Schemers: Durham Bulls beat Lehigh Valley IronPigs again

Photo by Leah Sobsey.

A little more about Hamlet, and then I’ll stop bugging you.

Hamlet is sometimes called inactive or hesitant, but he’s not, really. From the moment the play starts, he’s just as much of a schemer and an operator as anyone else in the play. It’s just that he has a double awareness that occasionally leads him to question himself, and others. In that, he isn’t unique. King Claudius takes himself to task, too: “Like a man to double business bound, / I stand in pause where I shall first begin, / And both neglect.”

Same with baseball players. They often appear to be doing more or less nothing on the field, but in fact they are busy scheming, just as Hamlet is. This has been brought home to me during the road trip, in a couple of instances.

The other night, I was asking one of the Bulls’ pitchers about a pitch in his arsenal. I was particularly interested in his grip on the ball when he throws the pitch, because there are multiple ways to hold it when throwing it. I asked if he used a certain grip, and at first he said no, he used a different one. Then he caught himself. He changed his answer and agreed that he used the grip I had named.

Triple-A offers the near-major-leaguer a number of opportunities to learn how to handle things the way they handle them up there at the top. Mainly it’s the quality of the competition. Young pitchers have to figure out how to retire that imposing, thirty-four-year-old slugger who will hit mistakes four hundred and fifty feet but has that hole in his swing. They have to deal with those annoying slap hitters who just try to punch everything through the infield and then, if they reach base, steal second. Hitters see countless iterations of the hard-throwing righty whose fastball can be impossible to hit except that he never knows where it’s going. And they also try to master that fireballer’s counterpart, the soft-tossing lefty who will drive you bananas with his mid-eighties fastball, annoying changeup, and assortment of uncategorizable breaking balls.

And so on. Another thing minor-league players have to learn to contend with is the media. Certainly the quantity if not necessarily the quality of the competition (so to speak) increases among the press just like it does among opponents as you scale up the minors. There are more of us in the clubhouse. We ask more and harder questions. We’re on deadlines, some of us, or on tangents about pitch grips or Hamlet, or we want to know how you feel about your mother dying, or whatever. There’s the old curmudgeon who’s been covering the team for twenty-seven years and thinks he’s more important than you. There’s the one who sucks up to you and wants you to be his friend. There’s the one who plies you with baiting questions to see if he can get you to say something you’ll regret. There’s the one who didn’t watch any of the actual game and is asking the dumbest imaginable questions as a result. There’s the one whose story is due in six minutes and so he needs you to say something quotable—immediately. Sometimes those are all more or less the same reporter.

The pitcher who answered my question by agreeing with what I supplied him, even though I suspect he was dissembling, showed in that moment that he had learned something very important. That something appears in former big-leaguer Doug Glanville’s memoir, The Game from Where I Stand:

After one spectacular game in which he hit two home runs… my Cubs teammate Brooks Kieschnick met the press. Asked about his approach at the plate, Brooks went into great detail about which pitch he looked for in certain situations. Afterward, Mark Grace, our All-Star first baseman, took the youngster aside to point out that he had committed an error.

“Don’t let them know your secrets,” Gracie advised.

The way the Bulls pitcher kept from showing his hand was by noting that I had tipped mine: I gave him an escape from letting me know his secret, and he took it. That was a very Hamletic move on his part. It’s not unlike the way Hamlet deals with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They’re supposed to get him into their confidence, but instead he takes them into his, and ultimately plays them.

Last night the Bulls beat Lehigh Valley for the second straight night, coming from behind twice to win, 6-5. It was a strange game. The teams combined for nine runs on thirteen hits and four walks (plus a hit batter) in just the first three innings. It looked like one of those high-scoring bullpen blowups was in order, but then some retrograde force emerged. No one scored for the next three innings. The Bulls put a fair number of runners on base, but mounted little in the way of serious rallies. They finally tallied the tying run in the seventh inning on a sacrifice fly, and scored the winning run in the eighth when Cole Figueroa singled through a drawn-in infield to score Mike Fontenot, who had doubled to lead off.

Fittingly, Figueroa, who is normally an infielder (he never played a game in the outfield until last week), made an excellent diving catch in right field to begin the ninth inning. That prevented what would have been a leadoff double for IronPigs catcher Cameron Rupp and probably saved the game for Josh Lueke, who was otherwise excellent in two shutdown innings. More fittingly, Figueroa was using Fontenot’s spare outfielder’s glove. Shakespeare might have appreciated that.

The attention-grabbing story, though, was the pitching, not the hitting. Bulls starter Matt Buschmann struggled from the get-go. He allowed four hits, a walk, and three runs in the first inning, and then two more hits, another walk and another run in the second. In the third, he hit Steve Susdorf with one out, and Rupp followed with a single to right-center field, moving Susdorf to third. Troy Hanzawa followed with a well-executed safety squeeze bunt. Bulls first baseman Shelley Duncan fielded it and tried for the out at home, but Susdorf beat the throw and Hanzawa reached first base.

There was still only one out, and it was starting to seem like the game was about to get out of hand for Buschmann. He had faced eighteen hitters and eleven had reached base. He clearly didn’t “have it,” as they say, and as he acknowledged after the game. There was no one warming in the Durham bullpen, though. It was clear that manager Charlie Montoyo wasn’t going to go into emergency mode and bail Buschmann out. Buschmann was going to have to learn on the job.

Sure enough, he got Michael Martinez to ground into an inning-ending double play, and that seemed to make things click for Buschmann. He barely got out of the third inning alive, and had already thrown seventy-five pitches. But after he induced Martinez’s double play, Buschmann retired the next six batters he faced, easily, on just nineteen pitches. He wound up lasting five innings and keeping his team close. It was by no means a great or even good performance, overall, but it was one that you must take as two performances (much as you must watch Hamlet as more than just one character, in essence). The second was as sharp as the first was flat.

Juan Sandoval and Josh Lueke then retired all twelve batters they faced. In all, the last nineteen IronPigs went down in order. I’d be curious to know when the Bulls’ pitching staff last had a such a run of outs. Here’s betting it wasn’t recently.

But back to Buschmann. How did he go from nearly losing his grip on the game to controlling it so completely for the last two innings?

“I just slowed down,” he said. He deliberately tried to reduce the speed of his delivery in order to give his arm time to catch up with his legs and trunk. He said he had been “getting under a lot of pitches” early, causing him to leave them up in the strike zone. He estimated that, after the third inning, he decreased to “about sixty percent effort.” He was quick to add that it was a mental slowing down; he thought in terms of sixty-percent-effort as he wound up, knowing that in fact he was probably going through his motions about as quickly. (Nothing fast or slow but thinking makes it so…) So it was simply that Buschmann “scaled back,” in his words. He slowed the game down, as athletes will sometimes say. For a good while in Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark does the same thing. Those famous soliloquies of his are a way to slow himself down, perhaps to sixty percent effort, a way to buy time inside the lightning-fast machinations of the plot—or in Buschmann’s case, of throwing a pitch.

I tend to think of pitchers as lords of the game, dictating the terms of each and every play with the pitch they choose to throw. But in fact there is something very out-of-control about throwing a pitch. Once you rock back and gather momentum, there is no stopping the forward motion, which is explosive and uncontainable. The entire action of Hamlet proceeds in a similar way: There is a point at which it can no longer be stopped, with disastrous results because no one really has a grip on the ball anymore. It’s anybody’s ballgame, and everybody loses.

One last thing, apropos of this Hamlet stuff about scheming and plotting: I asked Buschmann, as Bull City Summer guest writer David Henry did in Louisville, about the difference between Double-A and Triple-A. Buschmann did a nice job of playing Henry off with his deadpan answer, but maybe I’m getting a little cagier, too, finally, in my fifth year of talking to professional baseball players.  The hitters at this level are better, obviously, and so I started there with Buschmann, but I went further: in what way are they better, beyond simply being stronger and older?

Buschmann’s answer was astute, and it revealed that hitters scheme as much as pitchers do; and that, if they can’t quite slow the game down, they can elongate it in their own way and weaken a pitcher’s advantage.

“They understand that there are more at-bats,” Buschmann said. “They understand that it’s a process. They make adjustments and build their approach for the next at-bat. They’re not upset if their first at-bat doesn’t go well, because they’re gaining information. And they take advantage when you’re not having your stuff. They tend to eliminate pitches out of your repertoire if you don’t have them working. If I don’t have my slider the first time through, they understand that in their second at-bat. They’ll let it go and understand that I’ve got to get a pitch up [in the strike zone].”

That process of elimination has Hamlet all over it. With every turn in the plot, he is making adjustments. It’s a long play, Shakespeare’s longest, and from act to act the players in it are learning, gathering information, discovering secrets, and indeed eliminating courses of action as much as they are manufacturing them. Eventually, if you wait, if you slow down and scale back, if you scheme shrewdly and patiently and discard enough wayward pitches, the right course of action will make itself plain to you. What makes Hamlet a tragedy is that everyone has his best stuff, and as a result they are all undone.

Baseball, fortunately, is only sport, and the season is long, long, long. The Bulls are about halfway through a stretch of thirty-two game days in a row before the All-Star break provides a much-needed intermission. Their bodies are banged up, of course—Jason Bourgeois, who had been playing slightly injured, came out of the game with a strained hamstring and will miss at least a week—but their minds are taxed, too. Scheming is exhausting.

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