How many Durham Bulls does it take to change a light bulb?

light in a summer sky

Photo by Frank Hunter.

The scoreboard light that indicates ball three was out last night, so the home plate umpire regularly displayed the count with his fingers for the players to see. Apparently the Bulls’ Utility Maintenance Squad were deployed mid-game to address the problem, but it turned out to be something more than a simple burned-out bulb. So, no ball threes ever appeared: kind of an appropriate Monday mishap.

Appropriate for the Bulls last night, too. The team faced a soft-tossing lefty for the second straight game, and for the second straight game they made that soft-tossing lefty look like Steve Carlton. On Sunday night, it was Gwinnett’s Yohan Flande, making his seventeenth appearance against Durham over three Triple-A seasons. On Monday, it was Rochester’s Pat Dean, a twenty-four-year-old out of Boston College who was making his Triple-A debut.

Nothing against either of these pitchers, who worked good changeups. Flande added an effective slider, Dean a decent two-seam fastball. But when you see something close to the same modest thing two nights in a row, no matter whether you’re seeing the guy delivering it for seventeenth time or the first, and you manage a total of one run on five hits against it in fifteen innings, they’re not lights out, you are.

Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo has certain predictable habits. After the vast majority of ballgames, when we go downstairs to talk to him, set our voice recorders on his desk, he opens with a few introductory words about the game. But when he’s frustrated, especially by repetitions of the same problem (usually: losing), a game will soon come after which he will say, challengingly, rather than anything prefatory of the game itself: “You ask.”

Last night, he didn’t even waste those two words.

“Shoot,” he said.

The obvious question was then asked of him: two lightweight lefties, two nights, one run, what gives?

“We’re just not swinging the bats good enough right now,” he replied, flatly, although he was quick to remind us (and, it seemed, himself a little bit) that his team scored eleven runs against Gwinnett just three nights ago. The apparent outage (or outrage) hasn’t been going on as long as it might seem.

Or has it? The Bulls scored those eleven runs on Saturday, but over the last couple of weeks they haven’t scored much otherwise: four runs or fewer in eleven of their last fourteen games. That’s why Saturday’s outburst suddenly seems so distant: it’s an outlying exception, not the rule. We are seeing, finally, the market correction that was long overdue a team that hits for virtually no power and has a production imbalance between its right-handed and left-handed hitters.

It was the latest bulb-break, Brandon Guyer’s finger injury, that really did it. For one thing, it was the third serious injury to a fleet, bat-savvy Bull this season, following those suffered by Hak-Ju Lee and Rich Thompson. (How many broken bulbs can one room withstand before it’s too dark, and too littered with broken glass, to inhabit?) Second, Guyer’s injury not only deprived the Bulls of a right-handed bat: it took the Bulls’ best right-handed bat out of the lineup. Of the team’s five remaining right-handed hitters, none has an OPS (the most user-friendly total-production stat) above Tim Beckham’s .754 — about .800 is the minimum threshold of quality. The Bulls’ team OPS, which leads the league, is .752. That’s a decent mark, but it isn’t great — it’s almost exactly the median among the league’s seventy-five full-season players this season — and it means that none of the Bulls’ active right-handers are really any better than average, although Beckham is having a good year by the measure of more advanced statistical metrics.

The bigger problem is that three of the five right-handers are having miserable years, and wouldn’t you know it, it was those three who came up to bat, right in a row, in the bottom of the ninth inning last night, with the game on the line. The Bulls had gone into the inning trailing 4-0. The game seemed long over, but Cole Figueroa drew a leadoff walk, and Beckham chopped a single to right field.

That chased hard-throwing (right-handed) reliever Michael Tonkin (for a nickname, choose “Gulf of” or “Honky” depending on your needs and/or politics). In came another lefty, not a bad idea by Red Wings manager Gene Glynn, who happens to have been a scout for the Bulls’ parent club, the Tampa Bay Rays, from 2007-11, and is thus armed with a little more foreknowledge than the average visiting skipper.

But that lefty, Edgar Ibarra, allowed a pair of singles, both hit by left-handers, around a forceout. A run was in, the bases were loaded, and Shelley Duncan stepped to the plate as the potential winning (!) run. So Glynn went back to the other side, calling on right-hander Shairon Martis.

Nice bit of narrative re-convergence, this. Martis was part of the Washington Nationals’ opening day starting rotation back in 2009, when he was just twenty-two. After half a season in the majors, he had an ugly 5.25 ERA (much worse over his last eight starts) and had racked up more walks than strikeouts. He was sent down to Triple-A, where he started against the Bulls almost exactly four years ago, in one of the wildest games I’ve ever seen at the DBAP.

The guy who essentially replaced Martis in the Nationals’ rotation had virtually the same last name, differing only by the last letter. His name was J. D. Martin.

Sometimes it seems as if there is no narrative more satisfying than the ancient and often repeated one in which people come close together for an extraordinary period and then diverge, or are torn apart, forever: intimacies, partnerships, forces almost join, even do for a while, but are then disparted by failure or fate or betrayal. We find them later in their distant lives, alienated from one another and perhaps also from the futures we thought they might inhabit. There is some unshakable tragic weight in this narrative.

J. D. Martin, as you probably know, not only pitches for the Bulls now; he is moreover the class of the International League’s starting pitchers this season, and he goes for his league-leading, Bulls-record-breaking, fifteenth win of the year tonight. Martis, meanwhile, became a free agent, signed with Pittsburgh, spent a year on their Double-A team, then bounced to the Twins, and this year has been converted to a reliever.

The numbers remain unconvincing, and unconvincing in the same way: too many walks for the few strikeouts he manages. Yet last night he was used in the right way against the right(-handed) hitters. With the bases loaded, Shelley Duncan hit a little tapper wide of first base. An easy play, except that Martis, covering first, caught the toss from first baseman Chris Parmalee but missed the bag with his foot. Duncan was safe, Beckham scored, and it was 4-2; still only one out, the bases reloaded.

But the season’s overall narrative has gone on long enough — long enough for lights to finally fail on the scoreboard — that we now know what’s likely to happen from at-bat to at-bat. The story is deep into itself, and we in it, absorbed in its pages as if able to foresee what they will contain, that sense of prescience and imminence that keeps us reading.

As Montoyo himself has said in the past, if you’re hitting .200 in August, you’re having a bad year, and it’s too late to do much to salvage it. Chris Gimenez was batting .263 on May 17 when he felt something pop in his hand while taking a swing — in a game up in Rochester, as it happens. He missed a month with a ligament-sheath injury, and since returning he has simply not been himself. He struck out against Martis, chasing a high fastball on a full count, bottoming out his batting average to a season-low .224. Gimenez’s injury may not have actually ended his season, as it did Hak-Ju Lee’s and Rich Thompson’s (and possibly Brandon Guyer’s), but in terms of production, it might as well have. A very dim bulb is just about as bad as a broken one.

Another long narrative: With two outs, Jesus Flores was the Bulls’ last chance. Earlier this season, Flores replaced catcher Juan Apodaca, who was acquired in April and then released in July. Apodaca himself replaced catchers Stephen Vogt and Robinson Chirinos, who were designated for assignment on the same day just before the season began (March 31) and were both claimed by and lost to other teams. The only holdover at catcher was Chris Gimenez himself, who hasn’t been able to stick in the majors and now must play right field because Guyer and Thompson are out.

Apodaca, Vogt, Chirinos, and Gimenez were really just the most recent four in a long parade of catchers the Rays have tried in Triple-A over the last few seasons. None has worked out, and the Rays finally went out and got free-agent veteran Jose Molina last year. (His backup in Tampa Bay is former Bull Jose Lobaton, who is finally showing signs of, well, the light bulb coming on in his head.) Meanwhile, Flores is the latest catcher contestant in Durham, and he happens to have spent most of his prior career, like Shairon Martis, in the Washington Nationals organization.

So Martis was probably quite familiar with his foe, and Flores was batting just .190 coming into last night’s game, the third straight right-hander Martis faced who was having a bad year: long narratives, dependable narratives, with predictable results. Flores put a decent swing on the second pitch Martis threw him, but his medium-hot grounder went right to third baseman Deibinson [sic] Romero, who was playing near the line to guard against a double. Romero fielded it and skipped two or three steps to third base, where he forced out Leslie Anderson to end the game.

Character is what you are in the dark. That’s a famous quote from the frivolous movie masterpiece The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (which is coming to the Carolina Theatre in September, don’t miss it!). No, actually, it appears that the line really comes from from an earlier source, a nineteenth-century evangelist named D. L. Moody, but I prefer my 1984 cinema reiteration. (Buckaroo Banzai also gave us — I swear, it did — “No matter where you go, there you are.”) When the lights go out, the truth is illuminated. As the Bulls lope inexorably toward the playoffs, they have about a month left to assess and shore up their true character.

Charlie Montoyo’s ominous August condemnation about having a bad season notwithstanding, it’s really not too late for those having bad years to end them brightly. The kicker, though, at least tonight, is that the Bulls face, of course, another soft-tossing lefty. His name is Scott (“Shine Bright Like A”) Diamond: the adamant, light-reflecting gem that stands between soft-tossing righty J. D. Martin and his record-breaking fifteenth win.

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