Durham Bulls lose third straight to Buffalo Bisons: A day at the beach

Posted by  on Monday, June 24, 2013 · 1 Comment


There are sentences you can’t imagine ever writing. Here is one: I got a sunburn in Buffalo.

The Bulls and Bisons played scoreless baseball for 13 1/2 innings Sunday afternoon before Buffalo finally won, 1-0, in the bottom of the fourteenth inning. As is often the case in games like this one, it came down to an error. Durham reliever Juan Sandoval allowed a leadoff double to Mike Nickeas in the bottom of the fourteenth. The next batter sacrificed, and Sandoval threw the ball away. Nickeas scored. Four long, hot hours of baseball were resolved in seconds.

As it happens, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Double-A affiliate, the Montgomery Biscuits, also lost on Sunday in fourteen innings. Actually, it was Monday by the time they lost. The time it took to play the game, four hours and fifty-six minutes, set a franchise record. This was a healthy reminder that while Bull City Summer may be unique, the Bulls are not. This is baseball, and although it offers up all kinds of novelties on a daily basis, a fourteen-inning game isn’t really one of them. The team right below Durham in the Rays’ farm system outdid them in everything but futility: the Biscuits scored three runs in their fourteen innings; the Bulls scored none in theirs.

The ballpark in Buffalo, Coca-Cola Field, draws not only thousands of fans to every game but also hundreds of sea gulls. They wheel and cruise in the air, crowd patches of airspace, and sometimes land on the outfield grass. Back in 2006, Durham Bulls relief pitcher Jason Childers nailed a gull with a pitch. The play was ruled dead, but the sea gull lived. You gotta be a tough bird to make it in Buffalo.

What ails the Bulls is simple: they can’t hit right now. You can blame the loss of Wil Myers to the majors and its effect on the rest of the lineup; you can note that the Bulls are last in the league in home runs and, alarmingly, that the departed Myers hit fourteen of the team’s fifty-four homers; or you can call it just another one of those dips that befalls every team over the course of a season. But whatever it is, the result is that the Bulls just lost three games they would probably have won with Myers in the lineup.

A double shame, this, because they’ve gotten very good pitching, especially from their starters. Jake Odorizzi did more than his part yesterday, making his first start since returning from pitching very well for the Rays in a cozy Boston venue called Fenway Park. Still basking in that mojo, he did nothing less than throw the best game by a Bulls starter all season. Odorizzi went eight innings on only ninety-one pitches, allowed two measly hits and one walk, struck out six batters, and made some nifty plays in the field. After the game, he joked that he “got PFP work in for myself”: he was referring to “pitchers’ fielding practice,” which he took right during the game by handling numerous chances on the mound and at first base, some of them tricky ones. Odorizzi fields his position very well.

There was nothing especially magical about Odorizzi’s performance. It was just totally professional and superbly composed—smooth would be the best word to describe it. He commanded all of his pitches, moved the ball up and down, in and out, and pitched with quick, efficient purpose and big-league savvy. He told me there was nothing specific that he took back to Triple-A with him from the majors, but that the success he had there, and the general rubbing-off on him of the major-league environment, gave  him “extra confidence coming back down.”

Odorizzi had been gone from the game for nearly two hours by the time it ended. “Did you pitch today?” one of his teammates jokingly asked him when I approached Odorizzi for an interview. His work was long forgotten after Josh Lueke, just down from the majors himself, and Kirby Yates each worked two innings, deep into extras. I coined a phrase a few years ago, “extraneous innings,” to describe games that go on far too long after their sell-by date, but this was not one of them. Neither team had scored, nor even much threatened—they put multiple runners on base in an inning just three times between them—and both were still using rested relievers in the fourteenth inning. The game took nearly an hour less to play than the Montgomery Biscuits’ fourteen-inning loss later on.

Still, it certainly didn’t feel short. By around the eleventh inning, with the gulls calling out and the sun barely budging from its place over the first-base side of the stadium, beating down forcefully on the stands, it felt like one of those days at the beach when you lie out on a towel for so long that you no longer have the energy or will to get up and go inside. The scoreless half-innings went by like waves expiring one by one on the shore of the afternoon, each virtually indistinguishable from the one before it. The crawl on the right-field display was scrolling major-league scores, but it stopped updating somewhere in the early innings, showing the same heat-lamp numbers all afternoon. Time stood still. You wanted someone to bring you a cold drink. You splayed out over multiple seats like they were a giant beach blanket.

Finally, when Sandoval threw away Ricardo Nanita’s sacrifice and Nickeas scored, it was like the kids finally coming in from the water. It’s what time? Time for dinner? Wasn’t it just lunch? Alright, then.

For the last couple of days, I’ve been writing about how hard it seems to be to win on the road, and wondering why exactly that should be the case. Yesterday added another potential explanation: playing on the road has that vacationing quality to it. The players would disagree, I’m sure, but there’s no getting past the difference away from Durham. The Bulls live out of hotel rooms. There’s no family around for all but two or three of the guys who brought their girlfriends on the road with them. Whatever routines they may have developed in Durham can’t be done here. They wake up in the hotel, find food, go back to the hotel, go play baseball, come back to the hotel, sit in the hotel bar, go to sleep in the hotel. It’s an idyll, of sorts. Sunday’s beachy weather brought that home. No wonder it’s harder to bear down and win. Home is where work is, and it’s hard to bring your work with you when you travel.

I have a good deal more to say, largely because I went to Shakespeare in Delaware Park‘s satisfying, enjoyable (and free!) production of Hamlet after the game. (From a day at the beach to a night in the park.) You can apply Shakespeare’s “poem unlimited,” as Harold Bloom called it, drawing the title from one of the play’s lines, to just about anything. That includes baseball, and you’ve been warned: I’ll be back with more about that connection later. For now, I’ll leave you with this: In Act III, Scene Three, Hamlet happens and eavesdrops upon Claudius, who is unburdening himself of a repentant monologue (“O, my offense is rank! It smells to heav’n!”). Hamlet, in an aside, thinks of killing Claudius, but then decides against it: to murder the corrupt king in his penitent moment would likely send him to heaven, and Hamlet wants Claudius die while committing more sin so that he will suffer eternally.

So Hamlet sheathes his sword. This is the moment when the game of Hamlet goes to extra innings; a clean killing of Claudius here would end things in regulation. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play. Even the trimmed down Delaware Park version came in at three hours, but there was nothing at all extraneous about these innings. The scenes after Hamlet forbears killing Claudius are the ones that establish the play’s full weight and wonder, its status as a “poem unlimited.” Extra innings do not always mean a failure to settle the outcome with due dispatch. Sometimes they are where the eventual decision gets its richness, and even its meaning.

As Polonius tells us, though he doesn’t heed his own advice, brevity is the soul of wit. Goodnight, sweet readers: And flights of sea gulls sing thee to thy rest!