Durham Bulls Sweep Buffalo Bisons: Ligature

Video by Ivan Weiss.

A couple of days ago my post title was “Armature,” so I figured I would just stay close. Actually, there’s a reason for this title beyond that: After the Bulls beat Buffalo, 7-2, to complete a sweep of the suddenly, um, endangered Bisons, I talked to two Durham Bulls pitchers who have both had what is generally called Tommy John Surgery: starting pitcher J. D. Martin, who picked up his league-leading seventh win, and closer Kirby Yates.

Tommy John Surgery is, medically, the replacement of the ulnar collateral ligament. The borderline Hall of Famer Tommy John (whom I’ll be writing about a bit next week here) made the surgery “famous” when he underwent the then-new procedure in 1974. It’s now about as routine an operation as installing a new timing belt. You drill holes in the elbow bone where the torn UCL was attached, take a tendon from another part of the body (often the forearm or patella), and install it in a figure-eight pattern through the holes in the bone. The actual mechanics are simple; you and I could do it with a clothesline and a tree.

But we would not be extending our laundering career if we did it. Tommy John Surgery has given a second life (in some cases a first life) to many, many pitchers, including some very famous ones—for example, Josh Johnson, who pitched for Buffalo last night on a minor-league rehab assignment, down from Toronto. Johnson had the operation in 2007. In 2009, his first full season after the procedure, he was an All-Star. (Last night didn’t go quite so well for him: The Bulls tagged Johnson for six runs on eight hits in four and two-thirds innings, saddling him with the loss. The game was over by the fourth inning.)

Some pitchers report that their throwing motion feels easier and freer after Tommy John surgery. Others claim it allows them to throw harder, although that may in fact be the result of increased post-surgery conditioning and strengthening. In any case, it is as much a part of baseball as free agency and uniform redesign: something you might rather avoid, but in the long run no big deal, and it can actually help.

One of the interesting things about Tommy John Surgery is that the surgeons who perform it on athletes are very few, and as a result they are much like celebrities in the tiny but rarefied world of sports medicine. When you hear that a ballplayer is going to visit Dr. James Andrews, for instance, you know what it means: He needs an operation. Fans groan. Andrews is one of the holy trinity of Tommy John surgeons. The father, so to speak, was Dr. Frank Jobe, who developed the procedure and performed it on the actual Tommy John in 1974. The son was Dr. Lewis Yocum, who learned it from Jobe in Jobe’s clinic. Yocum passed away last Saturday at age sixty-five. Only Dr. Andrews remains, the holy ghost, perhaps.

Yocum performed Kirby Yates’s surgery in 2006, when Yates was a nineteen-year-old college pitcher. Yates was quite aware that Yocum had died, and he displayed his thick elbow scar proudly—not as a badge of honor, but as part of Yocum’s legacy. This is the same doctor who did the same operation on Stephen Strasburg. The way Yates showed his scar, it was more like a famous autograph, or even a canvas by a great painter.

Yates was pitching one day for Yavapai Community College in Arizona—something of a baseball factory; Curt Schilling went there—when he felt a pop in his elbow. His brother, former big-league reliever Tyler Yates (he appeared in 239 games with the Braves and Pirates from 2004-09), helped arrange for him to see Dr. Yocum, who was at the time practicing not far away in Los Angeles. (Human-interest story.) The rest was simple: a few tests, an obvious diagnosis, and a choice to make; have the surgery now, have it later, or quit playing baseball. Now, Yates, decided.

Yates’s big elbow scar is still quite impressive, given that it’s seven years old. He also showed us the three smaller scars on his forearm where Yocum sliced away some replacement tendon (the tendon eventually starts to function like a ligament after the surgery). I talked to Yates for a while about the season he’s having, marked by dazzling numbers and excellent command. Yates is, at this point, in an advanced phase of his development. He certainly no longer thinks much about his elbow. He told me about throwing cutters (no pun intended) to both sides of the plate this year, about throwing changeups in counts where he never used to. He’s challenging himself to be a more complicated pitcher on the mound, one who can out-think hitters, beat them with location and selection rather than velocity and movement. The game is no longer physical to him. It’s mental. The scar on his elbow is simply what has allowed him to evolve to this point.

After I interviewed Yates, I went a few lockers over to talk to J. D. Martin. James Andrews performed his Tommy John Surgery. Martin had nothing earth-shaking to say about the surgery, or about beating Buffalo: “Let them put it in play, let my defense work behind me.” Martin doesn’t throw a pitch faster than eighty-seven miles an hour. He is older than Yates and farther along the evolutionary ladder when it comes to pitching. Martin throws a four-seam fastball, a cut-fastball, a two-seam fastball. He throws a changeup and a breaking ball. He moves the ball around. He paints corners, he works the umpire’s strike zone the way a politician works a room. None of his peripheral stats are that exciting, save his very low walk rate. Of course, Martin must make sure he doesn’t walk batters. He strikes out few, and allows a lot of hits, including a high rate of home runs. Mauro Gomez touched him for one in the first inning last night. Martin didn’t allow another run after that.

In fact, he did something extremely necessary, even slightly heroic, last night. Martin had thrown ninety-five pitches through five innings. Were he not a thirty-year-old journeyman but instead Chris Archer, Alex Torres, or another young prospect, he would almost certainly have come out of the game after the fifth. Ninety-five pitches in five innings is a lot: high-effort, labor-intensive. He had allowed seven hits and two walks but had somehow given up just two runs. It was playing with fire to think of sending him back out for the sixth inning, and reliever Steve Geltz was warming in the fifth as though Martin’s night was over.

But Martin did indeed come back out for the sixth, and he had his most efficient inning. He threw just eleven pitches, working around not one but two hits (one was a bunt single by Ryan Goins), and getting the league’s leading hitter, Jim Negrych, to ground out weakly to end the inning. Martin is now 7-2 with a 3.59 ERA. That’s not bad for a guy who wasn’t even in the Bulls’ opening-day starting rotation. He owes a tip of the cap to Geltz, who came on and pitched three perfect relief innings, striking out three batters, to earn the long, slow, local-train save. The Bulls had more than a three-run lead, but the rules allow the Official Scorer to award a save if a pitcher throws at least three innings of what is deemed effective relief. Retiring all nine hitters you face counts, don’t you think?

It was a classic Geltz performance: high fastball, high fastball, splitter, high fastball. I was writing about foul balls for the Paris Review recently, and in researching pitchers I discovered that Geltz has an unusually high foul-ball rate, 23 percent, about a third higher than normal. The Bisons hit seven of his fifteen pitches foul in the seventh inning, and twelve of thirty-nine all told. That’s how Geltz works. Jeff Beliveau was warming up in the bullpen in the eighth inning, but just as Martin stayed in for one more inning, so did Geltz. He, also like Martin, made the decision to leave him in pay off.

After the game, Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo stressed how necessary Martin’s and Geltz’s extra work was. Montoyo had only three pitchers available to him. (Beliveau was the third, so Geltz’s extra inning of work preserved Beliveau for tonight.) The Tampa Bay Rays are having an unusual starter-fail, with David Price on the disabled list and Alex Cobb missing Friday’s start with a cut on his finger. Alex Colome, kind of a favorite of mine among Bulls pitchers, pitched in Cobb’s place last night. In his first major-league appearance, he went five and two-thirds innings, allowed only an unearned run—in a jittery first inning in which he walked two batters—struck out seven men, and went home with his first major-league win. Okay, it was against the Miami Marlins, the worst team in baseball (no mean feat with the Houston Astros in the way), but a win is a win. Colome pitched well. He earned it. And he struck out former Bull Justin Ruggiano, too.

Price’s turn in the rotation is tonight. Jake Odorizzi got two chances to hold down Price’s place, but he didn’t pitch well as a Ray. He was sent back down to Durham, and Chris Archer was recalled. Tonight Archer will face the team that drafted him way back in 2006, the Cleveland Indians. (Swingman Jim Paduch starts for the Bulls; meanwhile, Matt Buschmann, who made two starts for the Bulls last summer, returns to Durham from Double-A Montgomery.)

Things are, in other words, getting complicated. The Durham roster, which had remained relatively stable for the first seven or eight weeks of the season, is starting to fray at the pitching end. This is normal; it’s what Triple-A rosters are designed to do. The Rays have won five games in a row, one of them by replacing an injured pitcher (if a cut finger can really be counted as an “injury”) with a healthy one down the forearm of the system. As I stood talking to a pair of pitchers with surgically-replaced elbow ligaments, and thought of the number of other Bulls in the locker room with repair scars (e.g. Brandon Guyer, Vince Belnome—shoulders), it dawned on me that the entire Bulls team is, essentially, a bunch of replacement ligaments, indeed part of a whole minor-league body which flexes with major-league needs. Parts will break down up in the main joints. You need to be able to cut into a thicker tendon and reinforce.

Over the course of the season, the Bulls will show signs of wear. They’ll lose their best players, sometimes for the rest of the summer, and the team will slump. They’re not going to play .630 baseball for the remaining ninety games. Fifty, sixty players will wear the uniform, adding scar tissue to the overused and re-patched roster. It’s the job of Charlie Montoyo and his staff to provide the ligature that keeps the bones tied together. Last night, when the pitching was thin, it was perfect that the Bulls’ regular pitching coach, Neil Allen, wasn’t with the team. Rays pitching guru Dick Bosman worked in his place, a tough and sinewy old tendon of wisdom with a surprisingly tender touch. Watch the gentle he way he cups an arm around a pitcher when he visits the mound. Watch his avuncular amble. It’s not just that replacements can work. They can add new strengths and qualities, too.

Pitchers and patches. The team gets richer by its replacements. I’ll never forget Kyle Holloway, a wide-eyed twenty-two-year-old called up from low-A Princeton, W. Va. near the end of 2010, to provide emergency catching help to a decimated Bulls team. He hit a big double for the Bulls in late August. I’ll never forget Henry Mateo, the little-engine-that-could infielder brought in from the wilds of the independent leagues in 2009; he hit .300 for much of the season, played all over the field, and helped chug the Bulls through to the playoffs. I’ll never forget Paul Phillips, the right-handed pitcher who came up from Double-A two Augusts in a row and won desperate, do-or-die playoff games for the Bulls; in his third attempt at Triple-A, in the relative calm of April 2011, he was shelled for ten runs in a single inning, sent back to Montgomery, and never seen again. I’ll never forget forty-one-year-old Brian Shouse taking the brunt of Governors Cup abuse at the hands of the merciless Columbus Clippers, who overwhelmed the deck with hits and runs. Shouse was like an old sailor, weathering storm waves at sea and trying to keep the ship from sinking after all the other mates had been thrown overboard. The ship went down anyway, but things with scars on them have more character, and they tell better stories.

***

The Bulls host the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (what is it with these MinorLeague CompoundNickNames?) for four games starting tonight. There are those of you who will want to be there because the RailRiders are the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees (Mystique and Aura, don’tcha know; that’s a big diaspora you’ve got there); and then there are those of you who will be there to see a legendary part of the Durham Bulls’ diaspora: Dan Johnson, who is Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s regular first baseman.

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