Personal Histories: Pawtucket Red Sox beat Durham Bulls in game one of Governors’ Cup championship series

bull rear

Photo by Frank Hunter.

After last night’s game, in which Pawtucket beat Durham, 2-1, to take the first game of the Governors’ Cup championship series, strong personal histories were in both clubhouses. On the home team side was Brandon Guyer, who was hit by two pitches last night. He missed about a month in July and August when he was hit by a pitch. He was hit fourteen times this season, second most in the league. In 2011, his last full season in Durham, he was hit the third most times in the league.

It’s not because he crowds the plate or dives into pitches. He actually stands a ways off the plate, as he himself told me after the game. He said that he gets hit because pitchers “try to bust me inside.” Until Guyer proves he can hit that inside pitch, gets over his history, they’ll keep throwing it, and he’ll keep getting hit.

Guyer made the last out of last night’s game. He had just missed winning it when he rocketed an inside pitch foul down the left field line, but he was out in front; he wound up flying out to right field. It often seems like Guyer, a former football player, is out in front of everything he does. He plays a football-style game: wound up, champing at the bit, spring-loaded. He hit a home run on the first pitch he ever saw in the major leagues. That’s Guyer in a nutshell. So is this game, from 2011; “I was too aggressive,” he acknowledged in the clubhouse, “still sweating,” I observed, “twenty minutes after his last swing ended it” with a strikeout.

Guyer also has a tendency to get hurt, a lot, and at the worst times. His back has been bothering him. He had to miss the first-round series against Indianapolis, just when he had recovered from the finger injury he sustained when he was hit by a pitch on July 25.

“He’s not gonna change,” Guyer’s manager Charlie Montoyo said. But he wasn’t talking about Guyer. He could have been, but Montoyo was talking about Leslie Anderson.

“He’s not gonna change,” Montoyo said, of Anderson. “It’s September tenth. He’s hitting .150 against lefties.”

That was Montoyo explaining why he pinch hit Evan Frey for Leslie Anderson in the eighth inning of last night’s game, with the Bulls trailing by a run. The situation: the Bulls had two men on and no outs, and the Pawsox’ left-handed reliever Alex Wilson was on the mound. Over the last decade or so, sacrifice bunting has come under major fire as a bad practice, but there are times when it makes sense. One of them is when it’s late in the game and you need a run, badly, and you have a chance to put runners at second and third with one out.

Ideally, you would be able to dispense with this tactical thinking, and the anxiety it creates, and feel confident in Anderson, who was named team MVP a couple of weeks ago and led the Bulls in  home runs, total bases and runs batted in. But you don’t feel confident in Anderson, because Anderson has been on a three-year Triple-A decline when it comes to hitting left-handers. He batted .276 against them with a .705 OPS in 2011. In 2012, it was .260 and .624. And in 2013, Anderson cratered, hitting .173 and .554 against same-siders. He drew a disproportionate number of his walks against them, an indication in this case that Anderson, a non-walking hacker throughout his career, was hoping to reach base without having to swing the bat against southpaws.

Montoyo has basically given up on Anderson’s ability to hit left-handers. Charlie Montoyo does give up on people. Managers have to do that in order to do their jobs. Eventually, your history catches up with you. It’s September tenth. Anderson was not going to hit a lefty now; he hasn’t done it all year. And even though he made a regular habit of showing bunt on the first pitch of some at-bats early this season, it never seemed like he actually intended to bunt; it was just a decoy. This, too, had historical precedent, an even longer one than Anderson’s struggles against left-handers. He did not lay down a sacrifice bunt in 2013. Or 2012. Or 2011. He has done it once in his American career, way back on September 2, 2010 (amazingly, noted in my game story, as about the ninth-most important thing that night). As Montoyo said, “that’s not his job. It’s Frey’s job to do it.”

We know it’s Frey’s job. It’s in the annals, a historical fact, a longstanding item. We find it in this old interview with him, from January 2012:

Interviewer: We saw you getting to the park early seemingly every day to work on bunting with manager Brett Butler. How did that extra work improve your game?

 

Frey: Bugsy is a great asset for me for the fact that we are very similar players. I went into a funk there for a little while with bunting and after we got out there and started working on some things I became very comfortable. It is at the point now where I look to bunt every time I step to the plate, looking to get on that way to have the big guys behind me drive me in and get some quick runs.

Yet there was no doubt in my mind, or in anyone’s mind in the press box, that Frey would fail to get the bunt down. Frey has been the least important contributor to the Bulls since the Rays acquired him at the end of June to fill an outfield roster hole in Triple-A. The history he’s been carrying with him as a Bull is really one of insignificance. He may have worked on his bunting, but he seldom got to do it this summer, and the stakes here were extremely high: the fate of the game had basically been laid on a little-used reserve’s shoulders, or anyway his squared-up bat. “The most difficult thing is always asked of one right away,” James Salter writes, citing Rilke.

Frey took a ball, then took a strike (on a very well-located pitch by Wilson, almost un-buntable), then very nearly bunted his way on with a hit: his attempt down the third-base line spun foul at the last second, as he crossed first base.

Montoyo has always struck me as a stubborn manager, which can be admirable or self-defeating, depending on the circumstance (and the outcome, which is of course not in his control). He makes his choices, sticks by them, and repeats them until proven wrong. He does not like to adjust on the fly. He is not a tinkerer, a surpriser, or a maverick. Montoyo is a by-the-book, keep-the-faith manager, even when keeping the faith results in loss for himself or punishment of a player. In this case, he ordered Frey to continue to try bunt with two strikes, which Montoyo has done before. It’s one of the most pressurized circumstances a batter can face, because you’re out not only if you miss the ball, but even if you bunt foul, too. There is no longer any kind of reprieve or mitigation, no buffer between success and failure.

Frey missed. Strike three. One out. Then Pawtucket did what the Bulls could not do all game: they made a big play when they needed it. Mike Fontenot, who had doubled and scored the Bulls’ only run back in the second inning, hit a grounder deep in the second-base hole (his own position, as it happens). Brock Holt ranged way over, made a great pick of the ball, and threw out Fontenot for the second out. The runners advanced, but Kevin Kiermaier fouled out to left field to end the threat.

This history, what you carry around with you, gets both quite dense and quite long come playoff time. The Rays acquired Frey in late June even though they already had outfield speed waiting in Double-A in the form of Kiermaier, and even though their Triple-A roster in Durham included Brandon Guyer and Jason Bourgeois (who was injured at the time; people like Cole Figueroa were playing right field). In a sense, Frey was actually signed in order to replace Kiermaier in Double-A; in fact, he did just that for a little while this season, demoted briefly in late July.

The Rays acquired speed, not power, because speed is what the Rays like to have in the outfield in Triple-A. Don’t forget that Rich Thompson, one of the fastest runners in baseball, began the season here. Don’t forget that the Rays went out and got Frey even though they had just promoted a power-hitting outfielder, Wil Myers, from Triple-A. Still, they went and got more speed. This choice, this move, unimportant as it may have seemed at the time, may have been the Bulls’ post-season undoing, in retrospect.

Here is how. Myers was the Bulls’ only legitimate home run threat. Rather than replace his weapon with a similar one, the Rays replaced it with one they already had: light-hitting speed. The effect was to keep the Bulls from having any power to speak of. Remarkably for a team with the league’s best record, they finished dead last in home runs. They simply didn’t have anyone to hit them.

Well, they did, or should have. Batting cleanup and hitting home runs was supposed to be Shelley Duncan’s job, but he didn’t hit home runs this year. He hit eleven of them, which put him well down in the ranks of non-power hitters. And the less he hit home runs, the less he got to play. The strain of failure has been visible in Duncan’s face, his body language, his profiles written for us by Michael Croley. Duncan’s mother died this season. How much the emotional drain sucked away Duncan’s production is impossible to measure. But history of some sort finally caught up with him: he lost his everyday starting job, and he was not in last night’s lineup.

All of this goes some way toward explaining why he, like Frey before him, seemed certain to fail when he stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning last night. The bases were loaded, there was one out, and the Bulls still trailed by a run. In almost any other circumstance, this would seem like a hopeful situation, even a winning one. There was good speed on the bases. A fly ball to the outfield would score a run. A base hit would win the game; and there was the added motivation for Duncan of the Pawsox having intentionally walked light-hitting Jason Bourgeois to pitch to Duncan.

But he took a slider for a strike, fouled off another slider, walloped a fastball foul (that was the one chance), and then fouled out to third base. Brandon Guyer was up next, but it didn’t matter. He flied out to right field to end the game. I had my Pawtucket wins tweet ready to go after the third pitch of the at-bat, even though the outcome required two more. You know what’s going to happen. Personal history has gotten so strong and so powerful that it is carrying personal future around with it.

This does not mean the Bulls are going to lose the series. Pawtucket is out there playing hard, too, and they made all the plays last night. The Bulls brought in a lefty to face lefties, Jeff Beliveau, and both lefties found ways to get hits, scoring the Pawsox’ two runs. The second of these lefties was Brock Holt, who made superb plays in the field. The pitch he hit from Beliveau was by no means a bad pitch. It was a breaking ball down below the knees, and Holt reached down for it and banged it up the middle. Bulls second baseman Mike Fontenot made a diving try for it, but it bounced off his glove and into shallow center field. The irony was that missing the ball altogether would have been better for Fontenot, because it would have gotten to Kevin Kiermaier sooner. No one runs on Kiermaier anymore; only the tying run would have scored, and everything would have been different.

Even as it was, Durham shortstop Tim Beckham wound up with the ball and an outside shot to throw out the go-ahead run at the plate, but Beckham’s history ruled him, too. He has a habit of not fielding balls cleanly (even when he fields them successfully), and this one slipped from his grasp as Heiker Meneses (hell of a name), the opposing shortstop, raced home. In the ninth inning, Beckham would make an actual error that put reliever Adam Liberatore in a very tight spot, but Liberatore made the pitch he needed to make in order to do his job. It was pretty easy not to notice Liberatore this year, but he was a very consistent setup reliever. His major-league chances are unclear, but he it can’t be denied that he showed progress and durability this season. He earned the right to pitch the ninth inning last night, rewarded by Montoyo’s stubbornness (which sometimes expresses itself in the noble trait of loyalty), and the task of keeping the Bulls close.

That it wound up not mattering is, historically speaking, unimportant. The post-season, in Triple-A, is when a manager has the liberty and even the charge to take the season’s worth of evidence at his disposal and mete out reward and punishment as he sees fit. At least, that’s how Montoyo approaches it. Enough with development and process; results rule. Montoyo rearranged the starting rotation for the championship series in order to ensure that Matt Buschmann will get to start a playoff game (the third one, which will be an elimination game if the Bulls lose tonight); he did not extend that courtesy to Mike Montgomery, who stands a good chance of not pitching at all, because Montgomery had the worst season among the Bulls’ five starters. Montoyo spent much of the season reshuffling his lineup every day; yet the top four hitters in the playoff lineups have remained the same. It’s set in stone now.

That may be less a vote of confidence than a concession. “I’m not going to say we’re going to hit anymore,” Montoyo said, laughing ruefully. “I’ve been saying that since the All-Star break.”

“But maybe tomorrow.”

He couldn’t resist.

***

That other piece of personal history in the clubhouse last night? (No, I didn’t forget.) Over on Pawtucket’s side, I chatted for a while with Pawsox catcher Dan Butler, while Butler was scarfing down sushi. (That luxe spread was compliments, I imagine, of rehabbing lefty reliever Alex Wilson — or maybe that’s just how the Pawsox roll. What’s on a Pawsox Roll? Quahog? I’m going to Providence tomorrow, don’t mess with me, I used to live there, coffee milk.)

We were first talking with Brock Holt, the undisputed star of the game, and another reporter was asking him about his diving play to rob Fontenot of a game-tying hit. “That’s routine for him,” Butler interrupted, smiling. Personal history: routine. Making that play is what Holt does.

It got more pointed. I asked Butler, who turned out to be a totally cool guy, as most catchers are, about the difficulties of catching not one but two knuckleballers in the Pawtucket starting rotation — nearly unrepeated in baseball history. (The Niekro brothers did it last, I would think, in 1985.) Butler was philosophical about it. “You know you’re going to drop some of them” he said, adding that the knuckleball pitchers in question, Steven Wright and Charlie Haeger, also know that, and don’t sweat it too much.

This easygoing way of looking at it was emblematic of the whole spirit of the Pawsox, which is loose yet charged. They could be heard chanting and cheering in their clubhouse, right after the game, as we passed by on our way to the Bulls’ den. They are the liveliest, most tenacious opponent to come to Durham this season. (Don’t forget the destruction they worked here in July.) Their spirit is in great contrast to that of the Bulls, who are overall a rather taciturn, tight bunch. I was reminded of that while interviewing Jake Odorizzi after last night’s game (he pitched superbly), who works so hard to give off the impression of articulate, self-controlled poise and smooth, calm diction that he invariably trips over a word while he talks and has to correct himself. You can hear the cracks in his verbal armor.

Butler, on the other side of the spectrum, was like a guy hanging out in his man cave, totally at home. I asked him whether he used a different mitt to catch knuckleball pitchers, as pretty much all catchers do. He got up and walked me over to the two knuckler gloves he uses. They’re bigger, deeper, and have less padding. The thing about these mitts was that they weren’t his. They belong to Wright and Haeger, the pitchers who throw the knuckleball that Butler catches. This is personal history at its baseball best: it’s not the catcher who owns the mitt; it’s the pitchers who throw it. They have to carry the means to catch it around with them everywhere they go, forever. Saddled.

I probably don’t have to tell you that tonight is the last home Durham Bulls game of 2013. Or to add anything more to that improbably startling fact.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *