Call Me Up Maybe, Part III

Photo by Elizabeth Matheson.

(Part II.)

Ninth inning, two outs, man on third, Bulls leading by two.

Will Rhymes, a Durham Bull in 2012, steps in as a Syracuse Chief in 2013 to face his erstwhile teammate, Josh Lueke. Rhymes is the potential tying run. He, like Rich Thompson, got a brief callup to Tampa Bay last year, and then was sent back down to Durham. Only he was returned twice, and his story went on to end more strangely than Thompson’s. Rhymes was removed from the 40-man roster on September 1 (sort of D-Day in the Triple-A season) and designated for assignment. He cleared waivers and was assigned to the Bulls, but by then the Bulls’ season was over—this was merely a paper move. Rhymes waited out the rest of the season in a helpless, teamless, gameless limbo, until the official end of his contract in late October, when he became a free agent.  Not long after that, Rhymes signed with the Washington Nationals who assigned him to Triple-A Syracuse for 2013.

He now steps up to face Lueke. On this day, May 9, Bulls big bovine Wil Myers (six-foot-three) is hitting .276/.372/.414. Five-foot-seven Will Rhymes, his near-teammate and near-anagram (just add an L and an H, for left-handed or light-hitting, then remove nine inches of loft and stir well), is hitting .333/.413/.390—a good deal better than Myers. But their slash lines do not exist on the same graph. Myers is one of the rare players who is not waiting for someone to get hurt. He controls his destiny. The Rays are looking for reasons to call Myers up, and if his stats to date encouraged it, they very well might have done so already. The Washington Nationals are hoping they don’t have reasons to call up Will Rhymes, and even if his numbers were better, way better, they probably wouldn’t.

In any case, Lueke wins this battle. He gets Rhymes to ground out to shortstop to end the game—and, it should be noted, to end Durham’s three-game losing streak, all the losses to Syracuse. It’s Lueke’s third straight two-inning save, and it stops the bleeding, as they say.

After the game, we reporters talk to Rich Thompson. Thompson knows he’s been pressing; of course his slump has been bothering him. He’s a very accountable, appealing guy: smart, mature, articulate, a dad who takes his kids to the zoo on his day off, and as candid and forthcoming as most players get with the media. He isn’t evasive, isn’t a cliché peddler. He looks you in the eye and answers your questions. Maybe he shouldn’t do this. Maybe the secret to major-league success is living in a kind of denial with everyone else that begins with yourself: Understate your weaknesses and oversell your strengths, but mostly remain as neutral and mute as possible about both. Tell yourself and everyone else that you’ll be fine. The key is to be cagey, cautious, self-preserving. It’s like being a writer, in the James Joyce sense: your best coping tools are silence, exile, cunning. Avoid engagement when things are going bad; spout bromides when they’re going good. Protect your streaks—both kinds.

The one Thompson has been on is the bad kind. What can you do, though, but just keep trying? That’s what he tells us he’s doing. He’s not morose or defeated, he’s just swinging and swinging and figuring there are still hits in his bat, in his career. He seems confident that there are. He tells us that the game is basically just mental. Triple-A players and coaches say this all the time, because they know—or want to believe, anyway—that for most of them the difference between this level and the majors is only in the mind. Abstractions can be useful to blame, sometimes correctly. Athletes generally take the physical part as a given, an inalienable gift: what separates them from us, and from having to find another way to make a living. We rely on Thompson to believe in himself the way that we believe in him—not the way we believe as fans or hero-worshipers, but the way we believe in him as people who have to live in the world and must therefore trust certain things to be consistent and true from day to day. Rich Thompson was a good hitter last year. He can’t suddenly be a bad one. How can you trust anyone, anything, if what was just true no longer is? Rich Thompson is going to be fine, it is decided.

After thanking Thompson for his time, I go talk to Josh Lueke for the first time this season. Lueke was dreadful in 2012, and he knows it. (So did the media, which is why we didn’t talk to him.) He didn’t work out hard enough. While I’m talking to him, he uses the word “lazy” to describe himself in 2012, and then the word “bitter”—bitter at his own laziness because of its result: diminished velocity on his fastball. The consequent ineffectiveness of the fastball kept him from using his splitter as much as he would have liked, because off-speed pitches such as splitters depend on effective fastballs in order to achieve their intended destabilizing effect. So he had to keep using his fastball and try to get it working right, but his fastball was flat and straight and usually right down the middle, belt-high, and it got pounded pretty much all season by International League hitters. Lueke ended the year with a 5.56 ERA. Meanwhile, the guy he was traded for, catcher John Jaso, had a breakout season with the Seattle Mariners.

In the off-season, Lueke worked out hard with Brandon Gomes, his sometime Durham teammate who spent part of last year with the major-league squad in Tampa Bay and was called up again just days into the 2013 season. Gomes, like Lueke, throws a fastball, slider and splitter, so this was a well-matched workout duo. Lueke got stronger, and it shows. He not only looks it, he’s also throwing harder in 2013. His fastball, which was 91-94 mph last year, is 95-97 this year, and he can throw it right past a lot of batters.

Lueke’s adjustments were not only physical. He spent time in spring training hanging out with the Rays’ veteran setup man, Joel Peralta, another pitcher who relies on a splitter. Peralta made Lueke feel more comfortable and confident with the pitch strategically: how and when to use it, how to sequence it. Indeed, Lueke seems more comfortable and confident in every way this year. His ERA, after he retires Will Rhymes to end this game, is a formidable, miserly 0.95. He has allowed just two runs in 2013, both in the same game. He has racked up twenty-nine strikeouts in nineteen innings. Batters are hitting .176 against him. Lueke, like almost everyone else in Triple-A, is waiting for someone to get hurt—but unlike Rich Thompson and plenty of other struggling ballplayers, he has primed himself for a callup.

Speaking of callups: Myers? Ah, yes, that “news”: After the game, Montoyo and Myers tell us no, Myers just had a stomach ache. That’s all. He’d be in the lineup the next day, Montoyo said, most likely. And he was. On May 10, Myers hit a home run in his first at-bat. The Bulls went on to win the game easily, and there was no save opportunity for Lueke this time—of two innings or any innings at all. That was just as well: earlier that day, Josh Lueke was called up to Tampa Bay because someone got hurt. That someone was Brandon Gomes.

That meant that here we all were, looking at the wrong thing—the shiny new toy called Wil Myers—when the thing we should have been looking at was right in front of us, doing his job, quietly, excellently, without fanfare, and after much hard work. There is a lesson there.

That night, the night Wil Myers returned from his stomach ache to the Bulls lineup and hit a home run, Josh Lueke pitched for the Tampa Bay Rays, where he made the prorated minimum major-league salary: $1,342 per day. Per day. That’s more than half the minimum monthly salary in Triple-A. The night after pitching his way past Rich Thompson losing the ball in the lights; past former teammate Will Rhymes; past whatever anxiety came with knowing that Tampa Bay’s General Manager and Director of Baseball Operations were looking on from the grandstand dispassionately, critically; and past the strain of earning another two-inning save for the Durham Bulls—Lueke went to Tampa Bay and again pitched more than an inning. He faced four batters and retired all four, striking out two of them.

That same night, while Lueke pitched in the major leagues the Bulls’ Rich Thompson got the second day off Charlie Montoyo had promised him. After that, for a week, he hit .368.

Coming next: “Interpretations.”

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