How Strange the Change: Durham Bulls Outslug Indianapolis Indians
Photo by Elizabeth Matheson.
Triple-A is right below the majors, of course. There are some games here that seem no different from big-league games, in terms of quality of play. I’m thinking of games like this one, a memorable pitchers’ duel between major-league bound talents Mike and Minor and Matt Moore, from 2011. Back in 2010, when Dan Johnson was having his way with the entire International League on the way to winning its MVP Award, every time he stepped to the plate he brought the game to a major-league level. Most Triple-A ballplayers have been to the majors; some have spent years there. It’s no surprise that they often bring elite performance to the Triple-A diamond.
But then there are games that remind us that these are still the minors. That’s what last night’s was. The Bulls rallied from five runs behind in the fifth inning, scoring eight runs off of two Indianapolis relievers, and then went on to win, 10-7. The Bulls have scored ten or more runs in an astonishing twelve games this season, and it isn’t half over yet. Last year, the Bulls reached double digits in twelve games as well, but it took the entire season for them to do it. This is the league’s most dangerous team at the plate. They’re tops in batting average, on-base percentage, hits, runs scored, and triples; and they’re second in doubles and stolen bases. That they happen to be dead-last in home runs will eventually catch up with them if they don’t start hitting more of them, but so far they haven’t needed the long-ball. That’s because they’re selective hitters who are content to get a good pitch to hit and drive it on a line somewhere (Wil Myers graciously excepted). It’s about as simple as that.
They needed to be good hitters last night, because the usual plot-stirring up in Tampa Bay made for a bizarre Durham pitching ledger that might have had something to do with the meltdown of Mike Montgomery, the Bulls’ “second starter,” I guess you’d call him. Alex Colome actually started the game, on just three days’ rest, with Montgomery, who was on six days’ rest, relieving him after a scheduled forty-five pitches.
Why? The Tampa Bay Rays have a doubleheader scheduled against Boston on Tuesday. Recently instituted major-league rules allow teams to add an extra player to the roster for just that one doubleheader day, in order to ease the strain on personnel management. It’s evident that Colome will probably be called up to start on Tuesday, and the Rays want him on a “regular” throwing schedule; so they had him get some reps in last night in order to put him in the proper groove to do it again, LP-style, in five days.
Colome pitched well enough save for one absolutely awesome mistake. In the top of the third inning, Colome left a 1-2 fastball belt-high and Tony Sanchez belted it high, high over the Blue Monster in left field, into the third balcony of the big office building that looms over the ballpark. A stunner. This space-blast rivaled the one Wil Myers hit a couple weeks ago, which hit off the fourth balcony, just above Sanchez’s.
That was the first run of the game. The Bulls, though, scored twice in the bottom of the inning off of big-league rehabber Jeanmar Gomez, although Gomez is not quite the celebrity that, say, Josh Johnson was when he made a rehab start for Buffalo at the DBAP during the last home stand. He’s a fringe major-league starter who happens to have crossed the fringe so far this season but is also recovering from an injury (forearm strain), and found himself pitching against the Bulls for the third straight season. (He’s been generally very good against them.)
Neither of the runs the Bulls scored off Gomez owed much to their own doing. Brandon Guyer hit an infield single, Tim Beckham reached on an error by Indianapolis third baseman Jared Goedert, and the two then double-stole, putting runners on second and third with no one out. After Vince Belnome struck out, we saw the kind of damage a major-league caliber hitter can do without actually hitting. Wil Myers came up to bat. The first pitch he saw was a good one to hit, but Myers fouled it back, annoyed with himself. Then he looked at strike two. Gomez, surely aware of Myers’ prodigious power, tried to strike him out with a pair of sliders outside and in the dirt. The problem was that Myers didn’t bite and, worse, both pitches bounced to the backstop. The two wild pitches scored Guyer and Beckham in sequence. The sheer potential threat Myers posed was enough to score two runs.
There was surely something ironic in what happened next, although it’s hard to say exactly what: Myers smoked a line drive down the third-base line, but Goedert caught it for the second out. Had Guyer still been on third base, he might very well have been doubled off to end the inning.
Things got uglier from there, following the wild pitches and the error. The Bulls stranded six baserunners through the first four innings, going 0-7 with runners in scoring position. Meanwhile, Mike Montgomery came on to relieve Colome and made a mess. He started the third inning by making a bad throw on a little chopper between the plate and the mound, and was charged with an error that allowed Felix Pie to reach.
All seemed quiet when Bulls catcher Jesus Flores threw out Pie trying to steal (I never throw out pie, personally, even when it tries to steal; I just freeze it for later), and then Matt Hague was called out on strikes. But… but what? What afflicted Montgomery at the moment, some bug from which he never recovered? Montgomery walked the next three batters, reaching two strikes on none of them. It’s always fascinating to me when pitchers suddenly lose control like this. Montgomery has not been a great thrower of strikes so far in his career, with a walk rate of about four per nine innings. But walking the bases loaded with two outs, when you should be relaxed after erasing a leadoff baserunner, is bizarre. You start to wonder about a guy.
Tony Sanchez, who had hit that monster homer, then got a first-pitch fastball out over the plate and walloped another, this time for a two-run double off the Blue Monster. Montgomery struck out Jerry Sands to end the inning, but in the fifth, he melted down. As in the fourth, the leadoff man reached on an error, this one by Vince Belnome at first base (where he seldom plays). Josh Harrison flied out to deep center field, and then Montgomery hit Pie with a curve ball that never curved. After another fly out, a triple, a walk, and a double scored four runs. Insult to injury: Sanchez followed with another hard hit, a grounder right up the middle that smacked Montgomery in the foot. It happened to carom right to Cole Figueroa at third base, and Figueroa threw out Sanchez to end the inning. Montgomery limped off, angry at himself.
All told, Montgomery wound up allowing six runs in three and one-third innings. Only two were earned because of the Belnome error, but this was a dreadful performance. He allowed numerous hard-hit balls, walked four batters, and needed seventy-four pitches, only thirty-six of them strikes. He looked discomposed on the mound, was visibly angry with himself in the dugout, and elicited words like “confidence” and “mental” as commentary. When we talk about the strange change from major to minor, we’re talking mostly about neurons and neuroses. Thought leads to action.
Montgomery turns twenty-four in about two weeks. He is the youngest pitcher on the Bulls’ staff. He was the top pitching prospect in the Kansas City Royals’ system as recently as 2011, but fell off so badly that the Royals threw him into the Wil Myers deal last December, having given up on him despite his youth. Pitchers have got to learn to control their emotions and their mindsets on the mound. Montgomery was squeezed by the home plate umpire on some close pitches while he was walking the bases loaded in the fourth last night. Slightly annoyed and needing to throw a strike, he threw a too-fat one, and was punished. This is all mental.
But it was nothing compared to what happened to Indians reliever Graham Godfrey in the bottom of the fifth: Single, fly out, walk, single, double, single, single. That scored three runs to pull the Bulls to within two runs, 7-5. My man Godfrey was relieved by Zack Thornton, who unfortunately kept with Godfrey’s theme: hit batter, double, strikeout, single, single. All in all, eight runs scored in the inning. The Bulls led, 10-7, and that’s how it ended four innings later.
The start of the game had been delayed about forty minutes by rain, and it was already pretty late by the top of the sixth, around 10:00 p.m.; certainly all those walks and pitching changes did nothing to move the action along, and there was not a 1-2-3 inning recorded by either team until the top of the eighth, when Jeff Beliveau finally broke the spell. From the Bulls’ big fifth inning on out to the end of the game, both teams looked like they were mostly just going through the motions. Even though Indianapolis trailed by only three runs, they played as if they were well out of it.
The Bulls are to be commended for playing so well under the busted circumstances of their starting rotation. From day to day, it seems you never quite know who is going to start. Tonight’s starter is making his Triple-A debut: Merrill Kelly was just called up from Double-A Mongtomery. The 2010 eighth-round draftee has unexciting but decent numbers. He’s an Arizona State product, a little older than Mike Montgomery. Kelly is in fact almost exactly the same age as Chris Archer (they were born weeks apart in 1988), yet Archer seems to have been around forever, now in his eighth pro season while Kelly is in just his fourth. Archer had a fraught, high-emotion start against Boston two nights ago, and he, like Montgomery, is still looking for that mental mastery that marks the difference between the majors and the minors. It will be interesting to see what sort of composure Kelly, unlike Archer and Montgomery a college product, brings to the mound with him tonight.