From Buffalo to Allentown: Durham Bulls beat Lehigh Valley IronPigs
You wouldn’t mistake the Lehigh Valley experience for the Buffalo experience. Among the latter’s nicknames is “The City of No Illusions,” but I found Buffalo quite the little dream—not least because I (and the Durham Bulls) stayed right downtown: that old urban magic. My room looked out on the historic, beautiful Buffalo Savings Bank building, its dome as golden as any Buddhist monument. You walked right down Main Street to the ballpark. On the way, you passed the old Lafayette Hotel, now a great place to get a drink. There’s a great old bookshop just three blocks from the hotel, the hundred-year-old Century Grill right across the street, where you can get beef on weck (that other, less heralded Buffalo culinary specialty). I saw Hamlet for free in the park. The big stately houses, the wide boulevards, the scrappy little art spots managing to survive: if it weren’t six thousand degrees below zero half the year, if there was a way to make a living, you could almost live in Buffalo.
But could you be living here in Allentown? Maybe it’s more correct to say Lehigh Valley, because neither Coca-Cola Park nor the team hotel near it feels like it’s in Allentown proper, which is actually across the river. No, this is the new America: strip malls, chain businesses, cars, homogenization. The ballpark is about a mile from the hotel, but you wouldn’t want to walk to it. There are no sidewalks. I ran there instead, a poor idea, picked up my media pass, kept running over the bridge and into town, which was deeply run down, in that kind of intractable decrepitude that some cities (like Durham, for example) bulldoze rather than attempt to salvage. It was not the best run of my life, to put it equably.
You know that song, I trust? The Billy Joel song? It’s kind of a lame song, and the video is worse (the interpretive dance from 3:03 to 3:24 is especially priceless), but it does seem prophetic in one way. “Allentown” was released in 1982, and at a jogger’s pace through a few miles of the city in 2013, it doesn’t seem to have changed much since then. Something happened on the way to that place, and it never got there. It’s stuck in its history.
But if you have baseball, you’re not dead. That’s what I decided after visiting the ballpark and watching the Bulls quietly beat the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, 3-1. The IronPigs are the top-drawing team in the minors despite playing in a a depressed city of just 119,000 people, although the Lehigh Valley conurbation is much larger and, apparently, the fastest-growing region in the state. Last night’s game drew 8,644 fans, which is about average for an IronPigs’ game. The Bulls, who play in a city twice the size of Allentown, average about 6,500 fans per game.
You could make the argument that there’s nothing else to do around here, and you’d probably be wrong. You’d be better off to look at the atmosphere of Coca-Cola Park itself for answers to the question of how the franchise is pulling in so many fans. The Lehigh Valley IronPigs are the brave new world of the minor-league baseball experience. Their park is virtually brand new. It opened in 2009. It has state of the art sound; a large, clear video board; comfortable seating; and scads of entertainment. From the minute you sit down until the minute you leave, not a moment goes by when you are not being importuned by fun. There is the patter of the PA voice; there are two mascots (the Buffalo Bisons actually have three: so there!); there is the music between every single pitch; there is advanced fun stuff between innings; there was a Bingo game going on throughout the game.
You could even smell, all night long, the sticky-sweet aroma of something sticky-sweet to eat, and you could go and buy whatever was producing the aroma. The open concourse is pleasant and full of food stalls, and up on Club Level, there is am indoor mini food court to keep you busy and sated all night. If your kids can’t have fun here, they need to see a child psychiatrist. If you can’t, maybe you need to see a grownup one.
The game itself is, as you might guess, something of an afterthought to these proceedings, or let’s say the theater backdrop in front of which all this hurlyburly’s done. Last night’s game was the perfect kind for this milieu. The Bulls scored all three of their runs in the third and fourth innings, the IronPigs managed little off of three Durham pitchers, and much of the night shuffled by almost incidentally, allowing the entertainment to take center stage. Lehigh Valley got a run back in the sixth inning and had the bases loaded with two outs; but Adam Liberatore relieved a laboring Merrill Kelly, retired Steve Susdorf to end the inning, and the IronPigs never seriously threatened after that.
Here was another game the Bulls won with pitching. The arms are carrying the team right now. Over their last three games, the Bulls have allowed a total of three runs; stretch it out to a dozen games, and the Bulls have allowed twenty-seven. That’s barely over two runs per game. What’s more, look at the pitchers the Bulls used last night. None of the three, Merrill Kelly, Adam Liberatore, and Kirby Yates, are on the Tampa Bay Rays’ forty-man roster. Kelly was making his third Triple-A appearance. Liberatore pitched for the Bulls for part of last season but wasn’t considered good enough to do so again at the start of 2013. He began the year in Double-A (as he did 2012) and waited for a promotion. Yates was Montgomery’s closer last year, was thrust into duty as the Bulls’ second closer this year, and has converted eight of nine save chances. His ERA is 1.21, and he has struck out fifty-seven batters in thirty-seven innings.
So it isn’t just the prospects we’re referring to when we say that the Rays’ minor-league system has great pitching depth. It isn’t just Chris Archer, Alex Colome, Jake Odorizzi, and Alex Torres, all of whom have helped the big-league squad this year. All started the season in Durham; all but Odorizzi are now in Tampa Bay. I had never heard of Merrill Kelly until he was summoned to Durham a couple of weeks ago. He was an eighth-round draft pick in 2010, which isn’t at all shabby: the Rays’ eighth-round pick in 2007 was Matt Moore. Yet Kelly doesn’t rank on anybody’s top-prospect lists. He was just a guy throwing unnoticed Double-A innings in Montgomery until the Rays had to call up four of the five pitchers in Durham’s starting rotation.
Yet the minute he came to Triple-A, Kelly pitched like he belonged here. He’s calm and intelligent on the mound. He knows what his arsenal is, doesn’t fool himself into thinking he’s a power pitcher, and tries to use exactly what he has. He walks too many hitters, but he knows he walks too many hitters (he talked about that after the game), and he wants to do better at it. He’s a little like Jake Odorizzi in many ways. Perhaps he doesn’t have quite the same raw arsenal, but he’s close, and I won’t be surprised to see him wearing a Rays uniform in 2015.
The emblematic moment of Kelly’s night came in the fourth inning. He had lost some control in that inning, going to three-ball counts on four straight hitters, walking one of them and allowing a broken-bat single to another. (In a way that reminded me of Jeremy Hellickson, last night Kelly seemed adept at inducing weak contact.) With runners at the corners and two outs, the batter was Darin Ruf. Ruf won numerous awards last year, when he hit thirty-eight minor-league homers (eclipsing Wil Myers by one) and adding three more in a late-season big-league cameo.
Yet Ruf is sort of the Russ Canzler of his time, if we can go by minor-league time, which moves through eras very quickly. He, like Canzler, is a former low-round draft pick who had an unexpected breakout season that netted him lots of shiny hardware. But the two sluggers were a bit old to be so ascendant for the first time, and you have to be skeptical of guys like that. There aren’t too many hitters who suddenly become world-beaters in their age-twenty-six season. Sure enough, Ruf has steeply regressed in 2013, with an OPS not much higher than that of Bulls slap-hitter Jason Bourgeois. Ruf is striking out every fourth plate appearance, and his power has all but evaporated.
So he is not the threat he was last year, but he’s still a dangerous cleanup hitter, the kind a Double-A greenhorn is prone to throw the wrong pitch to in the wrong count, and get burned. Kelly ran the count full on Ruf and then did just what I thought he’d do: he threw Ruf a changeup, righty-on-righty (that’s dangerous, and gutsy), and Ruf whiffed for his second strikeout of the game. He’d pop out to shortstop with one out and two on in the sixth, too, and then strike out a third time in the eighth against Yates.
The second tier of Rays pitching prospects is doing much to hold the Bulls together right now. You can add to Kelly and Yates twenty-first-round draftee Adam Liberatore. He threw two very strong, very necessary innings last night, with his fellow relievers recently overused, to build a bridge between Kelly and Yates.
Are they major-league caliber? I have no idea. It’s so hard, sometimes, to predict from this level to the next. I’ve been bearish on many players who have ended up succeeding, and bullish on others who haven’t. For now, there is no getting around the evidence that some pitchers undreamt of in our rostering are a good part of the reason why the Bulls are 49-30, eight games ahead of second-place Norfolk, and on the verge of quieting title to the South Division crown—and it’s still two weeks till the All-Star break.
Some Hamlet things are on their way, maybe even later today. To sleep, perchance to dream of chain restaurants. I could be bounded in a motor court and count myself a king of infinite free breakfasts.