Every so often, something happens on the field that is just amusing. I’m not necessarily talking about those plays that appear on those MLB “Blooper” videos, in which fielders stop as the ball falls among them or a shortstop tries to pick up a grounder as he’s charging. I’m talking more about what happened during the ninth inning of the game I scored Tuesday night.
With one out, Braves outfielder Stefan Gartrell hit a home run to extend the Braves’ lead to 9-1. That’s not amusing. Next batter Mauro Gomez, however, hit a medium-speed grounder toward the hole between short and third. Tides’ shortstop Brendan Harris took a couple of steps to his right and dove for the ball, but the ball bounded under his dive. The next batter, Shawn Bowman, hit a medium-speed grounder toward the hole between short and third. Again, Harris took a couple of steps to his right and dove for the ball, and again the ball bounded under his dive. The next batter, J.C. Boscan, hit yet another medium-speed grounder toward the same hole. Again, Harris took the couple of steps to his right and dove, seemingly in tantalizingly slow motion as the ball bounded under his dive. I couldn’t help but smile to myself as I saw this.
I shouldn’t find that funny. Brendan Harris was certainly trying his hardest, and I’m sure was he was annoyed that he couldn’t make any one of the plays. But still, there’s something comical about him trying so hard and failing so narrowly. At least the only thing hurt was Brendan Harris’ pride.
I worked last night’s Norfolk – Gwinnett game. It was a battle of the old-timers, as 35-year-old veterans Ryan Drese and Rodrigo Lopez started for the Tides and Braves, respectively. It’s understandable that Rodrigo Lopez might be on the Gwinnett Braves. He pitched 200 innings for the Arizona Diamondbacks last season; the Atlanta Braves are a contending team; so it makes sense that the Braves would want a potential injury replacement waiting in the wings. It’s completely inexplicable why Ryan Drese is on the Norfolk Tides. The Baltimore Orioles should not fancy themselves contenders, so there’s no real need to keep a veteran on hand. Drese hasn’t pitched in affiliated baseball since 2008, when he pitched 7 innings with a 11.57 ERA. Why would the Orioles organization want to waste a spot in the starting rotation on a 35-year-old?
Several of us came up with humorous speculations (Drese invested in the Orioles; the Orioles lost a bet) but it wasn’t until last night that an impeccable source told me that Drese is with the Tides because Orioles manager Buck Showalter thinks he can pitch. This illustrates the difference between a baseball insider, like Buck Showalter, and a baseball outsider, like myself.
I watched Ryan Drese pitch last night. He wasn’t overpowering. He didn’t impress me with his ability to paint the corners. His breaking stuff didn’t buckle knees. He was hit hard. In short, there’s nothing visibly impressive to an outsider. In his three starts this year, Drese has given up 27 hits in 16 1/3 innings. Over the past three seasons, he’s pitched okay for the Camden Riversharks in the Atlantic League — but not very much; 17 innings in 2010, 32 innings in 9 starts in 2009.
Even at his best, Drese wasn’t all that good. Drese pitched in the major leagues from 2001-2006. He pitched for two months in 2001, and was impressive; his 2004 with Texas was a superficially nice season. But, other than that, he had an ERA of 6.55 in 2002, an ERA of 6.85 in 2003, an ERA of 5.78 in 2005, and an ERA of 5.19 in 8 2/3 innings in 2006. He gave up more than a hit an inning in every season after 2001, including his good year. Again, to an outsider like myself, it doesn’t look like Ryan Drese could pitch even when he was pitching.
But, for some reason, the insider — Buck Showalter — sees Ryan Drese and thinks he can pitch. I don’t know what it is — that’s why I’m an outsider. Maybe Showalter sees a small mechanical glitch that Drese can correct. Maybe Showalter thinks he can teach Drese to change his pitching style. Maybe Showalter is just impressed by how well Drese competes. The point is that Showalter, as an insider, may have insight that outsiders don’t have; or, conversely, outsiders have an objectivity that the insiders don’t have.
The best insiders respect the outsider’s insights and the best outsiders respect the insider’s insights.
After a seven-month offseason, nine days of the Tides’ being on the road, and a game postponed because of threatening severe weather, I finally made it to Harbor Park for the first time since September 3 of last season. It’s always exciting to go to a first game of a new season, even if the home team hasn’t provided much room for optimism (a 1-8 start, fueled by an offense that produced 18 runs and a pitching/defense that allowed 44. Based on their runs scored and allowed, the Tides’ record was exactly what it should have been.
The game featured A LOT of strikeouts. Of the twenty-seven outs recorded by the Tides, fifteen were strikeouts, including seven of the last nine. And of the twenty-four outs recorded by the Knights, ten were strikeouts, including nine of the last thirteen. It wasn’t a very good day for Knights starter Freddy Dolsi, who missed out on the strikeout extravaganza with only one strikeout, was battered by the Tides batters who collected ten hits and seven runs off him in only 3 2/3 innings, and betrayed by his defense, as Knight third baseman Dallas McPherson had difficulty getting his throws to first base. Jim Gallagher, the first baseman, saved him twice by coming off the bag and still retiring the batter-runner; but the Tides’ five-run fourth was started when McPherson made a too-wild throw that Gallagher couldn’t convert into an out. Brandon Snyder hit a run-scoring double to give the Tides a 4-1 lead; then the Tides broke it open with back-to-back home runs (neither of which needed the wind) by Nick Green and Brendan Harris.
Pitcher Dolsi also figured in a play that I don’t remember ever seeing before. With a runner on third base in the third inning, the Knights brought the infield in. Craig Tatum slapped a grounder to the right side of the infield, Gallagher broke for the ball, but it was second baseman Gookie Dawkins who fielded it. Dolsi, apparently daydreaming, failed to break for first, so it became a race between Dawkins and the slow-moving Tatum to get to first. All the while watching the runner on third, Dawkins hustled to the base and recorded the out. That goes on my scoresheet as a 4/G (second baseman, unassisted).
Tonight is supposed to be Opening Night for the Tides. Unfortunately, the weather may not cooperate, although it’s slightly more promising as I write this than it had been earlier. I live about a 45-minute drive away from Harbor Park, and there are few things as discouraging as reporting to a game only to find that it has been rained out.
Of course, the Tides’ 1-8 start on their season-opening road trip is pretty discouraging, too. The Orioles have stocked the Tides with a number of 30+ veterans to occupy roster spots, and a few prospects like Nolan Reimold, Josh Bell, and Brandon Snyder who have had their chances to stick and haven’t. Matt Angle, Ryan Adams, Tyler Henson, and newly-promoted Chorye Spoone are the interesting prospects whom we haven’t seen too much of yet.
Tonight the Norfolk Tides will, weather permitting, host the Norfolk State University Spartans in an exhibition “game.” The exhibition serves a few purposes — it provides the Tides with some community outreach; it provides a way for NSU to earn a little money (they keep a percentage of the ticket sales) — but primarily it gives the Tides organization a chance to break in new employees, review any changes, and to basically run through a game without any real pressure.
Like most fans, until I started datacasting I had no real idea of what went on behind the scenes at a baseball game. I knew there were ticket sellers and ticket takers; ushers and security staff; concessionaires and vendors; and a PA announcer and scoreboard operator. When I started datacasting, I quickly learned just how many people work hidden from view at a baseball game.
At Norfolk’s Harbor Park, the “press level” is the fourth level. I can group the workers on that fourth level into four general groups, with some overlap.
- The Field Support Staff. At Harbor Park, that includes the PA announcer, a balls-and-strikes scoreboard operator; an auxiliary scoreboard operator; a recorded music operator; a video board operator; and possibly one or two other scoreboard-type operators. With the current Harbor Park configuration, at least two of those operators never get to see live play. All these people congregate in two rooms, stuffed with computer monitors and consoles.
- The Broadcasters. At the AAA level, that includes usually two Norfolk radio broadcasters and one or two visiting team radio broadcasters. On rare occasions, the game is televised and then there’s television broadcasters and crew. Each broadcasting team has its own soundproof booth.
- The Internal Video Crew. The Tides make a video recording of every game, primarily for highlights on the evening news, on the team website, or for a year-end highlights show.
- The Media. That includes the datacaster, who records the pitch-by-pitch results in near real-time; the official scorer, who is the league representative and makes the judgment calls; the Media Relations representative, who relays information to the broadcasters and writers; and the writers. There is usually one writer for the Virginian-Pilot, and sometimes there’s a second writer for the visiting team paper. On even rarer occasions, there are writers from the parent Baltimore Orioles, milb.com, or a publication like Baseball America.
Tonight’s exhibition is really about the in-stands personnel and the Field Support Staff getting themselves (re-)acquainted with each other and the demands of their position. Whenever you see a replay, or a scoreboard flash H, there’s a staff of hidden people making that happen.
Because I have scored Norfolk Tides games professionally for five years, I’ve been rooting for ex-Tides to do well with the Baltimore Orioles for the past few seasons. Among the better Tides prospects to have been promoted to the Orioles is Chris Tillman, but unfortunately Tillman disappointed in 2009 and 2010. At the start of the 2011 season, Tillman was relegated to the #6 starter role, to be sent back to Norfolk as soon as Zach Britton could be added to the big-league team without starting his arbitration and free-agency clocks.
Tillman caught one break when Brad Bergesen, the Orioles’ projected #4 starter, got hit with a line drive. As a result, he was scheduled to start the Orioles’ third game of the season on Sunday, April 3. He caught another break when Saturday’s scheduled starter, Brian Matusz, hurt himself and was put on the Disabled List. Tillman was moved up to Saturday.
And he rose to the occasion – six no-hit innings against Tampa Bay. Now, Tillman didn’t blow the Rays away, and he left the game after six innings and 101 pitches. But he wasn’t “laboring” either; he pitched effectively and was never in serious trouble. Buck Showalter did the right thing by removing him; I think it’s a good idea to take him out on a high note, rather than possibly having him struggle in the seventh and leave on a downer.
Sometimes, all it takes for a struggling pitcher to turn it around is confidence. Confidence in his ability to really get major-league hitters out. I remember Darryl Kile getting his career started with six no-hit innings in a spot start, and Tommy Greene, on the verge of getting released, pitching four shutout innings in a sixteen-inning 1-0 game. As Bill James wrote, that got him a start, in which he pitched a no-hitter, which put him in the starting rotation.
This game may be a turning point in the career of Chris Tillman. I’m rooting for him, and I hope it is. One more anecdote:
The 2001 Chicago Cubs contended for the postseason, finishing with an 88-74 record, five games behind the Cardinals and Astros. They had a healthy five-man rotation of Jon Lieber, Jason Bere, Kerry Wood, Kevin Tapani, and Julian Tavarez, who combined to make 151 starts. Twenty-year-old Carlos Zambrano made a cameo appearance, with a 15.26 ERA in 6 games.
In 2002, the rotation collapsed with injuries and ineffectiveness. Jon Lieber, who had made 34 starts in 2001, made only 21 in 2002. Jason Bere, who made 32 starts with a 4.31 ERA in 2001, made 16 with a 5.67 ERA in 2002. Kevin Tapani, who made 29 starts in 2001, was not resigned. Carlos Zambrano was on the team, but was pitching mop-up relief. Until he made back-to-back starts against the Atlanta Braves, giving up 2 earned runs in 12 combined innings. That got him a spot in the rotation for the rest of the season, and he’s won 114 other games since.