Last night was a beautiful evening for a ball game. The temperature was in the high 70′s, there was a light breeze blowing, and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. Unfortunately for the Tides and their fans, the game didn’t live up to the weather. The Tides jumped out to a 4-0 lead after three innings, but the visitors from Charlotte closed to 4-2 before scoring two runs in each of the seventh, eighth, and ninth on their way to an 8-6 win.
Beyond the bare give-and-take of the game, there just seemed to be more strange happenings in last night’s game than in a typical month. It began with the very first batter, who fouled out to the pitcher. Yes, fouled out to the pitcher. Charlotte’s leadoff batter Justin Greene hit a pop-up down the first-base line near home plate. Tides’ pitcher Steve Johnson came off the mound, tracking the ball, and crossed the foul line to make the catch when catcher Adam Donachie was slow to react.
That was just the beginning:
- Between the bottom of the first inning and the top of the second inning, the Tides present “Race Rip Tide”, in which a fairly small child will race the Tides mascot from first base to home plate. Last night, the child competitor was a too young to know what was going on, and stopped in fear and confusion after reaching second base. Eventually, a Tides on-field employee got the child running again. To make sure the child would finish properly, the employee began to follow the kid to home plate, but got a little too close. The child stopped again, and the employee couldn’t stop in time to avoid running over the child and knocking him down.
- In the top of the second inning, Charlotte’s Lastings Milledge tried to steal second base. Donachie’s throw beat Milledge by several feet, but the player covering just didn’t catch the throw and Milledge was credited with a stolen base.
- In the bottom of the second inning, Adam Donachie hit a line drive off starting pitcher Philip Humber’s lower back. The ball ricocheted toward the hole at shortstop and Eduardo Escobar was able not only to field the ball cleanly but throw Donachie out by a step.
- Chicago White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski was in the lineup on a rehabilitation assignment. In his three at-bats, he lined out to left, grounded out to second, and grounded out to third. Unless you were there and saw him allegedly run to first, I can’t describe how much contempt he displayed for minor-league baseball by his lack of hustle on the base paths. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to say that he was the anti-Kyle Hudson.
- Two Tides’ pickoff attempts sailed past the player covering the base, allowing the runner to advance a base. Ultimately, both runners scored unearned runs.
- It’s always entertaining to watch a true case of Defensive Indifference. We got to see one of those in the bottom of the ninth. With the Tides trailing 8-5, a runner on first, and two outs, the Knights weren’t holding Kyle Hudson on. Hudson started toward second on the 1-2 pitch. As if to demonstrate their indifference, Knights’ catcher Jared Price held the pitch a little longer than usual. Rhyne Hughes doubled on the next pitch, scoring Hudson to make the score 8-6.
- The next batter was Brandon Snyder. With the count 3-2 and two outs, the stadium lights suddenly went out. It was eventually determined that a power spike in downtown Norfolk was responsible. The staff turned off the lights and let them cool down before turning them back on. After a sixteen-minute delay, Shane Lindsay threw a pitch at which Snyder swung and missed, ending the game.
We’re approaching the end of the minor league baseball regular season. Almost all minor leagues wrap up their regular season on Labor Day, followed by roughly two weeks of playoffs. The Tides won’t be making the International League playoffs, so September 5 marks the last day I’ll be working a game in 2011.
I was reflecting on this season, and realized that a minor-league season has several phases. Probably each minor league has its own set of phases; the rhythms of the Class A, eight-team Carolina League can’t be the same as the rhythms of the Class AAA, sixteen-team, Nashville-Tacoma Pacific Coast League. For me, the Norfolk Tides’ season, and perhaps the seasons of all International League teams, fell into five parts:
- The Beginning — Opening Day through April
This is a period of optimism and uncertainty. A third to a half of the team is new, and we’re eager to see what the team will be. Some of the players will be young guys just up from AA, and there’s the possibility of sudden improvement. Usually, the April games are against our IL South Division rivals Durham, Charlotte, and Gwinnett, and there’s a certain recognition. On the other hand, it can be cold and miserable and the crowds are usually small because school is still in session.
- Ordinary Time, Part I — May and June
The season begins its regular patterns after about three weeks. We’re getting a sense of which players will have good seasons and which ones will disappoint. Players begin to come and go. A core pitching rotation and the bullpen roles are established. We’re playing teams from outside the IL South, so it’s a constant ride of four-game series, meaning eight-game road trips and (usually) eight-game homestands. We’re into the routine.
- Mid-Season Refreshment – July 1st through the All-Star Break
The Fourth of July and the All-Star Break dominate July, changing the routine. For attendance reasons, every team gets a home game on either July 3rd or July 4th. Some teams, like Norfolk, want its home game on July 3rd to avoid conflicting with other nearby fireworks shows. However, because July 3/4 is a travel day needing short travel, the schedule reverts to intradivisional play. And because the Fourth falls on a different day each season, there’s no guarantee that four-game series are possible between it and the all-star break, so the intradivisional play usually continues. It’s a good chance to see our old rivals from the first week, to see how they’ve evolved. The crowds are usually pretty good, with post-game fireworks shows and the kids out of school. In a way, this period represents summer — a vacation from the routine and a chance to get together with familiar faces.
- Ordinary Time — Part Two — Mid-July through Early August
We return to the routine for three or four weeks after the All-Star Break, but the vibe is different. We’re seeing the last teams from outside the division, but whereas it’s exciting to see different teams early in the season, now the routine has become drudgery. Most of the best prospects from early in the season have now been called up, and the roster is filled with second-tier prospects and retreads. By now, we’ve identified the good teams and the bad teams. We’re not excited by the players any more; they’re old news. The crowds are still pretty good, but it’s a different crowd — early in the season, the sparse crowd contains baseball fans, but now the crowd is more families with children, who don’t follow the game as closely.
- The Conclusion — Mid-August through Labor Day
Back to the IL South to wrap up the season. And in a strange sort of way, most of the players and the teams seem to be more in it (the exceptions are those teams which started out hot, then fell back to the pack when all the good players got called up or traded.) Everyone wants to finish on a high note, so there’s more intensity. We want to the joy of the baseball season to linger on as long as it can, so we try harder to savor every moment. And, then, on September 1, some players are called up to the majors, replaced by whoever happens to be available. Sometimes it’s a loyal organization man getting a promotion from A-Ball or AA for the few days; sometimes, especially if Bowie’s out of the playoff hunt and heading on the road, it’s a good prospect from there. And the fans come out of the woodwork, as they realize that they won’t have another chance to see a game this year.
Eventually, Labor Day comes and the season ends. It’s another seven months to the Opening Day — but that’s the subject of another article.
I’ve been out of town for the past week, and therefore missed the four-game series at Harbor Park between Charlotte and the Tides. I returned to work last night’s Durham game, which the Tides won 3-2. Once again, I got to see Brendan Harris play shortstop.
Since I last commented on Brendan Harris, the Tides have made the usual personnel changes. The change most relevant to Harris are the promotion of Josh Bell to Baltimore and the corresponding promotion of Carlos Rojas to Norfolk. How does all this affect Brendan Harris? Bell was the Tides’ third baseman, and couldn’t play anywhere else. Rojas is a good defensive infielder, but can’t hit at all, and thus isn’t a candidate to be a major-league utilityman. Since both Harris and Rojas are now in the Organization Player stage of their career. manager Gary Allenson can use them to try to win games instead of developing their skills for the major leagues. So, Rojas is now the most-regular shortstop, meaning Harris can play third base.
Last night, manager Allenson gave Rojas the night off, and so Harris filled in at shortstop. For whatever reason, Harris made several good plays. The most memorable came in the seventh inning. With runners on first and second and no outs, Durham’s Leslie Anderson hit a ground ball to the left of second. The ball took a sudden sharp hop but Harris was able to stay with it, race to second for a force out, and then throw to first in time to get Anderson for the double play.
Harris did commit an error, when he got to a ground ball hit up the middle and made an ill-advised throw into the first-base dugout (it went as a single and error.) But I may have been a little bit too harsh on Harris earlier; he’ll never be a great shortstop but he may be adequate.
Sometimes, in any competition, you simply have to admit that your opponents just flat-out were better than you were on that day. Last night, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs beat the Tides, 6-3, not because the Tides played poorly, but because Lehigh Valley played better.
Steve Johnson was the Tides’ starting pitcher. In the games I saw him pitch earlier in the season, he was a tentative nibbler, seemingly afraid to throw pitches where the batters might hit them. He would end up walking many of those batters, frustrating all the Tides’ fans. Last night, he pitched with more confidence and only walked three in 6 2/3 innings. The IronPigs got ten hits off him, but he wasn’t tossing lollipops for the IronPigs to tee off on; they just hit good pitches hard and where fielders couldn’t get to them. Defensively, the Tides committed no errors. Right fielder Tyler Henson did fail to pick up a base hit near the right-field line cleanly, but it wasn’t a guarantee that he’d have thrown the runner out at second and the next batter grounded out to end the inning. The Tides weren’t good at holding runners on, as the IronPigs stole three bases – but the Tides also picked two runners off base. This was a case of Lehigh Valley hitting well, not Norfolk pitching and fielding badly.
The Tides’ offensive struggles were caused by the often-dominant pitching of IronPigs starter Scott Mathieson, who allowed one run and struck out eight in seven innings. Mathieson combined sharp control of a mid-to-high-90’s fastball and solid command of offspeed breaking stuff to keep the Tides at bay. It’s unlikely that even the Boston Red Sox would have had much success against Mathieson. He was just on his game.
The Tides loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth inning, trailing 5-1. The Tides got two runs out of it, so it wasn’t a failure, but of course in the context of the game it wasn’t enough. Yet the Tides batters did about as well as they could. The first batter after they loaded the bases was Kyle Hudson, who hit a high chopper near third. IronPigs third baseman made an outstanding play to pluck the ball out of the air and race to third for a run-scoring forceout. After a wild pitch put runners on second and third, Ryan Adams hit the ball hard to the outfield. Unfortunately for the Tides, the right fielder caught the ball and the Tides settled for a sacrifice fly. Here, too, both Hudson and Adams made solid efforts to keep the rally going, but good defense and bad luck stopped them.
So, even though the Tides lost, nobody in the press box was seriously upset. The Tides played a good game, and they just got beaten by a team that played better. I think we can all live with that. It’s very frustrating when your team loses because they play badly; when your team plays well but still loses, we just tip our caps to the other guys and move on.
Summaries simplify. That’s obvious. In baseball, statistical compilations and boxscores – even game accounts – are summaries, and thus simplifications of players’ performances. It’s a tradeoff we have to make – we simplify in order to comprehend the overwhelming details. In last night’s Rochester Red Wings – Norfolk Tides game, Tides’ relief pitcher Jason Berken was one of the positive contributors to the Tides 5-4 win, but that would be overlooked by looking at the statistics.
Historically, runs have been charged to the pitcher who put the runner on base. That made a lot of sense when there were relatively few mid-inning pitcher changes. Recently, observers noticed that relief pitchers often come into the game with runners on base. The relief pitcher can be ineffective and allow those runners to score, but the runs would be charged to the previous pitcher. Those runs would not be reflected in the relief pitcher’s statistics. The observers started keeping track of “inherited runners”, those runners who were on base when a pitcher entered the game. The percentage of inherited runners stranded – or not allowed to score – became recognized as a more accurate, more reliable measure of a relief pitcher’s performance.
Which brings me to Jason Berken. Berken’s “base” pitching line was okay:
1 2/3 innings pitched; 1 hit, 0 runs, 0 earned runs, 0 walks, 1 strikeout
But he also allowed one of two inherited runners to score. That lessens the positive impact of his not allowing any runs to score.
The Tides had taken their third lead of the game, 5-3, in their previous at-bat. The Tides had earlier taken a 1-0 lead in the first, only to give up two runs in the second; and a 3-2 lead in the fourth, only to give up the tying run in the fifth. After Zach Phillips gave up singles to the first two Red Wings’ batters in the seventh, past history would suggest that Rochester would tie the game or take the lead. Phillips got the next batter to hit into a forceout at second base, and then was removed from the game.
So Berken came into the game in the top of the seventh inning, with runners on first and third with one out, and the Tides holding a two-run lead. He got the first batter he faced to ground into another forceout at second base, with the runner on third scoring (the inherited runner.) The next batter hit a ground ball slowly enough that Ryan Adams could get to it in the hole between first and second and throw him out. The Tides still held a 5-4 lead. Berken gave up a leadoff single in the eighth inning before retiring the next three batters.
The game summaries deservedly highlight Adams and Jake Fox, who hit home runs and combined to drive in four runs. They even highlight Mark Worrell, who retired the last two batters. Berken’s performance as the true unsung hero is not even mentioned, and students of the boxscore won’t even notice it. That’s the price we pay for simplification.