Durham Bulls win in ninth: Walk off

fans hugging

Photo by Ivan Weiss.

A little standard reportage of the morning-paper type:

    Chris Gimenez hit a two-out, three-run homer in the ninth inning last night to break a tie and give the Bulls a 5-2 win over the Charlotte Knights. The Bulls went into the inning trailing 2-1, having scored their lone run on (yet another) Charlotte error. But Leslie Anderson hit a one-out single against Taylor Thompson (1-1), and Shelley Duncan followed with the inning’s key hit when he lined a double into the left-field corner, moving Anderson to third.

    After Mike Fontenot was hit by a pitch (although replays seemed to indicate that it did not actually hit him), loading the bases, Kevin Kiermaier tied the game with a sacrifice fly to center field. That set up Gimenez’s game-ending heroics. He blasted Thompson’s 1-1 pitch far over the Blue Monster for just his second home run of the season. The win, coupled with Norfolk’s loss to Rochester, reduced the Bulls’ magic number to ten games with twenty-one left to play.

The last time I wrote a game story like that, I was fourteen. It was published in the Raleigh News and Observer. I suspect you could look it up, on microfilm, but the story will just be credited to “Wire Reports.” It was me, though. I called it in, collect, from a pay phone in Salem, Virginia. I don’t think there are still pay phones, or collect calls. The parenthetical aside about the dubiety of Fontenot’s hit-by-pitch would have been cut.

It’s officially the trudge-to-your-position portion of the Triple-A season. I don’t think it’s possible for people like you and me — that is, people with time to read (and write) essays about minor-league baseball — to appreciate what it’s like for the players. The amount of work they do, without a break, is almost unthinkable for the rest of us. The Bulls, like most of the International League, had a stretch of thirty-two straight game-days from mid-June to mid-July, a three-day All-Star break, and then another unbroken run of twenty-five more ballgames in as many days.

It’s probably wrong to call it a “run,” though. By now, the season has reached its inevitable August crawl. The players look tired, beat up, slightly dazed. They have big ice packs on their joints after the games. They’ve lost weight, or gained it. The ones having bad years have arrived at that point of resignation and disengagement; the ones who are hurt find the opportunity to come back slipping away; the ones having good years are probably wondering something like, “What’s the point of doing this so well if I just have to keep doing in Triple-A?” All but the most outrageously confident ballplayers, and highest draft picks with the biggest bonuses, probably carry with them at least some awareness that the high times, and the concomitant prospect status those high times impart, don’t last forever. What if Kirby Yates, who is having the year of his life but is stuck in Triple-A, can’t repeat it next year? Or Vince Belnome, who has a shot at the International League batting title but of whom so little was thought going into 2013 that he doesn’t even appear in the Bulls’ Media Guide?

Now, now, now: now is so important in sports. “It’s not always gonna be like this,” Justin Ruggiano told reporters a couple of Aprils ago, when he was on a tear that finally got him a callup to the majors. That callup put him on just enough radars that he wound up on the Marlins’ major-league roster in 2012, and had the best season he’ll ever have. It was enough to keep him in the big leagues this season, despite a .194 batting average, and it will probably keep him there next year, too, making half a million dollars while Vince Belnome and Kirby Yates make something like a fifth of that, combined, if they’re lucky.

So it’s hard to stay focused, energetic and upbeat through to the end of the Triple-A season. The pulse of it lags, the energy sags, the pace drags. Most players and teams are walking off the final laps, not sprinting. For every team in the International League that makes the playoffs (more on that in a minute), there are two or three that don’t. There is nothing much left to play for, other than the rest that comes after Labor Day: the appropriate holiday, symbolically, on which to end the Triple-A season.

The term “walk-off,” which has been around for something like twenty-five years, has a celebratory ring to it, but in its original connotation it was not so cheery. It meant that the pitcher who allowed the game-losing hit (or walk, hit batsman, etc.) in the bottom of the ninth (or extra) inning had to walk off the field in dejection, as Charlotte’s Taylor Thompson did Sunday night. “Walk-off” has only latterly come to mean a strut-it-to-the-dugout thing for the victors. Its initial meaning is more in the spirit of August in Triple-A: that slow retreat off the field and into autumn. No time of year is sadder than late August.

The Bulls were limping toward another glum loss last night, seemingly incapable of scoring runs these days without the other team walking batters or making errors. J. D. Martin should have had his team-record-breaking fifteenth win, but his own error — partly blamable on the rain, which caused him to slip as he fielded a comebacker — led to a run, which increased his pitch count, which in turn drove him from the game in the seventh inning with two men on and two outs. Jeff Beliveau came in and promptly gave up a first-pitch single to Charlotte’s ninth-place hitter, Adam Heisler, giving the Knights a 2-1 lead.

Then the ninth: single, double, hit batter, sacrifice fly, three-run homer. Gimenez’s game-winning bomb was one of few bright moments in a cloudy season for him. Yes, he has been hitting the ball better lately, but that has not boosted his average much above the season-low .224 he was hitting a week ago. He’s now hitting .225. Yet his mood in the Bulls’ clubhouse was high, as was that of J. D. Martin, who saw the win he deserved go to Steve Geltz (who threw a perfect ninth inning in relief of Beliveau). They said all kinds of fun things — these are the Bulls’ two best interviewees — but the common line was the most surprising, and the most enlivening: they both said that they were looking forward to the playoffs.

Well, of course they are, right? Aren’t all athletes trying to make it to the playoffs? Not necessarily. The 2011 Bulls, who bear a resemblance to this year’s team in some ways, also built a big mid-season division lead and then walked it off into the playoffs, struggling to score runs. By late August, it was pretty clear that a lot of players on that team weren’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of playing more games in September. It showed: they got swept in the first round, scoring only five runs in three games against Columbus. The losing pitchers, in sequence, were Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and Alex Torres, all three now Tampa Bay Rays.

This team is different. J. D. Martin said he and the whole team are looking forward to the playoffs. Chris Gimenez said it. We didn’t even ask them about the playoffs; they both just brought it up. Why are they excited about it, I asked them, noting that plenty of Triple-A squads don’t share that enthusiasm. Because we’ve been so good all year, both Martin and Gimenez responded. The Bulls want to complete this dominance. They want the reward of having played so well, for so long. Martin used the old line about if-you’re-going-to-be-in-the-minors-you-might-as-well-win, which I’ve been hearing ever since I started covering the team in 2009 and Bulls catcher John Jaso delivered it.

These Bulls like each other; that’s the other reason they’re happy to think of still playing together into mid-September. Shelley Duncan came over to Chris Gimenez in the clubhouse and told him (generously, genuinely, respectfully, appreciatively) that he was jealous of Gimenez’s home run. And yet, without that key double by Duncan, who has also had a tough year, the inning probably would have ended before Gimenez even got a chance to hit.

This little moment between Duncan and Gimenez, two struggling Triple-A veterans sharing a good moment together, spoke volumes about the team’s camaraderie. This is fun for them. They walked off into an off day today, one they sorely (pun intended) needed, and they’re hanging out with their wives and kids by the pool in the apartment complex where most of the players live. For what seemed like weeks and weeks on end, the Bulls’ magic number to clinch the division (long a foregone but distant conclusion) hovered in the mid-teens: attainable, and even inevitable, but not really close. Now that it’s down to ten games — ten paces the Bulls can walk off, or even hopscotch if they’ve got enough bounce left in their step — it’s starting to feel like it’s really at hand. Now, now, now: now is so important.

The Bulls play their next seven games on the road and could very well come back division champs. It would be the sixth year in the last seven that they could boast of that. Don’t take it for granted. It looks easy, but it’s a very long walk.

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