Breaking and Entering: Durham Bulls (barely) salvage final game of series against Pawtucket Red Sox

ominous DBAP

Photo by Frank Hunter.

Two Durham Bulls had their cars broken into on Saturday night. Valuables were stolen. The players gave statements to a policeman who was in the clubhouse after the game, which Pawtucket won 9-6. The night before that, the Pawsox won 9-7. The games were virtual carbon copies: the Bulls fell behind, way behind, and then came back only to fall a bit short in the end.

The vandalized cars were parked in the players’ lot, which is right across the street from the ballpark, under the Durham Freeway. It’s virtually impossible to park much closer to the DBAP than that. If you’ve ever been burgled, you probably know that vulnerable feeling that creeps up on you after you discover the crime, especially if it occurred in or near your home, or in some very public place in which you’ve always felt safe — like right outside your home ballpark, where you always park your car, as one of the victimized players has done since 2010. There’s a strong yet elusive sense of violation, elusive because you have no recourse, you saw nothing, you were absent and the perpetrator has vanished. You simply happened on your own victimization after the fact. It’s that powerlessness that’s so hard to take, along with the sudden, nauseous feeling that the natural structure of your world has been rattled.

The analogy to what Pawtucket did to the Bulls this past weekend is almost too convenient to be believed, but there it is: the Pawsox broke right into the Bulls’ home, using baseball bats as tools, and scored thirty-five runs in four games. The Bulls had allowed thirty-three runs in their previous seventeen games. It’s probably unnecessary to elaborate on that astounding statistic, except to add that the Bulls scored thirty runs themselves in the four games. This was not about pitching. It was about two patient, skilled teams of hitters laying waste to a pair of pitching staffs.

After the first game of the series, which ended with a civilized 4-3 score, I wrote about it. But I waited to write anything about the other three until after they had played out: they were really one long, bloody battle, and the end had to arrive before an assessment could be made. The four games took a total of fourteen-and-a-half hours to play, and there was little distinction from one game to the next: just a dizzying, occasionally numbing blur of runs and rallies, errors and terrors. All four games were loaded with walks and hits, poor fielding, mental lapses and physical foibles, tentative pitching (a staggering forty-five walks in thirty-six innings), and soul-crushing longueurs unpleasantly interrupted by stomach-clenching dramatics. It kind of made sense that the last game of the series ended in a 14-13 score, three days after the first had ended 4-3: it was as if everything was exponentially increased by the weekend’s final skirmish.

They say good pitching beats good hitting. Is this really true? Durham and Pawtucket are the top two teams in the league in runs scored. Good hitting beat good pitching in this series, and beat it badly. The Pawsox started a pair of very highly regarded pitching prospects against the Bulls, Rubby De La Rosa on Friday and Allen Webster on Sunday. They were torched for eight hits and eleven runs in less than five combined innings. They walked ten batters. The Bulls sent Jake Odorizzi, who had been cruising, to the mound in game one. He didn’t escape the fourth inning. Mike Montgomery was strafed for seven runs the next night. Merrill Kelly and Matt Buschmann, the surprisingly effective duo just up from Double-A, took their first really hard Triple-A lumps, giving up thirteen runs in nine innings.

So which is it? Does good pitching not beat good hitting? Or was the pitching not really that good to begin with? Like I said, certain events can rattle your perception of the structure of your world. This was an anomalous series, the like of which we haven’t quite seen this year (the four games against Buffalo had some of the flavor, but the Bulls swept the Bisons, whose pitching was almost uniformly bad to begin with). We won’t see it again, either, unless these teams face off in the Governors’ Cup Championship series in September, which is in fact somewhat likely.

Pawtucket had lost fifteen of its last eighteen games coming into the series, but this is a vastly better team than the one that lost all those games, and better still than the one the Bulls played in Rhode Island in May (and no-hit!). For one thing, they recently added Jackie Bradley, Jr., who was just optioned down from Boston, along with pitcher Allen Webster. That Webster was terrible last night is immaterial. He hadn’t pitched in a week, just like all the other guys in the series who also pitched poorly. Xander Bogaerts joined the Pawsox in June. He’s probably the top prospect in the Red Sox system, and you could see why, at the plate and in the field. Will Middlebrooks also rejoined the club after that May series.

The thing is, it was relatively unheralded non-prospects, like catcher Dan Butler and first baseman Mark Hamilton, who did major damage in the series. Butler went 7-11 with a double, a homer and three walks. Hamilton went 7-17 with three doubles, a home run and three walks. That’s partly because they can hit, of course, but also partly because the presence of guys like Bradley, Middlebrooks and Bogaerts in the lineup yielded better pitches for the others to hit.

Yet it isn’t as if the Bulls were just grounding out and whiffing while the Pawsox were smashing windows and slashing tires. Tim Beckham went 7-15 with three doubles, a homer and four walks. Yes, he made two errors; he also made numerous excellent plays. Leslie Anderson drove in seven runs (and made an error). Vince Belnome reached base in half his plate appearances. Chris Gimenez, looking like he has finally recovered from his hand injury, reached base in more than two thirds of his plate appearances, and started pulling the ball with more authority, too.

It all reached some sort of sickening height on Sunday night, in a game that took over four hours to play. The Bulls had a 7-0 lead after two innings, but it was 7-3 after three. In the fourth, the Bulls’ Jesus Flores poked an opposite-field, two-out, bases loaded double to right field, making it 10-3. Game over? No. Five straight Pawtucket hitters reached to open the fifth, chasing Buschmann, and it was quickly 10-7. Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said to hitting coach Dave Myers, “We’re gonna need twelve runs tonight.” Turned out that wouldn’t be enough.

The game ended — in retrospect, it really did, despite later gasps — in the bottom of the fifth inning, right around when the rain returned after a week’s absence in an otherwise ceaseless year of it. Consecutive doubles by Tim Beckham and Vince Belnome started the inning, making the score 11-7. One out later, Leslie Anderson flared a single to left field, and Jason Bourgeois followed by punching another single to right field. Pawsox right fielder Alex Hassan went to field it but made the old little-league mistake of letting the ball roll right through his legs and all the way to the wall. Bourgeois circled the bases and came around to score behind Belnome and Anderson: a ruinous error by Hassan.

That made the score 14-7, and essentially impervious to a large number of mistakes and misfortunes and misdoings. The Bulls committed them (or were victimized by them) anyway, using up all of their allotted lapses and collapses right through to the end of the game. Frank De Los Santos came in to the game in the seventh with a 14-8 lead and promptly walked two batters and allowed a Dan Butler double. A bloop single — meet punishment for De Los Santos’s walks — greeted Josh Lueke, pulling the Pawsox back to within three runs.

In the eighth, Tim Beckham, who has played an excellent shortstop lately, muffed an easy double-play chance, leading to an unearned run, which scored on another bloop single — by Dan Butler, of course. In the ninth, Kirby Yates walked two more batters. Two runs were in, it was 14-13, and the tying run was on third — and the winning run was on second after the Bulls made no attempt to try to throw out a pinch runner who stole that base (unchallenged thievery, indeed) — with two outs.

Yates fell behind Justin Henry, 2-0. On the third pitch —the 401st of the night, by my count — Henry hit a grounder into the acute part of the second base hole. Mike Fontenot ranged over, way over, lunged, barely gloved it; you could see the ball sticking out of the top of the webbing. It had been raining; the ball was wet; the game was soaked; the runners, the tying and winning runs, were steaming home: Fontenot made what felt like the longest, heaviest, hardest twenty-foot throw to first base in the history of baseball. Henry was out. The Bulls won. Norfolk lost. The Bulls emerged from this epic, fourteen-and-a-half-hour gore-fest of a series exactly where they started it: with the best record in baseball, eleven and a half games ahead of the Tides. A bad dream, that’s all.

Yet they needed this game, in a very real, undreamt way, and manager Charlie Montoyo knew it. “We won that game,” he insisted afterward, meaning that despite the Bulls’ flubbing and floundering, they earned the victory with their tenacity when it mattered. Fontenot’s play was a hard one, harder than it looked, and made under extreme pressure. Losing three games in a row at home is bad, even if you can chalk it up simply to “we got our booties kicked, simple as that,” as Montoyo did, in exactly those words, after Saturday’s loss. He was smiling equably that night. What else can you do when you’re playing from behind and try, try, try to rally but just fall short, twice in a row? When bad starting pitching dooms you, it’s easy to let go of results. Like when someone steals something from you and you say, “Well, it was a piece of junk anyway.”

Losing three in a row at home is bad, yes, but losing four in a row and getting swept at home, despite scoring fourteen runs in the fourth game and having three different seven run leads: that can be demoralizing. That can be the kind of loss that leads to very bad things. No manager is smiling equably after that fourth loss. Last night, the edge was set on Montoyo’s teeth. He did not indulge in allowing Buschmann to limp through his five innings so he could qualify for the win (as he had done with Merrill Kelly the previous night, although Kelly left trailing). He brought in Cory Wade with no outs and the bases loaded in the fifth, and the Bulls leading — quite comfortably, it seemed — 10-3.

But it wasn’t comfortable. When Wade allowed a two-run double to Bogaerts and a well-struck sacrifice fly by Henry, making the score 10-7, Montoyo got Frank De Los Santos up in the bullpen, just minutes after Wade’s entrance. Montoyo is a rather non-interventionist manager, usually preferring to let his players get their work in, even if they pay a price for it in the form of losing. Last night, no such leniency. Montoyo suggested afterward that it might have been the biggest game of the year. He certainly managed it as if it was.

The proof, multiple proofs, of how big it was lie in whatever happens over the next four games against the Gwinnett Braves. Breaking and entering: were the Bulls just broken a little? And what are they entering? Gwinnett is a bad baseball team. They have the third-worst record in the International League, and the Bulls just swept three games from them right before the All-Star break. If the Bulls beat up on the G-Braves again — take, let’s say, three of four games from them, as the Pawsox just did from Durham — then there will be nothing at all to worry about. It will be as if Pawtucket’s crimes against them never happened. Even if the Bulls only split with the G-Braves, two and two, they’ll be thirty-seven games from the end of the regular season with probably a double-digit lead over Norfolk. What they’ll be entering is their victory lap.

If they don’t — if Gwinnett dominates — that little element of doubt may set in. We might wonder if indeed the Bulls are a little broken: if the lack of home-run power is an irreparable deficiency; if those two Double-A starters, Buschmann and Kelly, were just enjoying some beginners’ luck which will evaporate down the stretch; if the heretofore airtight late-inning duo of Josh Lueke and Kirby Yates, who allowed three anxious runs last night, are finally going to spring leaks and jeopardize leads when it counts. If, if, if. What are we vulnerable to that we had never considered? Are our valuables safe? Is our safety valid?

Yes, it is. The Bulls are going to be fine — maybe not best-record-in-baseball fine, but division champs and a formidable presence in the playoffs. They’ll be fine first of all because they do have much they can count on, assets that are unassailable and a clean track record which will, over the long haul, protect them. And they’ll be fine, too, because they got their first taste in a very long time of the possibility that they might not be fine. They were caught with their guards down, sauntering back into their familiar, comfy ballpark, where they have the league’s best home record, after three days’ summer vacation. They were not vigilant. They lost focus. It was not their fault: they only did what they’ve always done, just  like the players who parked their cars where they always park them and had them broken into anyway.

There was a police car out there under the freeway on Sunday night. Maybe it never occurred to anyone that the players’ cars might be targets, just a few dozen feet from the ballpark entrance, near heavy foot and car traffic. But these things can and do happen. Maybe it never occurred to the Bulls that they might be vulnerable simply by doing what they always do. Pawtucket reminded them that further precautions are necessary, that you can’t take anything for granted in life or in sports. It’s sad and ugly, what happened to those players’ cars, but it did remind us all that Durham Bulls Athletic Park’s southern outskirts lead into a neighborhood that is still rough. The American Tobacco run-and-bike trailhead is just beyond the players’ parking lot, and the trail is still plagued by crime.

You know that phrase: the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. (A great phrase in part because its origins are unclear. It does not come from Thomas Jefferson.) It’s true, but freedom is earned by more than hard, fatiguing, bitterly observed nightwatch. If that were all of it, it wouldn’t be freedom: we’d be enslaved to our own self-protection. Freedom is also earned by what we choose to do with our time and chances today, tomorrow, the day after, in broad daylight or right under the lights. The best thing about baseball is that it’s played every day (thus the worst thing about it is the All-Star break, for many reasons). The Bulls are in Gwinnett tonight.

Adrienne Rich puts it best: “freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine remembering.” You do what you do the way you always do it, but the important thing is that you keep doing it, and through that repetition you improve. You remember what happened to you the day before and are liberated from it. Your vigilance is directed not at what may come, not at that menace. It’s to keep at bay the wrongs you’ve already suffered, including your own.

2 Comments on “Breaking and Entering: Durham Bulls (barely) salvage final game of series against Pawtucket Red Sox

  1. Wow: name check of both Thomas Jefferson and Adrienne Rich in game four of the recent Bulls–PawSox series. It was a fun game to watch and I love the highly literate “routine remembering” of this recap.

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