nine batters. He had thrown eighty-five pitches, but needed twenty-four of them to get through the run-scoring fifth, when the Indians had clearly caught onto Kelly’s act and were starting to see through it, fouling off more pitches and making him work.

This was the perfect time to take him out of the game: nice work, rook, we’ll take it from here. Give the kid his due confidence, save him from his own undoing. But Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo chose to send Kelly back out for the sixth. Kelly walked Chase D’Arnaud, and then Matt Hague came up. Hague is exactly the sort of beefy home-run hitter you want pitchers like Kelly not to have to face too many times in a game. I had actually predicted a homer for Hague in his first at-bat. I turned out to be two at-bats premature: Hague followed Kelly’s first walk of the night, to D’Arnaud, with a first-pitch no-doubter over the left-field wall for a two-run homer.

Kelly struck out Felix Pie for a double-digit K count for the night, but Jared Goedert singled and Montoyo, now forced to make a change rather than in a position to instigate one, relieved Kelly with Cory Wade. Wade is at this point in his career a card-carrying soft-tosser, and he couldn’t put away everybody’s nemesis, Andrew Lambo. Lambo doubled down the right-field line on the seventh pitch of his at-bat against Wade, scoring Goedert. That left Kelly with an unsightly game ERA of 6.75. Had he been removed an inning earlier, it would have been 1.80.

In fairness to Montoyo, with his starting pitching rotation in such disarray these days (the Bulls’ Media Guide listed the next three starters for Durham as TBA, TBA, and TBA), you can’t blame him for trying to squeeze another inning out of the guy he had in the game. Hindsight, i.e. the extra, tenth inning of baseball that wound up having to be played in order to decide the game’s outcome, apparently justified the choice to stay with Kelly. On the other hand, the game might not have gone on that long had Kelly not been left in to allow three sixth-inning runs.

I don’t tend to think too much about Montoyo’s strategic and tactical decision-making as the Bulls’ manager. His main job is to preside without meddling over the efforts of his players to mature and matriculate. Over four-plus seasons of covering his team, I’ve to come to know Montoyo as a bullet-saving, somewhat cautious manager, operating generally with an eye toward future needs, the ever-present possibility of an emergency, rather than to present needs. He’s like the captain of a ship, content with calm waters and not wanting to rock the boat for fear of rough seas ahead.

As a consequence, he risks losing games like last night’s. It was a game to which applied heavily the Buck Showalter Theorem (explanation), won and lost as much by managerial choices as by players’ actions. Again, this is not really to criticize Montoyo. His record speaks for itself, but no matter how badly he wants to win games out of sheer competitive desire (as I said, sports are married to outcomes), not to mention job security, his job is ultimately to oversee player development. In Triple-A, that often means compensating when too many players have already been developed and, naturally, left for the majors. Four fifths of Montoyo’s starting rotation is either with Tampa Bay (Chris Archer, Alex Torres), en route back to Durham from Tampa Bay (Jake Odorizzi), or in an unusable state of attendance and abeyance (Alex Colome). If that means leaving a Double-A emergency fill-in out there for another inning and risking a loss, so be it. Sometimes, you don’t have the luxury of managing the game itself, the way it should ideally be managed. You’re protecting prospects while endangering your own.

In truth, the Bulls were lucky to have a chance to win this game at all. Two errors led to two of their runs, a passed ball scored another, and they went 1-9 with runners in scoring position. (Indianapolis was even worse, 1-12, but the Indians hit three home runs: As I said yesterday, the Bulls’ lack of power will hurt them over time unless they hit at an unusually productive clip in the clutch all season.) But when good luck finds you, you must seize upon it by taking the proper action. As Rays manager Joe Maddon is fond of saying, fortune favors the bold.

Yet, caution may be the name of the game for this year’s Bulls. They strike me as a cagier, headier bunch than previous rosters, from coach’s kid Cole Figueroa to overthinker Chris Archer to the quiet, choosy Vince Belnome. Emblematic of this new Durham deliberateness is old hand Leslie Anderson. Always a very free swinger, practically allergic to taking pitches, Anderson’s walk rate has surged this year. He drew three bases on balls last night. That was a career first for him (not counting the time he was intentionally walked three times in a Double-A game in 2010). The previous night, he walked twice. He had done that only four times in his four-year career prior. (Even more amazingly, Anderson did not draw a single walk in the the last twenty-nine games of the 2012 season.)

It’s as if the energy of this year’s team has rubbed off on Anderson. That suggestion is, of course, mere New Age noodling. I asked Montoyo about Anderson’s new selective approach at the plate, and he said, “It’s funny that you mention that. Just today he told me that he was seeing the ball well.” Montoyo knows full well that Anderson has always been a free-swinger, but he appreciated that “he’s taking his walks” while wondering how long the trend will last. Anderson’s walk rate this year is nine percent. That’s not great, but it’s about double his three-year composite Triple-A rate, and it has boosted his OBP to a career-high .388. That, in turn, has made him one of the league’s most productive hitters, with a .403 wOBA.

Montoyo’s relayed comment about Anderson’s “seeing the ball well” changed my thinking about Anderson’s development a little. I had long thought he was simply a hacker. “You can’t walk off the island”: That’s the old saw (a slightly offensive one, I think) about Latino players from the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations trying to make it in American baseball. Anderson is from Cuba, and I had him pegged for another guy trying to hit, hit, hit his way to the big leagues. Last year, it seemed he was on a mission to prove he could hit .300 over the course of a full Triple-A season, and he did, finishing third in the league in batting average. This year, it appears that he’s trying to demonstrate the ability to get on base in other ways. Last night, for the first time in the four seasons Anderson has played in Durham, a longtime, nightly press box denizen wondered aloud  if the Rays might be convinced to give Anderson a big-league shot this year. He is on the verge of meriting one.

It’s also possible that when Anderson says he’s seeing the ball well, he means something purely physical, like somehow his eyesight really is keener. Hard to say if this is really true, but I know that I, like Anderson, am seeing (the) baseball better this year, simply by the application of effort driven by a renewed pleasure in sheer careful observation of the game itself; and I can also appreciate that some development processes, such as Anderson’s, take much longer than others to reach their peak. Not all of us can be Wil Myers, the twenty-two-year-old who is evolving practically right before our eyes. Anderson is thirty-one, and nearing the end of the four-year contract he signed with the Rays after the 2009 season. He is playing for a 2014 job, and with that urgency driving him he is finally starting to look like the complete hitter the Rays surely hoped they were signing back then. Whether he has matured too late, we won’t know until after his career is over. But late bloomers are fulfilling in a deeper way than flashes in the pan, or in the dark. I don’t mind it that I’m always in the clubhouse doing interviews while the fireworks are going off. I must confess, I’ve never liked them.

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