Blessed to repeat it: Durham Bulls beat Gwinnett Braves
Photo by Frank Hunter.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” George Santayana warned us. The better known version goes, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it,” but that is a corruption of what Santayana actually wrote. “Cannot remember” is not the same as “ignore.” One is a (forgivable) failure of recall, work unfulfilled; the other is a willful disregard, a resistance to the truth.
A little history, then. An attempt to remember.
July 14 was the last day before the All-Star break. That evening, the Bulls beat the Gwinnett Braves, 2-1. Durham led 2-0 going into the ninth inning, cutting confidently toward its eighth straight victory. Josh Lueke, the team leader in saves, came on to get another one. But he walked the Braves’ leadoff hitter, Sean Kazmar, on four pitches.
Alden Carrithers followed with a single to left field, and Philip Gosselin sacrificed the runners to second and third with just one out. The Bulls’ lead was in serious jeopardy. The winning streak was in jeopardy. And Lueke’s personal streak was in jeopardy, too: he had not allowed a run in a Bulls uniform since April 26, a span of nearly twenty-six innings over sixteen appearances.
The next batter was Brandon Boggs, one of the league’s more selective hitters. (Both Boggs and Lueke were originally part of the Rangers organization, although they don’t appear to have ever played together.) Two days earlier, Lueke had faced Boggs in the eighth inning of a 2-0 game, same score as this one (the Bulls were leading that one, too) with a runner on first, and walked him. The runner on first was Ernesto Mejia, who had singled up the middle. After Lueke walked Boggs, he struck out Gosselin to get out of the inning.
This time, two days later, Lueke struck out Boggs. That brought up Mejia. Mejia is a classic Triple-A slugger: big, capable of bashing mistakes for home runs, and also strikeout-prone. In fact, he leads the league in strikeouts.
The ensuing duel between Lueke and Mejia that night of July 14 was epic. It took nine pitches, which is a lot but not a whole lot. You don’t reach the true red zone until you push past ten pitches. Yet under the circumstances, the nine pitches seemed like many more. One of them, a slider in the dirt, bounced past catcher Chris Gimenez for a wild pitch, scoring a run — breaking Lueke’s nearly two-month Triple-A scoreless streak — and bringing the tying run to third base.
That meant Lueke couldn’t afford to bounce another slider and risk another run-scoring wild pitch, which would tie the game. So with the crowd on its feet, Lueke delivered a fastball up, up enough that Mejia couldn’t get the full barrel of the bat on it, and Mejia flied out to center field to end the game. The Bulls won, 2-1, pinning the loss on rehabbing big-league Braves pitcher Brandon Beachy. They went into the All-Star break riding an eight-game winning streak.
The Pawtucket Red Sox came to town right after the break and devastated Durham pitching for thirty-five runs over four games, including one against Lueke in the final game of the series (it was unearned). After that, the Bulls went to Gwinnett for two games and split them, winning the first 7-0 and losing the second 4-1. The results may not have been perfect, but you can see from the number of runs the Bulls allowed in those two games, five all told, that the pitching might have reestablished its footing (perhaps better to say arming). Certain truths were reasserting themselves in the aftermath of the Pawsox’ destruction. The Bulls have allowed the second fewest runs in the International League; the Gwinnett Braves have scored the second fewest.
Last night’s game was another example. Mike Montgomery shut out the G-Braves for five and two-thirds innings. Ramon Ramirez came on in relief and was probably extended a bit too far. He was fine for an inning and a third, getting through the seventh without allowing a hit, but he was sent back out for the eighth having already thrown twenty-five pitches.
The Bulls led, 3-0. The first batter Ramirez faced was Sean Kazmar, who had set things in motion with a walk against Lueke on July 14. Kazmar singled up the middle. The next batter, Todd Cunningham, also singled, and Kazmar advanced to third.
Lueke came in to face Tyler Pastornicky. Pastornicky’s got an onomatopoetic name: it sounds pesky, and he is. Lueke got ahead of him with a pair of foul balls, both on fastballs Pastornicky couldn’t catch up to. After ball one and two more foul balls, that pesky Pastornicky hit a slow grounder to shortstop. Cole Figueroa threw him out, but the Braves’ first run scored. It was 3-1.
The next batter was Brandon Boggs. Boggs had already struck out three times. In the third of these, back in the sixth inning, he was called out on strikes by the home plate umpire on a full-count fastball from Mike Montgomery that was probably a little bit high. Boggs was so incensed that, as he walked back toward the dugout, he snapped his bat in two over his knee. He seemed partly angry with the call and partly angry at himself for failing to drive in the tying runs, which were both on base at the time. But by “partly,” I do not mean half and half: he seemed fully angry by each thing, both the debatable call and the missed RBI opportunity. These two complete angers exceeded what the moment could contain: Boggs destroyed his bat.
Now up in the eighth representing the tying run, Boggs came up to face Lueke. The first pitch was a called strike, and Boggs didn’t like that call, either. The second pitch was also a called strike, and that one was inarguable. The third one was a ninety-seven-mile-an-hour fastball, and Boggs swung and missed for strike three. It was his fourth strikeout of the night in four plate appearances. He just trudged back to the dugout. There was no more rage left to express. I imagined him sitting in his hotel room later with a bottle of whiskey.
Up to the plate stepped, of course, Ernesto Mejia.
Josh Lueke well remembered the July 14 at-bat, that nine-pitch, game-ending showdown against Mejia. But the history between them goes back much further. Lueke and Mejia were both in the Double-A Texas League in 2010. The first time Lueke ever faced him appears to have been on May 27, 2010. Lueke struck him out. About a week later, he got Mejia to pop out to first base. (The first baseman was former Bull Wes Bankston.)
The two faced each other six times in 2012. Mejia went 2-6 against Lueke with a pair of RBI singles, one of them in the most disastrous game of Lueke’s disastrous season last year. This year, prior to the July 14 at-bat, they had squared off twice, with Lueke striking out Mejia on April 8 and getting him to fly out to right field the very next day.
Condemned to repeat it? Lueke and Mejia had another nine-pitch at-bat. It started with a slider, which Mejia took for a strike. “He didn’t like it,” Lueke said. Lueke threw what appeared to be a splitter, down in the dirt for ball one. Then, having established the ball down, Lueke “tried to go up the ladder,” he said later, elevating his fastball, “but I couldn’t get it up high enough.” Mejia fouled off four high fastballs in a row. Then he took one that was too high. The count was 2-2.
Catcher Chris Gimenez went out to the mound and reminded Lueke that Mejia hadn’t liked that first-pitch slider. Remember. Lueke’s fastballs after the slider had made Mejia forget the slider. Let’s throw another slider, Gimenez said. Lueke threw one on the eighth pitch. Mejia took it. “I thought it was a bad take,” Lueke said, because it looked like strike three, but the umpire declined to call it.
Full count. Lueke was unfazed. Remember, Mejia leads the league in strikeouts. Remember, he hates that slider. Don’t forget it just because that one wasn’t called a strike. If an inability to remember history condemns you to repeat it, then an ability to remember it blesses you to repeat it the right way. More specifically, an ability to remember the right parts of history. Selective memory. You can’t remember everything. If we could remember all history, we would be more or less insane, or certainly crippled, doomed to an early death. Read “Funes the Memorious” by Jorge Luis Borges.
Lueke remembered what needed to be remembered. He threw another slider, farther away and low. Mejia swung and missed. Strike three, inning over.
The reward for being able to remember: after Lueke struck out Mejia in the eighth, the ninth was a breeze. He struck out Stefan Gartrell, who strikes out even oftener than Mejia (nearly a third of the time), on three pitches. Slider, splitter, splitter. Joe Leonard flied out to right. Alden Carrithers pinch hit and punched a little liner to third baseman Mike Fontenot, who caught it — just like that — little liner —little catch — game over. The Bulls are still the best team in baseball, still eleven and a half games ahead of Norfolk. Repetition. Blessed to repeat history. Who took the loss last night? Brandon Beachy, again.
For those of us that aren’t Ireneo Funes, memory is a function of repetition. Lueke had just been to this place with Mejia, and Mejia with Lueke, ten days earlier. This is how players get better: by doing it again, again, again, until they remember well enough to do it in the major leagues, where the ability to remember the past gets harder. Perhaps it’s better to say that it’s harder to apply memory, harder to work the past on the present: in the major leagues, you can get your history right and lose anyway. The players there are that good. You can know their weaknesses and still be beaten when you try to exploit those weaknesses. Great talent is somehow immune to history.
Josh Lueke changed his approach, a little, to Ernesto Mejia, who will always be striking out, who is condemned to repeat this because it’s the thing he knows better than anyone else in the league knows it. It’s the thing he can’t remember to stop doing. But in Triple-A, he’ll get chance after chance after chance. Everyone here will. If you’re not ready for the major leagues yet, it’s okay. Triple-A’s blessing is that is allows you to keep facing down history without any of it going into annals that will ever be read.
The Bulls play Gwinnett an awful lot. They play them a lot every year. They play no other team more often. They play the Braves again tonight, for the fourth straight night. They play nine more games against them in August. The Braves have the worst record in the entire International League. They remember how not to win better than any other team. The Pawtucket series Durham just played is quickly playing itself out of memory. Beating Gwinnett in low-scoring games is so much more deeply embedded in the Durham Bulls’ memory than losing to Pawtucket in high-scoring ones. They’re blessed to repeat this history.