Durham Bulls Outslug Buffalo Bisons: Armature

Ricky Romero 2012

Last year, current Buffalo Bisons starter Ricky Romero played for the Toronto Blue Jays. Photo taken September 24, 2012 by Keith Allison under a Creative Commons license.

DBAP/DURHAM—Presumably you’re here because you care about the Durham Bulls and their fortunes. To dispense with their news, the hometown team beat the Buffalo Bisons on Monday evening, 11-7, pulling into a first-place tie with the Norfolk Tides atop the International League South Division. They did it by scoring a whopping nine runs in the first inning. Batting third, super-prospect Wil Myers, who lately has been swinging a hot bat for the first time this year, hit his third home run in four games to drive in the Bulls’ first two runs; then he drove in their seventh, eighth and ninth with a three-run double later—much later—in that same first inning.

After the game, asked about his recent surge at the plate, Myers told reporters that he feels more confident. Amazing as it seems that one of the most celebrated, talented young prospects in baseball would have lacked confidence at any point, this is actually no surprise. In baseball, it’s all in your head. When manager Danny Ozark said, famously, “half this game is 90 percent mental”—that computes to 45 percent, by my math—he underestimated by far.

One of the very best moments in Bull Durham is one no one much mentions, in which Crash Davis succumbs to a chattering interior monologue while standing in the batter’s box. Psyched out by his own run-on thoughts, he finally has to call timeout. So much of the game relies on the simple but elusive ability to put a stop to things. Nine runs in a single inning. That’s an awful lot, an avalanche, and it’s particularly shocking when it shakes loose in the very first inning. But it does happen. In fact, the Bulls did even better than that earlier this very season, scoring 10 runs in the first inning of a game against Gwinnett on April 13. In that inning, Bulls outfielder Brandon Guyer outdid Myers: he hit two home runs, driving in runs one, two and three and then, later, runs nine and ten . What Myers did last night was only an inferior copy.

The Bulls also scored 10 runs in the first inning of a game in July 2010, and they allowed 10 runs in the first inning of a game in 2007. Nothing in baseball is really that shocking. There’s something so old about this game. It seems to have seen everything before. It never blinks.

The Bulls went on to win that game in 2010, 15-4, coasting the whole way. This ride was bumpier. The Bulls made it 10-0 in the third inning—on a double by none other than Brandon Guyer, of course. (Guyer went 2-3 with two walks.) But Durham starter Alex Torres, who was erratic for the first four innings yet managed to keep the Bisons from scoring, fell apart in the fifth. It was not so much a 2012-type Torres performance—that would be a total disaster—but more a 2011 vintage effort: fine overall work marred, and finally undone in this case, by control problems, inefficiency and loss of focus. He allowed five runs in the fifth inning and did not finish the inning to qualify for the win. Torres used up far too many pitches: 98. He said after the game that he felt good but had gotten a little off his usual between-starts routine following his one-off appearance in the big leagues a week and a half ago. Mental, not physical.

Bulls reliever Steve Geltz gave up a two-run home run to Mauro Gomez in the seventh inning. It was the powerful Gomez’s second two-run home run of the game. Oddly, Geltz allowed a three-run homer to Gwinnett’s Ernesto Mejia—who is sort of a copy of Gomez—in the Bulls’ previous big first inning back on April 13. Torres started that one, too. But this is only coincidence disguised as rule; that’s another of baseball’s deep traits. It’s really a very random game. It has no destinies, no patterns, no guarantees. It’s simply that structural repetition dominates, and so certain things will come up again: Alex Torres’s turn in the rotation, a ten-run inning.

After Gomez’s seventh-inning home run, Jeff Beliveau relieved Geltz and promptly walked a pair of batters. The tying run was, improbably, on deck, and Durham closer Kirby Yates was warming up in the bullpen—in the seventh inning. That’s how plainly desperate the Bulls and their manager, Charlie Montoyo, had suddenly become. The happy memory of the Bulls’ nine-run first inning was long gone.

Beliveau got a strikeout to end the seventh and keep the lead at four runs. Then Yates, who has been simply great since taking over as closer for the called-up Josh Lueke, threw two hitless, scoreless innings to finish it off.

And that finishes off what you need to know about the Bulls for now, except this injury detail. Catcher Chris Gimenez hurt his left hand swinging the bat in Rochester a couple of weeks ago. It was a freak thing: he felt some sort of unfamiliar pop as he turned his wrist over. After that, Gimenez couldn’t even squeeze his hand closed. For a while, no one could figure out what the problem was. Finally an MRI revealed a tear in the sheath-like armature around one of the ligaments between his third and fourth fingers. That’s a much better outcome than a torn ligament or broken bone, either of which wold probably mean surgery, but it still means Gimenez won’t be able to play for another couple of weeks.

Ordinarily, he would go on the disabled list, but Gimenez is staying on the active roster for the simple reason that the Rays have no one to replace him. The Tampa Bay organization was rich in catching depth as recently as April. Then two of them, Stephen Vogt and Robinson Chirinos, were shipped out in waiver deals, and the result is that the Bulls’ current catchers are a pair of radically different but equally unlikely players: Juan Apodaca, a virtually unknown quantity just acquired from the Rangers less than two months ago more or less as a hole-plugger; and Craig Albernaz, the longtime organizational fixture who is a bit like Eldin, the painter from the ’90s television sitcom Murphy Brown: he doesn’t really ever get the job done, even after being at it for years, but he’s got certain attractive talents and in the end he’s just so amiable and calming that you keep him around—for protection more than anything else. He’s part of the armature of the Rays organization.

Armature. I’ve used that word twice for a reason: it’s got the word arm in it, for one thing, and among its meanings is a protective covering or defense, like teeth and porcupine quills. Yesterday was Memorial Day, when thoughts of defense (and war) come to the forefront. Last night’s story wasn’t about the Bulls. It was about an arm: that of Buffalo starter Ricky Romero, who gave up eight of the nine runs the Bulls scored in the first inning while recording only two outs. The story was also about the Bisons—the team, the armature, protecting him.

If Bull City Summer is covering “a season at the ballpark and beyond,” that must also include, before we even get beyond the ballpark, what’s at Durham Bulls Athletic Park on any given day beyond the Bulls themselves. Those anonymous guys wearing the road uniforms? Well, they’re somebodies just as much as the Bulls are, and if our project were based in Buffalo instead of Durham we would care about them plenty. In fact, they’ve got a fascinating story up there this year. The Bisons have a new parent club, the Toronto Blue Jays, who supplanted the New York Mets. That means they have a brand new team with a brand new bunch of players. Well, almost: Bisons catchers Mike Nickeas and Josh Thole were both in the Mets organization in 2012, and both played for Buffalo.

Not only that, the Jays’ Triple-A roster, which played last season in Las Vegas, underwent a massive turnover in the off-season (and on into the early part of this one). The team they brought to Buffalo bore almost no resemblance to the one they had out west last year. Only three members of this year’s Bisons—all of whom happen to be outfielders—played for Toronto’s Triple-A club last year. During the off-season, the Blue Jays went to town on the free agent and trade markets in an attention-grabbing, win-now spending spree. They traded away a bunch of young Triple-A prospects and decided to protect their new big-league personnel with veteran insurance in Buffalo. (A Triple-A team is the strongest part of a major-league armature.)

The Jays signed an astounding 25 minor-league free agents in the off-season, the most in baseball and enough to stock the entire Buffalo roster. It’s an old team, with just four players under age 26 and 11 over 30 as of today. The Blue Jays also hired a new pitching coach and a new hitting coach for their new Triple-A affiliate.

Amidst all that massive change, they brought back the same manager. Imagine being the boss of a company affiliated with and subsidiary to a bigger one that controls and makes all of your personnel and other major decisions. Imagine, too, for reasons having nothing whatsoever do with you or your performance—in fact, you showed vast improvement last year, reversing a losing trend and turning a profit—that nonetheless your company replaced 22 of your 25 employees. Among those lost were some very talented young partners whom you were counting on this year. They also replaced your two vice-presidents—oh, and they moved the company from the desert, which you’d grown used to after four years posted in Japan before that, to an old, cold Rust Belt city.

You actually ran a facility here before, but that was for another organization, years ago. This is totally different. The new organization just sank millions of dollars into a get-rich-quick plan, and it hasn’t gone well so far. In fact, it has gone very badly, so badly that, among all five companies in your divisional market, your parent corporation has produced the worst results. Panic has already set in, and you’re feeling it every day. Guys are in and out, up and down all the time. Fortunately, you’ve got some major talent on the production line (hitters, in this case), and no other company touches you in terms of sheer manufacturing power. But the guys in charge of distribution and efficiency (pitchers) have been the worst, and you’re practically giving away money. So far, it’s working—you’re keeping up with the best of your competitors—but only by sheer assembly-line can-do. Eventually, the slipshod accounting, wasteful spending and inconstant upper-level administrative personnel are likely to do you in.

Marty Brown doesn’t have to imagine any of that. Marty Brown is the returning manager of the Buffalo Bisons—or rather, of the Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, which last year was known as the Las Vegas 51s. Before that, he managed in the Japanese Major Leagues for five years. Before that, for three seasons from 2003-05, he managed … the Buffalo Bisons, when they were the Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians.

Did Marty Brown want to come back to Buffalo? I have no idea. I would have liked to ask him. I would have liked to ask him all kinds of things about his bizarre situation as the current manager of the Buffalo Bisons. I would certainly have liked to ask him for his thoughts on Ricky Romero, that starting pitcher of his who allowed nine runs in two-thirds of the first inning and then sat, slumped, on the bench in the dugout for the entire rest of the game rather than go into the clubhouse. (That is almost unheard of, by the way.)

But I didn’t ask him. I tried to. I stood outside the tiny visitors’ coaches office in the Buffalo clubhouse for a moment, waiting for Brown to stop talking shop with one of his coaches. While I waited, a young team official asked me if was hoping to talk to one of the coaches. Marty Brown? I responded. The official gently dissuaded me: This isn’t a good night; he needs to decompress. The official was making himself, as nicely as he could, into part of the armature surrounding Brown. The teeth, the quills, the defense.

I could have ignored the interference he was running. He didn’t really have the authority to keep me out of (or usher me into) the office. Perhaps he had absorbed some of Brown’s mood (compressed, evidently) and, cowed, didn’t think it wise to press him with another interested party. I appreciated that sensitivity, but Brown is a veteran manager. He knows it’s part of his job to talk to the media, even when he is on the road, and even if only to be gruff and curt for the fun of it. I could have poked my head in there had I wanted to.

I didn’t want to. I didn’t want it bitten off, for one thing, if indeed that’s what would have happened. For another, I had just had a valuable lesson in armature from one of Romero’s teammates. Moments before coming to Marty Brown’s door, I had finished interviewing Buffalo reliever John Stilson. Stilson, 22, is the Bisons’ youngest player, and he had just had an intriguing two-inning appearance. Stilson threw in the mid- to upper-90s, reaching 98 miles an hour with one pitch, and also featured a slider, curve and changeup. He struck out three Bulls, including Wil Myers, and had an animated, high-intensity mound presence that was exciting to watch and made me want to talk to him.

When I found him at his locker, I was surprised twice. First, Stilson in person was the opposite of Stilson pitching. He was quiet, polite, modest and reserved. He answered questions slowly and cautiously. But before he answered them, he surprised me the second time: he asked if we could go into the hallway outside the clubhouse. Why, I asked, after we were in the hallway—too loud? I also supplied: Do you prefer to do interviews away from teammates?

No, he answered. He just didn’t want to talk near Ricky Romero.

What I hadn’t noticed, while at Stilson’s locker, was what must have been its proximity to Romero’s. I probably looked right at Romero, sitting perhaps right next to Stilson, without registering at whom I was looking. I only wanted to find Stilson, and saw nothing and no one else. I failed to fulfill Bull City Summer’s essential directive: and beyond.

That does not matter. What matters is the startling thoughtfulness and awareness on the part of the very young John Stilson, who took pains to protect his wounded teammate. Stilson had just excelled and earned himself a postgame interview (with a visiting reporter, no less). He will probably wind up in the majors before year’s end if he keeps pitching like he has. He is the most interesting pitching prospect on a Triple-A staff that is basically devoid of them. Yet instead of leaping to the attention, he protected his teammate. He transformed himself from an arm into armature.

In the hallway, he told me what a great guy and great teammate Ricky Romero is. A few minutes before that, Bulls catcher Chris Gimenez had, unprompted, said the same thing about Romero: “You couldn’t ask for a better guy,” Gimenez said. “My heart goes out to him. I want to give him a hug.”

These are not just sentiments; they’re quotes. Romero must have done much to deserve these words, because he and Gimenez have never been teammates. They “came up together,” Gimenez said, as opponents in multiple levels of the minor leagues. Gimenez was speaking of Romero as a respected, even beloved, longtime adversary in a war in which they are not quite enemies.

In 2005, Ricky Romero was a first-round draft pick, no. 6 overall, of the Toronto Blue Jays. This became a notorious pick, in the way that the Tampa Bay Rays’ decision to select Tim Beckham with their own top pick of the 2008 draft is notorious. As you may know if you follow the Bulls, in 2008 the Rays could have chosen Buster Posey, who is now the reigning National League MVP. They could have taken a catcher, which they needed (and arguably still need), but chose a shortstop; the Jays, three years earlier, should have taken a shortstop but drafted a pitcher—and one with only “an average fastball,” Baseball Prospectus wrote of Romero in 2007. The Blue Jays drafted Romero over Troy Tulowitzki, future All-Star and cornerstone of the Colorado Rockies franchise.

But you can’t really ever know who will pan out, or when. It took him six years, but Romero became an All-Star himself. From 2009-2012, he made 125 starts for the Blue Jays—more than famous teammate Roy Halladay over the same period. More than Halladay’s future teammate Cliff Lee, more than former Bull (and no. 1 draft pick himself) David Price. Romero won 51 games over four years, tied with Johnny Cueto and Tim Hudson. Toronto gave him a $30 million contract extension.

Still, the armature around these big, impressive numbers was fragile. Romero had always walked too many hitters and struck out too few. His rate of home runs per fly balls was high. In the world of advanced player-value stats, he was little cared for, with unflattering numerical comps to middling pitchers. Baseball Prospectus raised its assessment of his fastball, but only from “average” to “good,” and added: “Could it be that Romero’s jack-of-all-skills, master-of-none act means that the whole of his outcomes is greater than the sum of his peripherals?”

They were. In the second half of last season, cracks in the armature appeared. Romero started out well, but then lost 13 straight decisions. His strikeouts came down, his walks went up. His ERA ballooned and finished at 5.77, worst in baseball among starters. The Blue Jays organization lost nearly all their faith in him. After he struggled badly in spring training of 2013, they demoted their $30 million man to start the season—not to Buffalo, but all the way down to A-ball in Florida.

That dealt a blow to his confidence, which then became merely confused. Romero made one start in the Florida State League, and then was called up—only to be demoted again, after two poor, short starts, this time to Buffalo. After three starts with the Bisons, he had an ERA of 8.76. He had walked 17 batters and struck out just three in 12 and a third innings. It could not get much worse, was perhaps what he was thinking.

If he was, then baseball had an unpleasant surprise for him last night, which was when Bull City Summer picked up Romero’s story. It could not only get worse, it could get much, much worse. Romero faced ten Durham Bulls. Five of them had hits. He walked three others, on a grand total of 13 pitches. After the last of the three walks, he was removed from the game. He had thrown 32 pitches, just 13 for strikes. Of the 13 strikes, five resulted in hits, a sixth in a sacrifice fly. Romero’s ERA is now 13.85. It could get worse than that still, but it probably won’t—that’s how bad it is.

The thing is, Romero was nearly out of the inning well before it went from merely bad to downright terrible. After Tim Beckham’s sacrifice fly made the score 5-0, there were two outs and a man on first base. The eighth and ninth hitters in the lineup were due to hit. With some decent strike-throwing, Romero could get out of the inning. But then, inexplicably, he could no longer throw strikes. He walked Cole Figueroa on four pitches. He walked Juan Apodaca on four pitches. Most of these pitches were not close.

Suddenly, he was totally unraveled. Now you could see it on his face, in his body language. He tried to bear down on Brandon Guyer. He threw with more purpose, more intensity. The pitches were closer. One of them was even a strike. But he walked Guyer, too, and Marty Brown came out from the dugout and took the ball and Romero went to the dugout and stayed there.

Just the other day, I wrote this about Rich Thompson: “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?” Is Ricky Romero, who was an All-Star in 2011 (he even got a Cy Young vote), now a bad pitcher? Last year, his ERA was not only bad, it was the worst. Maybe it wasn’t sudden, though. Maybe this is the demise after a gradual, inevitable decline. But wait: decline? Romero is only 28 years old, basically in his prime. Who declines at that age?

He doesn’t think he’s finished. Read this. He’s in the middle of making 30 million guaranteed dollars, but he isn’t satisfied with that. Romero sat in the dugout throughout last night’s game, suffering the consequences of his mistakes. He watched reliever Chad Beck give up Wil Myers’ bases-loaded double, scoring all three guys Romero had walked—runs six, seven, and eight—and inflating his ERA even more. But he was trying to be a good accountable teammate instead of hitting the shower, the steakhouse, the limo, the bar.

What separates most athletes from most of the rest of us is this: We are content with our reward even if we fail. They are not. They just want to keep trying. They think they can always be better. Remember when Hideki Matsui was playing for the Bulls, around this time last year? Hideki Matsui has earned more than twice the millions Ricky Romero has made in his career. He was retirement-age last year. Yet he kept trying. The athlete’s armature—his teeth, his quills—is in his denial of failure. He—or she—refuses to concede. Refuses to be content. Refuses even the truth when it descends like the night.

Yet, surrounded by the armature of his teammate, John Stilson; by that of a sympathetic opponent, Chris Gimenez; and, indirectly, by the armature of the Bisons and Blue Jays team official who was protecting manager Marty Brown—who was, in turn, tacitly protecting Romero by his apparent indisposition to talk to a reporter—protected by all those teeth and quills, there was something immensely tender about Ricky Romero, the vulnerable force at the center of it all. “I bet he’s still sitting in the dugout,” Gimenez said, in a tone that was made of equal parts sadness and admiration and evoked a lonely image of a man not running for cover but still clinging to the field long after the battle was over. He had already lost.

He wasn’t in the dugout, though, as Gimenez guessed—he was sitting at his locker. There was more support there, and more comfort, but Romero was no less alone with his failure. The most isolating thing about it is that Romero surely has no idea why his failure has come to be. There are people to give him sympathy, but no one can come up with an explanation. If his coaches knew what the problem was, they’d tell him and solve it. If his teammates knew, they’d want want to do more than hug him. All over the internet they’re trying to come up with an answer, but not even the best efforts do more than speculate or get closer than this, baseball’s essential truth: “It sounds so simple until you realize it’s incredibly hard.”

The Bulls and Bisons play again at 7:05 p.m. tonight.

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