Staying Power: Durham Bulls fall to Pawtucket Red Sox

DBAP lease renewal announcement

Photo by Kate Joyce.

Bull City Summer’s subtitle, “a season at the ballpark and beyond,” got a very strict redrawing of its documentary boundary last night. Try thirty seasons, and exactly at the ballpark.

The news from last night’s game had nothing really to do with the outcome, which was in favor of Pawtucket, 4-3. Instead, the seventh-inning stretch stretched longer than usual in order to accommodate an exceptional moment. Onto the field stepped Jim Goodmon, the kingpin of the Capitol Broadcasting Corporation/Durham Bulls/American Tobacco empire; the Mayor of Durham, Bill Bell; some city council members and Bulls officials; and Wool E. Bull, pen in hand.

It was then announced that the Bulls and the City of Durham had agreed to renew the Bulls’ lease on Durham Bulls Athletic Park (which contains, don’t forget, “Goodmon Field,” the actual playing area). The new contract runs twenty years, with an option for ten more. That means the Durham Bulls will be playing here through at least another generation, probably long after their parent club, the Tampa Bay Rays, is no longer known by that name or in that place. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout will have already been inducted into the Hall of Fame. The globe may have permanently warmed, there will be no more lonely places on the planet and no more fish in the sea; but there will still be Durham Bulls baseball. It is our most sustainable, most necessary resource, as necessary to the ecology as bees and trees. The Bulls are staying.

What lasts? What hangs in there?  After the game last night, we trooped down to the locker room to do our interviews. This is always an unpredictable few minutes, once we’ve completed the obligatory opening session with Durham manager Charlie Montoyo. Sometimes the player you want to talk to is sitting right there at his locker, fully clothed (as opposed to heading for the shower). Sometimes he’s in the players’ lounge and you have to hope he’ll emerge while you’re down there. More rarely, he’s already left the building.

You just never know what you’re going to find. Maybe virtually the entire roster will be there in the reporter-safe diplomacy zone and you can pick anyone you want to talk to; the only obstacle is the music blaring out from the giant speaker. Or sometimes the locker room is virtually empty and whisper-quiet, and you wait around for a few minutes waiting for a sighting of your potential interviewee, like staking out a yeti. Most of the time, he doesn’t show.

The latter was a distinct possibility for Jake Odorizzi, who started and lost last night’s long, long game. Odorizzi wasn’t sharp from the first pitch of the game, missing with a fastball. He ran two full counts in the first inning, allowed three runs and two walks in an ugly second inning, two more walks in a messy third, and then loaded the bases with one out in the fourth before he was lifted for reliever Cory Wade. The four runs charged to him were all the Pawsox scored, and they were enough to beat the Bulls. At three and one-third innings, it was Odorizzi’s shortest start of the season, and probably the youngest Bulls start to die of natural causes all year.

No staying power there, in other words, and Odorizzi’s night was long over by the time the game ended. You wouldn’t have blamed him for having left. Yes, it’s one of players’ unwritten obligations to talk to the media, but I’ve always considered it a courtesy on their part, one for which I’m always appreciative.

There in front of his locker after the game was Odorizzi, showered and dressed. It would be going too far to say that he was waiting for his post-game interview, but it didn’t go unnoticed that he had made himself available after a poor performance, probably his worst of the year. Players don’t much enjoy talking about their failures.

Yet Odorizzi didn’t seem to mind at all. He popped up off his chair and gave us six generous minutes of easy, articulate time. (I got the vague sense that he was using us as practice for the day when he’ll have to face big-league media after unsuccessful starts.) And in fact he did seem to enjoy talking about failure — not in the sense that he was happy about it, but in the sense that he knew there was much more to be learned from failure than from success. Success is mystifying, impenetrable; the best books do not help writers learn how to write, because the means and method of their greatness are unrepeatable and inexplicable.

The best pitching performances are like the best books: all about feel. Odorizzi was quick to say that he had no feel for anything last night, not even while warming up in the bullpen. His changeup wouldn’t stay down (and he was throwing it too hard, if the radar gun was accurate). He walked five batters in his sub-four-inning stint. He had walked five batters in his four previous starts combined, spanning twenty-six and one-third innings.

Yet those walks were not the result of mere wildness. Odorizzi probably could have thrown more strikes. But when he fell behind hitters, he was determined not to give in and throw them “a cookie,” as the slang for a devour-me fastball goes. Instead, he tried to hit the corner, to make his pitch. He was trying to stay the course, hang in there, be dogged. Staying power. That this approach resulted in five walks did not entirely disappoint him.

“It’s better than giving guys a pitch down the middle,” Odorizzi said. “You might get the out, but you don’t really learn anything in the process.” This stance echoed the now-entrenched philosophy of Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon: “You win by performing the process properly.” That means, ironically, that sometimes you won’t win. In Triple-A especially — “down here,” as Odorizzi called it — acceptance of that irony is paramount. Odorizzi understands that.

“It’s all about development down here,” he said, “and results kind of go by the wayside.”

That is an uncommonly mature way of looking at it for a twenty-three-year-old. Odorizzi is the youngest player on the Durham Bulls’ roster. Yet you didn’t need to hear him talk about his pitching last night in order to get a sense of his poise. Although he was in trouble throughout his start (twelve of the last fifteen batters he faced reached base), he never looked rattled, never looked disgusted or angry. He just kept trying. He managed to limit damage to four runs, with help from Cory Wade, who has been quietly excellent since the Rays picked him up off the scrap heap in May and hasn’t allowed a run in his last six outings, spanning nine and one-third innings.

And Odorizzi knew he was also the victim of two strokes of misfortune. The immediate one was a missed call in the second inning. A runner was on third base (Xander Bogaerts, if memory serves). After an Odorizzi pitch, Durham catcher Chris Gimenez fired a pickoff throw to third base, where Figueroa tagged the straying runner out. Except that there is no third-base umpire in Triple-A, and so the nearest man in blue was behind Odorizzi, in the vicinity of second base. Too far from the play to see what had really happened, he called the runner safe, much to Figueroa’s ire. Odorizzi, however, remained calm, even though the runner wound up scoring. Odorizzi’s stomach may have been filling up with ulcers as his pitch count blew up; but if so, he didn’t show it. He just kept at it.

The big at-bat of the game came in the following inning. Singles by Jackie Bradley and Drew Sutton put men on first and second with one out, and brought the dangerous Will Middlebrooks to the plate. Odorizzi’s first pitch to Middlebrooks was a strike, but it missed Gimenez’s target, leaking over the inner half of the plate when Gimenez wanted it outside. Umpires will sometimes be fooled by this sort of imprecision within the strike zone, and sure enough the pitch was called a ball. Odorizzi permitted himself only a quick grimace. The count eventually ran full, and Odorizzi, as befit his night, finally walked Middlebrooks to load the bases.

It was the last pitch he threw; Montoyo took him out of the game. The Pawsox’ fourth run would score on a sacrifice fly off Wade. That run, of course, would turn out to be the decisive one. No matter. Results go by the wayside. You don’t learn anything from doing it wrong yet lucking into right results. Perform the process. Stay the course. That’s where long-term power comes from.

The second unlucky stroke for Odorizzi was the All-Star break itself. “I was in a good rhythm going into the break,” Odorizzi said later. He had shaved .70 off of his ERA and was pitching with confidence, tempo and a plan. Then he didn’t pitch for eight days, hanging around Durham (one of a few ballplayers who didn’t go home) and waiting for his next start. He threw a bullpen session at the ballpark on one of those days, to Gimenez, who also stayed put in Durham. But a bullpen session doesn’t replicate the feel of pitching to real hitters, especially ones with Pawtucket’s patience at the plate. Last night was a reminder that the Bulls’ recent eight-game winning streak came mostly against two bad teams with many undisciplined hitters: Charlotte and Gwinnett.

And now it’s over. In light of the Bulls’ re-upping with the City of Durham for the next three decades, winning (and losing) streaks seem pretty picayune. Baseball isn’t a game of runs, anyway. In a way, it’s good that the All-Star break came along to halt artificially the Bulls’ rakish progress toward the stratosphere, because no one stays up there for long, and you get unrealistic expectations and a false sense of yourself if you keep soaring against the odds. The Bulls were not going to play .643 baseball for the rest of the season. To take the second part of today’s title first, they simply don’t have the power to do that.

It’s good, too, that the Bulls have come out of the break facing Pawtucket. The Sox’ record lately has been poor — they had lost fifteen of their last eighteen games — but they recently reacquired some excellent young players, and they’re the best team the Bulls have faced in more than a month. This weekend, they start two top starting pitchers (Rubby De La Rosa tonight, Allen Webster Sunday) and their second knuckleballer of the series tomorrow.

Today, tomorrow, this weekend. Bull City Summer. How short-lived and evanescent all of it seems after yesterday’s renewal of vows between the city and the Bulls. It’s going to be a long, long time before there’s no baseball in Durham. And as long as there is baseball here, Durham will be fine. The city is booming, and it’s staying, and it’s the Bulls that give the city its staying power.

One Comment on “Staying Power: Durham Bulls fall to Pawtucket Red Sox

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