Durham Bulls beat Indianapolis Indians in game one of playoffs

hanging hair

Photo by Kate Joyce.

Great playoff baseball. A small, tuned-in crowd, a taut pitcher’s duel, and the most scintillating pair of at-bats of the season. The Bulls scored the game’s only two runs in the eighth inning and then hung on through a tense, bases-loaded ninth to win, 2-0 and take a 1-0 lead in the first-round playoff series.

Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo opened his post-game comments with a question: “Is it okay if I call it a nailbiter?” He was laughing (and so were we), somewhat at his own expense, because Montoyo knows that “nailbiter” is the word he nearly always uses to describe close, tense, high-blood-pressure games.

But this was a really close, tense, high-blood-pressure game. If in the past you might have wanted to jokingly accuse him of crying wolf with his overuse of “nailbiter” — some of those close mid-season ballgames simply lack the stakes to be biting one’s nails over — you wouldn’t have thought to do so last night. It was a nailbiter even if you didn’t care who won, or even who was playing.

It was just excellent baseball, and here’s why, in Montoyo’s words: “That was big-league pitching.” The Bulls’ Jake Odorizzi and the Indians’ Brandon Cumpton, the International League’s two hottest starting pitchers (a combined 0.50 ERA over their last six starts) each threw seven scoreless innings. Cumpton allowed three hits, Odorizzi just one. At one point, they combined to retire twenty-four straight batters from the second inning into the sixth. And they were doing it efficiently. In one three-inning stretch, they threw a total of just fifty-seven pitches.

Unfortunately for Cumpton, he pitched eight innings, not seven, and wound up taking a complete-game loss. The last of the eighth was bizarre. With one out, Bulls spark plug Kevin Kiermaier hit a ball into the shallow right-center field gap and decided right away that he’d get himself a double — one of very few players in the league with the speed to do that — hustling into second base a little ahead of the throw. Jesus Flores came up next, and with the count 2-0, Cumpton threw what appeared to be a strike on the inside corner that may have crossed up his catcher, who missed the catch (or ticked off his glove — it was hard to tell even in replay). The ball caught home plate umpire Davie Soucy in the ribs or just below, making a nasty sound and causing him to grunt loudly.

Bulls trainer Mike Sandoval came out to check on Soucy, who stayed in the game. But having basically not registered the previous pitch as anything but pain, Soucy called it a ball. That made it 3-0, and Cumpton walked Flores with his next pitch (not that easy to do, as Flores has walked about once every twenty plate appearances in his career, and even less often than that this season). The next batter, Tim Beckham, dropped a single into shallow right field, and Kiermaier scored. The throw home from Brett Carroll was poor and way offline, and Soucy did not even bother to signal “safe.”

Did he not bother, or was he not able? Soucy called the trainer back out, and this time he left the game in visible pain. (No word was sent afterward on his status.) This resulted in a lengthy delay while base umpire Kelvin Bultron went to the umpires’ locker room (they do have one) to don the pads for plate umpiring duties. Cumpton stood idly on the mound for a while, eventually throwing a few warmup tosses. It would have been a pretty good time to take him out of the game, and a reliever was warming in the Indianapolis bullpen. But Cumpton stayed in, and when play finally resumed, four pitches later Vince Belnome singled to right field to score an important insurance run.

It was important because it gave Durham closer Kirby Yates a little two-run cushion in the ninth inning. Yates has had a marvelous season, but he hasn’t been quite as automatic lately. He has allowed six of his season-total fourteen runs in his last seven appearances. His batting average against over that span is .370, and his ERA has spiked from an ornery 1.16 to 1.90: still excellent, but not absolutely forbidding.

Still, at first it did not look as if any of that mattered. Yates struck out Robert Andino and retired Gregory Polanco on an easy groundout to first base. But then an interesting thing happened: he allowed a walk, and then a single, and then another walk — this latter walk to former Durham Bull Russ Canzler, who was pinch hitting — and the tying run was on second base. Yates got Lucas May to fly out harmlessly to right field and end the game, but nails were further bitten and Yates wound up burning through twenty-six pitches to save the game.

It was interesting to hear Yates’s comments after the game. He pitched in fifty-one games this season, tied for third-most in the league, and was used a little bit less over the season’s final two weeks to help him stay rested. Asked after last night’s game whether he felt fresh, his answer was revealing.

“Physically, I feel really strong,” he said. “Mentally, it takes a little while to get going when you have a lot of days off in between [appearances]. I got out there, juices were flowing. I got the first two guys out, which was huge, and then I think I just started to try a little too hard to get the last guys out instead of relaxing and pitch to them, let the stuff do the work. I think I tried to force the issue instead of just relaxing and treating them like just another batter.”

This naturally led to the question of whether the playoff atmosphere had anything to do with Yates’s overdoing it — or really the question of whether the players are really aware of even feeling a “playoff atmosphere.” How much do they have invested, I often wonder, in winning (or even reaching) minor-league playoffs? Is each hitter “just another batter,” as Yates put it (or tried to, as he pitched to them), or is he now a batter in the post-season, in the playoffs, in the super-charged moment?

For Yates, it was real. “There’s a little bit more adrenaline running, one hundred percent,” he said. “I feel like the fans are more tuned into the ballgame. It wasn’t a packed house [attendance was 3,341, slightly better than normal for a playoff game but half what the Bulls average in the regular season], but it still got pretty loud at times. So I think as a whole, the fans were pretty into the ballgame. We want to win. There’s a lot of competitive juices flowing. Everybody’s into the ballgame from the first pitch to the last. It’s a lot of fun.” (That’s a compliment to you, fan, if you were there last night.)

In case it wasn’t clear what Yates had his sights set on, he added that the team only has to win six more games in order to reach their goal. A couple of reporters tried to correct his math, saying that after last night’s win the Bulls only needed to win five more games, not six, to capture the Governors’ Cup trophy. But Yates held firm: that sixth win, he noted, would be in the Triple-A national championship game on September 17 in Allentown.

Yates’s comments reminded me of what catcher Chris Gimenez told me about Yates not long ago. Yates comes off as a pretty easygoing guy when you talk to him. He’s soft-spoken, not that big, and looks a little bit like Elmer Fudd. He’s from Hawaii, with all its associations of easy living. But Gimenez told me that Yates is an extremely competitive, aggressive pitcher who relishes challenging hitters. Last night, he threw his fastest fastball of the season (ninety-five miles an hour) to Russ Canzler. It missed, but Yates isn’t holding anything back, and he’s essentially daring opposing batters to hit him. He even dealt one of his rarely-used changeups to Polanco, who is a top prospect in the Pirates’ organization, and Polanco rolled over it, grounding out to first. Yates is in this thing to win it. These playoffs do mean more to him.

It was interesting to hear all of that from Yates right after interviewing Jake Odorizzi, who did not express (although he may privately feel) Yates’s awareness of the difference between the regular season and these playoffs. “I just went out like I was starting another game,” he said. “That’s the way I looked at it. The circumstances didn’t matter. You have to do good if it’s the playoffs or if it’s not the playoffs. I just went out and threw my same game.”

To be fair, Odorizzi wasn’t downplaying the stakes as much as he was declaring that he couldn’t let them affect him too much. It’s also worth keeping in mind that Odorizzi’s most recent regular-season start wasn’t for the Bulls but in the major leagues for the Tampa Bay Rays. Last Thursday, he pitched five innings of one-run baseball against the Angels, facing hitters like Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton. (You’ll forgive him for finding Robert Andino a somewhat less exciting challenge.) It was his first appearance in the big leagues in over two months, heightened circumstances additionally raised by a secondary plot: Odorizzi was essentially auditioning to take over the struggling Jeremy Hellickson’s spot in the Rays’ starting rotation.

Having pitched well there, and with his sights still set on returning, he was mostly interested in carrying over last week’s success in the majors to this Triple-A start. “I just continued with where I left off before I left [for the majors],” Odorizzi said. “I didn’t change anything.” (It was a lot like what he said after he stymied Buffalo for eight innings about two months ago, also after just returning to the Bulls from a successful major-league outing.)

And he wouldn’t have needed to change anything at all, even the little he did wind up having to change, had his fielders not put him into double jeopardy in the seventh inning. Tim Beckham made a throwing error on Andino’s leadoff grounder, allowing Andino to reach first. After Polanco hit into a forceout, Bulls catcher Jesus Flores tried to pick him off first base and threw the ball into right field, moving Polanco to second with one out — the first Indian to reach second base all night.

Odorizzi walked the next two hitters, getting squeezed on some very, very close pitches by Soucy, the plate umpire. Odorizzi was visibly tensing up on the mound, and his bugbear — two-strike foul balls, the inability to put hitters away — had crept into the game. The Indians hit eleven foul balls in the inning, most of them with two strikes, pushing Odorizzi well up over thirty pitches in the inning. Reaching his limit for the night, Odorizzi had the bases loaded with one out in what was at the point a scoreless game. A scoreless playoff game, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The crowd got really into it while Brett Carroll took his turn at the plate, and this tense, eight-pitch battle, which included another borderline pitch not called a strike, was the most exciting at-bat of the season at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Odorizzi fell behind Carroll, 3-1, risking walking in the go-ahead run. He got Carroll to chase a fastball up for the second strike, and then Carroll fouled off two more pitches before Odorizzi struck him out, again with a high fastball. The crowd, the playoff crowd, erupted. Food trucks, schmood trucks.

The inning wasn’t over. Odorizzi still had to contend with Lucas May, who would wind up leaving the bases loaded twice in this game. Odorizzi got squeezed on yet another pitch, this time necessitating Soucy’s hand gesture, “outside” (umps seldom explain themselves with so specific a gesture); then, after two more two-strike fouls, he walked down off the mound toward second base and took a long, deep, composure-seeking breath. May hit the seventh pitch of the at-bat pretty well, but he hit it to center field, where Kevin Kiermaier plays, and that reminded me of this reliable old baseball line by the great hitter Ralph Kiner, who in his later days was a longtime Mets broadcaster, about Phillies center fielder Gary Maddox: “Two thirds of the earth is covered by water,” Kiner said. “The other third is covered by Gary Maddox.” Kiermaier ran it down to retire the side.

Odorizzi was asked after the game whether he had to “gather himself” to get through the tense, thirty-eight pitch inning. “I didn’t really gather myself any more than I would have before that,” Odorizzi replied. “All I could do was make my pitch and do what I had to do.” At this point, Odorizzi is gathering himself for the major leagues, where he has earned the right to pitch with his convincing work this season as a Durham Bull. He was just up there, he did well, and he wants to get right back, “hopefully soon,” he said.

It surely was not lost on Odorizzi that just this past Sunday he was abruptly switched to starting game one of this series (rather than game two, which he was originally scheduled to start) not because Charlie Montoyo suddenly decided that Odorizzi was his ace; that would be International League Pitcher of the Year J. D. Martin, who was carelessly bumped to game two. It had nothing to do with Montoyo or the Bulls. The Rays rearranged the Bulls’ rotation from above, in order to align Odorizzi’s schedule with Jeremy Hellickson’s. Hellickson pitched for the Rays last night after a brief paid vacation off the roster, essentially sent to time out like a misbehaving sixth-grader. Had he struggled again (against the Angels, who keep playing into this narrative), Odorizzi would have been on regular rest to take Hellickson’s spot in the rotation again.

It was with all of that in mind that my editor and I went to have a beer afterward in a nearby restaurant and bar where the Rays-Angels game was on television, and where one of the tables in the place was occupied by some Durham Bulls, including Jake Odorizzi. Such is life in Triple-A. We might all prefer to go our separate ways and live as if the other party does not exist once the voice recorder is clicked off for the night, but instead we share a small town, a small world, with all the discomforts that proximity brings. We sat there, twenty-five feet apart, with some Indianapolis Indians nearby, too (including Brandon Cumpton, I believe), and pretended not to notice each other. How much was Odorizzi’s attention on Hellickson, who threw five and a third shutout innings, and how much was on his table mates, his teammates, the Durham Bulls in the playoffs, in which Odorizzi would probably rather not pitch? You can’t blame him for feeling conflicted, if that’s how he felt. Odorizzi is a smart, alert guy, and it’s a complicated time of year.

Game two of the series is tonight at 7:05 p.m. The Bulls’ J. D. Martin faces the Indians’ Graham Godfrey. The Bulls have seen Godfrey four times this season, once as a Pawtucket Red Sox reliever and three times in multiple roles with Indianapolis. They hit him around pretty hard in Durham in one of those outings, but this the playoffs. To repeat: it’s a complicated time of year. It could also be the last game the Bulls play here until 2014. See you at the ballpark.

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