Durham Bulls beat Pawtucket Red Sox to even Governors’ Cup championship series

Bulls shirt

Photo by Sara Schultz.

Yesterday afternoon I was at the ballpark for a while, and when I left for a break before last night’s game, I took the fire exit stairs from the third level, where the press box is. These stairs lead out onto the street, and there’s no access back into the ballpark. The doors on each landing are kept locked. If you take these stairs, you have to be intending to leave the building for good.

At the bottom of the stairs, right next to the door that opens onto the sidewalk, was a pair of grungy, worn, old running shoes. What were they doing there? Did someone forget them there, bizarrely? Were they supposed to be trash that had yet to be discarded? Is there a Bulls employee who runs regularly and keeps a pair of shoes stowed there, right by the exit, getaway style?

A couple of hours later, the Bulls faced Pawtucket knuckleballer Steven Wright, whom they’d seen in Durham in a game in July. Wright wasn’t very good that night. He walked three batters early, allowed three runs in three innings, and was replaced to begin the fourth after throwing just sixty-one pitches. But there’s really no such thing as precedent or predictability when it comes to knuckleball pitchers. That’s the whole point of the pitch. If the pitcher has a good feel for it that night (or even just that inning, that at-bat), you’ve got trouble; if he doesn’t, you don’t.

Last night, Wright did. “It was a frustrating night for all of us,” according to Bulls center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, whose seventh-inning double off Wright scored the go-ahead run. Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said that you can tell in the first inning or two whether a knuckleballer “has it” on a given night. So what do you do when you recognize early that he has it? “You go, ‘Oh, no,'” Montoyo said, groaning.

It’s kind of perfect that Wright is the namesake of the deadpan comedian Steven Wright, because the knuckleball has the same straight-faced-joke quality to it (and also because Wright has that Boston accent, which is close kin to a Pawtucketer’s). Each knuckler is a slowly delivered, odd one-liner, fluttering weirdly at you until it drops unexpectedly (if it’s successful) right into your strike zone, or onto your funny bone, as the case may be. It takes you by surprise, and you have a delayed reaction to it.

In theory, the pitch should be endlessly fun to watch, as should the other Steven Wright’s comedy, but both grow tiresome after a while. You know what’s coming, and at what speed, and there’s nothing you can do about it but either take it, annoyed at how temptingly slow and silly it is, or swing at the thing and probably pop up or ground out. Wright’s knuckleball sat right around seventy-six miles an hour all night long, although he did break one off at fifty-four, just for fun (the only time he cracked a smile at his own jokes all night; Shelley Duncan checked his swing on it, barely).

From a wider angle, too, knuckleball pitchers get boring because there’s no sequencing involved in what they’re doing on the mound. It’s just knuckleball, knuckleball, knuckleball, except for Wright’s very occasional “fastball,” which the Bulls never hit. And there’s nothing athletically impressive about the mechanics of throwing the knuckler. You can virtually chuck it from a standstill, so it’s all about the contact point where your fingers touch the ball, just as Wright’s comedy relies almost entirely on the contact point of his sleepy-stoned voice with the material he delivers. (Come to think of it, the knuckleball is kind of a stoner pitch, isn’t it?) If he presented his zingers in the usual manner of stand-up comedians, they wouldn’t work; they’d fly too straight and get the equivalent of a booing, i.e. hammered.

I’m spending so much time on the pitch because the Bulls, with last night’s narrow 2-1 win over the Pawsox, guaranteed themselves another go against a knuckleballer. Pawtucket’s game four starter, Charlie Haeger, also relies on knucklers. So this Governors’ Cup showdown offers an unparalleled opportunity to consider the pitch far more deeply than you would in almost any other circumstance. It’s kind of unfortunate that the supposedly high stakes and high drama of a championship series are lightly mocked by what is essentially a novelty act — it’s sort of like bringing a hand buzzer to a hostage negotiation — but on the other hand, maybe it helps us not take the minor-league post-season too seriously. This should all be played in good fun, like a cast party after, say Long Day’s Journey into Night. It’s been a long season, a lot of hard work, anxiety, struggle. Stay in costume, but get out of character.

Speaking of costume, in a way I can’t quite explain, the unsightly presence and unlikely location of Wright’s knuckleball put me in mind of those running shoes. What are they good for? What are they doing there? What’s the catch, the explanation? Is it trash or is it art, or is it something really meant to be used in a serious way?

It seemed serious enough last night, especially at first. (Montoyo: “You go, ‘Oh, no.'”) Wright had an easy first inning: Kiermaier tapped out, and then Cole Figueroa and Tim Beckham struck out swinging. But the inning did have a wrinkle in it: Figueroa struck out on a passed ball — it seemed to go right by Pawtucket catcher Dan Butler without Butler even touching it, a joke he didn’t get — and sprinted safely down to first. Figueroa was then picked off when he misread Wright’s delivery to the plate, but the seed was planted early: the gift of the knuckleball is also the curse; it eludes catchers and will advance baserunners. In the second inning, Wright’s knuckler resulted in another passed ball.

He continued to baffle the Bulls, however, meaning that Durham starter J. D. Martin “was pitching with no room for error,” Montoyo would say later, deeply appreciative of how effective Martin was, and has been all year, under less and less forgiving circumstances. Really, Montoyo was referring to his entire pitching staff. “It looks like we’re not going to hit,” he said, the latest in his series of increasingly frank admissions that his team is nearly incapable of building any kind of run structure. “Our pitchers have taken us all this way,” he said, “so they’re going to have to take us all the way to the end.”

Martin allowed one run in six typically efficient, characteristic innings for him. Butler and Justin Henry started the third inning with singles, Heiker Meneses sacrificed them to second and third base, and Jonathan Diaz hit an RBI groundout. You could really feel Martin bearing down after the leadoff hits. This extra concentration of effort seemed to owe no more to his natural competitive drive than it did to Martin’s awareness that a single run might lose the game, given his team’s weak run production.

The Bulls had at least one baserunner in every inning against Wright, but they could not score. Craig Albernaz led off the fifth inning with a double; he hit a knuckler that knuckled the wrong way, into Albernaz’s heat zone. He advanced to third base on a groundout, but it seemed likelier that he would score on a passed ball than on anything the Bulls might manage to do. With two outs, Figueroa walked, but Beckham grounded out to strand Albernaz.

Jason Bourgeois led off the sixth with a single to center field, and Vince Belnome drew his second walk of the game, taking some close pitches, to give the Bulls their first real threat of the night. But for the second straight night, Montoyo called for an important sacrifice bunt, and for the second straight night the attempt failed. This time, Brandon Guyer could not square up on Wright’s knucklers, fouling them off. With an 0-2 count, Guyer swung away, and grounded into a double play. Yet another rally, killed. It looked like the Bulls failure to sacrifice runners, combined with Pawtucket’s success at it, might be the difference in the game two nights in a row.

Bourgeois advanced to third base on the double play, though, and sure enough, Butler’s third passed ball of the night came during the next at-bat. Bourgeois scored to tie the game. An inning later, as if driving home the point about how much help the Bulls need in scoring runs, they got more. Pawsox shortstop Meneses did about three things wrong while trying to field and throw Albernaz’s easy one-out grounder, and he wound up throwing the ball into the Durham dugout, advancing Albernaz to second base.

Kiermaier wasn’t taking any more jokes. He lashed out at Wright’s first pitch, another knuckleball, and drove it to the left-center field wall. Albernaz scored to make it 2-1, and this time it wound up not mattering that the Bulls made a mistake of their own: Kiermaier, thinking triple all the way (with that great speed of his), rounded second base purposefully, but he lost his footing a little bit as he did so — he told us later that he wasn’t quite sure what had happened to cause the stumble — and this slowed him down just enough to get him thrown out at third base.

So, no insurance run. But as Montoyo said, “our pitching has taken us all this way,” and this time it was reliever C. J. Riefenhauser who carried the baton from starter to closer. He delivered “his best outing of the year,” Montoyo said, although you did not need Montoyo’s assessment to see that. Riefenhauser struck out the side in the seventh inning on ten pitches. It would have been nine had home plate umpire Brad Myers been a little more generous in judging Riefenhauser’s ninth pitch, a slider on or near the outside corner. Riefenhauser was so good, and so efficient, that he was rewarded with a second inning of work. He zipped through the eighth on eight pitches. You can bet we’ll see him again before the series ends.

Kirby Yates came in to pitch the ninth and walked the first batter he faced, just as he did in game two of the Indianapolis series last week — also in the ninth inning with a one-run lead. And just as he did then, Yates recovered quickly last night, striking out two of the next three hitters to save a game the Bulls really had to have. There was no way they would go to Pawtucket and win three in a row. Instead, they’ll need to win two in Little Rhody. I’ll be making the trip north and will report from there.

Last night ended the season at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. I finished my interviews, gathered my things in the press box, and came down the same stairs where I had encountered the mysterious running shoes earlier that afternoon. When I reached the bottom, the door back into the ballpark was open. It leads into the visitors’ clubhouse, and the end of a series is just about the only time the door is ajar, so that big carts of gear and other stuff can be easily rolled in and out to waiting buses and vans as the visiting team decamps. The door leading out of the park onto the sidewalk was open, too. A clubhouse attendant rolled through it, right past me, with a big empty cart ready for reloading. The door was propped open with the running shoes.

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