Both of the Norfolk Tides’ games this weekend were decided in the late innings, and both featured solid early starting pitching. On Saturday, the Tides lost 9-2 when starter Brad Bergesen tired, relief pitcher Willie Eyre was wild and ineffective, and Steve Tolleson made a crucial error, and Louisville scored six runs in the 7th inning. On Sunday, the Tides won 7-4 when Louisville relieved starting pitcher Chad Reineke with Carlos Fisher, Travis Webb, and Bill Bray, who were wild and ineffective.
Saturday, the Tides and the Bats were tied 1-1 after six innings, having traded solo home runs. Bergesen, who had thrown 73 pitches in his six innings, walked the first batter on five pitches and hit the second batter on his next pitch. The next batter singled in the go-ahead run and, after a sacrifice bunt, the Tides relieved Bergesen with Willie Eyre. who walked the first batter he faced and then gave up a sacrifice fly. With the score 4-2, Denis Phipps hit a ground ball up the middle. Shortstop Tolleson thought he would make the force play himself, then changed his mind but dropped the ball when he tried to take it out of his glove for the flip to second. After another walk, Neftali Soto cleared the bases with a double to right-center and it was all over but the shouting.
On Sunday, the Tides were trailing 4-2 when the Bats relieved starter Chad Reineke, who had thrown 96 pitches, with Carlos Fisher. who had walked 11 batters in 11 2/3 innings. He retired the first batter on a fly out before walking Jai Miller, who advanced to third on a stolen-base-plus-throwing error. After a strikeout, Fisher walked Xavier Avery. Matt Antonelli singled to right, scoring Miller, and Jamie Hoffmann doubled, scoring Avery. Travis Webb came in to face the lefthanded-hitting Joe Mahoney. During the at-bat, Webb uncorked a wild pitch, allowing Antonelli to score the lead run. Bill Bray came in to pitch the eighth and surrendered two more runs.
One of the most difficult parts of a manager’s job is running the pitching staff. It’s a challenge to determine whether or not a pitcher has anything left; if the manager gets it wrong, or brings in a pitcher who doesn’t have it, a game can be lost. We don’t know if the Tides and Louisville managers made the right decisions or not; but those specific decisions didn’t work and their teams lost.
There was an appealing symmetry in Louisville’s 2-1 win over the Tides last night. The difference in the game was that, in the Louisville fourth inning, Neftali Soto hit a double down the right-field line immediately before Mike Constanzo homered to right-center field; and, in the Tides eighth inning, Ryan Adams hit a double down the left-field line immediately after Joe Mahoney homered to right-center field. Double before home run — two runs and a win; double after home run — one run and a loss.
Most of the time, while I’m scoring a game, interesting trends or unusual events come to my attention. That’s because the games move slowly enough to give me time to review the scoresheet. Last night’s game moved quickly indeed; the nine innings were completed in less than two hours. Partly, that was because both starting pitchers — Jeff Francis for Louisville and Steve Johnson for the Tides — were very good; the Tides got eight baserunners off Francis and reliever Josh Judy and Louisville got six baserunners off Johnson and reliever Miguel Socolovich. And, perhaps because there weren’t runners on base, Johnson worked quickly and Francis worked very quickly. As a result, I had to stay focused on the immediate events on the field and couldn’t look back for interesting things.
Matt Torra, the starting pitcher for Durham in last night’s 4-2 win over the Bulls, pitched seven innings. In the first, second, third, fourth, and sixth, he retired the Tides in order; in the seventh, he got two outs, hit Ryan Adams with a pitch, and then struck out Steve Tolleson. Unfortunately, he gave up four hits and an error in the fifth, which led to the four Tides’ runs and the Bulls’ defeat.
For each of the twelve batters he faced through the fourth inning, Torra’s first pitch was a strike — ten called strikes, one foul, and one ball put in play. The first pitch to the first batter of the fifth inning — Joe Mahoney — was a ball. While it’s amusing to point out that as soon as Torra didn’t throw the first pitch to a batter over the plate, he fell apart — giving up the four runs — that’s really too far a stretch.
But what isn’t a stretch is to notice Torra’s performance. He faced 27 batters in his seven innings. The first pitch to 22 of them was a strike, and exactly two of those 22 batters reached base. The first pitch was a ball to the other five, and three of those five batters reached base. Color commentators are fond of noting the importance of first-pitch strikes — although I really doubt the difference is as great as Torra’s performance last night would suggest.
Tides starter Chris Tillman was the winning pitcher in last night’s 8-5 Tides win over struggling Durham. A superficial look at his pitching line — 5 1/3 innings pitched, 8 hits, 4 runs (all earned), 2 walks, 7 strikeouts, and 1 home run allowed — makes it seem as though Tillman struggled and was bailed out by his teammates’ offense. Yes, he struck out seven, but he gave up a home run and allowed nine other baserunners in less than six innings. In fact, although his line could have been a little bit worse, he really did pitch better than his final numbers because three of the runs he gave up were fluky.
First, the bad news — Tillman could and probably should have given up a fifth run. In the sixth inning, Tillman walked Juan Miranda. Miranda advanced to second on a ground out, after which Oscar Villareal relieved him. Villareal wild-pitched Miranda to third while walking Kyle Hudson. Will Rhymes then hit a sharp ground ball down the first-base line. Tides first baseman Joe Mahoney speared the grounder, stepped on first to retire Miranda, and then threw home where Luis Exposito tagged Miranda out. Mahoney showed good presence of mind there, as the more expected play would be to throw to second. But Kyle Hudson is much faster than Miranda, and likely would have beaten the throw. By throwing home, Mahoney prevented a fifth run from being charged to Tillman.
On the other hand, the three runs Tillman gave up in the fourth inning were hardly his fault. Leslie Anderson led off the inning by lifting a fly to right field that right field Jai Miller either didn’t see or completely misplayed; that normally routine fly ball fell untouched for a double. Anderson scored on two groundouts; with 5-1 lead at the time, it made perfect sense to let Anderson advance. Then, speedy Kyle Hudson beat out an infield grounder, and Will Rhymes stroked a hard fliner about 320 feet down the right-field line. Unfortunately for Tillman and the Tides, the right-field fence is 318 feet down the right-field foul line, and so Rhymes’ hit — which would either have curled foul or maybe hit the wall if the outfield wall were at a more normal distance — went for a two-run home run.
I’m sure many fans who weren’t at the game will look at Tillman’s line above and conclude that he’s still the same old struggling Chris Tillman. But if his line had been 5 1/3 innings pitched, 6 hits, 2 runs (both earned), 2 walks, and seven strikeouts — a more appropriate summary of how Tillman actually pitched — they’d think differently. His actual game score was 42 — below standard. His projected game score would have been 54 — above standard.
The Tides have been losing, losing, losing — six straight and counting — on a road trip over the past week. The Baltimore Orioles made some moves affecting the Norfolk Tides’ roster over the past few days. They claimed catcher Luis Exposito from Boston on waivers. To make room for Exposito on the forty-man roster, the Orioles designated Josh Bell for assignment and then gave him to Arizona — technically, they traded him to Arizona for a player to be named later, but the chances are the PTBNL won’t be significant. Then, the Orioles optioned Exposito to Norfolk and released catcher John Hester.
None of these moves will have the slightest impact on either the Orioles or the Tides. Exposito is a 25-year-old backup catcher type. He’s a good defensive catcher with a marginal bat — essentially, he’s the same player as John Hester except three-and-a-half years younger. From the Orioles persepctive, I don’t see the point of having Luis Exposito, Chris Robinson, Taylor Teagarden, and Ronny Paulino all competing for the backup catcher job. From the Tides’ perspective, I don’t think Exposito brings anything to the table that Hester didn’t.
And the price of “upgrading” from Hester to Exposito was Josh Bell. I admit — make that I declare — that Josh Bell has been a disappointment. He’s always shown more athletic ability than baseball skill. He’s been frustrating — he’s struck out too much and he’s made too many throwing errors. On the other hand, he’s hit 33 home runs in a season-and-a-half at Norfolk, which is legitimately impressive. Defensively, Bill James wrote that a useful shorthand for a third baseman’s defense is his ratio of double plays to errors, with a 1:1 ratio being average. Bell’s ratio at Norfolk was 31;32, which tells me that he was better defensively than his error total. I still think Bell could have been converted into a corner utility player, able to play left field, right field, third and first, with a power bat.
In the late 1940′s and early 1950′s, there were several infielders who became known primarily for drawing a tremendous number of walks. For some reason, they were all named “Eddie” — Eddie Lake, Eddie Stanky, Eddie Joost, and Eddie Yost. (Yost, in fact, became known as “the Walking Man.”) These men didn’t hit for a very high average, weren’t very fast, and had mid-range power. Defensively, they were more reliable than anything else.
The 2012 Norfolk Tides have a successor to the Eddies in Matt Antonelli; I’ve suggested that we give him the nickname “Eddie”. (Mike, the official scorer for the Tides, seconds me in this; he even thinks “Eddie Antonelli” has a mellifluous ring.) However, an even better sobriquet would be “The Taking Man”. For Matt Antonelli seems to swing at fewer pitches than just about anyone I can remember.
I’ve scored four Tides home games so far this season. Antonelli has played in all four and has seen 74 pitches. He’s swung at 17, or just under 23%. (That includes foul balls, swinging strikes, and balls put in play.) In comparison, Ryan Adams has seen 84 pitches and swung at 43, just under 52%.
Antonelli is effective with his take-all-pitches strategy; he draws a lot of walks and has an on-base percentage close to .500. It remains to be seen if pitchers will adjust by throwing more pitches over the plate and, more specifically, throwing pitches less close to the corners. And if they do, it will be interesting to see if Antonelli adjusts. I’ll be monitoring The Taking Man throughout the season.
While Ryan Adams will get recognition for his game-winning, ninth-inning hit in Sunday’s 4-3 Tides win, and Charlotte’s Anthony Carter will get blamed for his wildness (a hit batsman and two walks), Blake Davis’ sacrifice bunt will get overlooked. As it turned out, his bunt had absolutely no impact on the result — the subsequent walks made it irrelevant — but it was an admirably executed sacrifice and one that deserves more recognition.
Historian Bill James has established that the commonly-held idea that the batter, in executing a sacrifice bunt, should “give himself up” to advance the runner is nonsense. No batter should ever go to the plate intending to make an out (except in odd circumstances involving bad weather.) Instead, the bunter should attempt to place the bunt where he can beat it out, but minimizing the risk of popping the bunt up or missing the pitch. So, if he doesn’t beat it out, he at least successfully advances the runners.
Blake Davis executed that perfectly. Charlotte first baseman Dan Johnson was holding Scott Beerer on first base, and second baseman Tyler Kuhn was cheating toward first base. Davis bunted the ball far off the first-base line and past the pitcher’s mound, where there was no fielder stationed. And I must give credit to Dan Johnson. He reacted quickly, fielded the ball, and threw to Tyler Kuhn to retire Davis. And Scott Beerer advanced to second base.
One of the dumbest scoring rules in baseball, one that should be repealed immediately, is the one that says that a sacrifice bunt should not be credited if the batter is trying to bunt for a hit. Blake Davis tried to place the bunt in a way that maximized his ability to reach base safely while ensuring that the runner reached second. Because of Dan Johnson’s skill, and because Davis’ bunt wasn’t quite good enough, he was put out — but he still deserves credit for his effort.
I scored for BIS two of the games in the Tides four-game series against Charlotte, and both ended in 4-3 walkoff Tides wins. While Friday night’s game lasted just over four hours and fourteen innings before John Hester’s home run ended it, Sunday’s game was completed in the regulation nine. And the Tides won it in the bottom of the ninth on a Ryan Adams walkoff single.
I score games for BIS from a seat just to the third-base side of home plate, and noticed something today that I hadn’t really noticed before. In Harbor Park, there is a “party deck” in right field that shortens the right-field foul line to 318 feet. Moving over toward center field, the outfield wall juts out pretty sharply after the party deck en route to a monstrously distant power alley of 390+ feet. What I noticed today is that the right fielders play well off the right-field foul line, probably as much as 75 to 90 feet. I assume they do so because balls hit down the line will be stopped at 318 feet, limiting all but the fastest runners to doubles. Balls hit to right-center field will roll to 370 or 380 feet, making it more important to cut the ball off.
The Tides took advantage of the defensive positioning to score their first run. Ryan Adams hit a ground ball down the right-field line and reached second before the Knights’ right fielder Conor Jackson could retrieve it. Jamie Hoffmann immediately followed with a fly ball that dropped a few feet from the right-field line, just before Jackson could reach it. It went for a run-scoring double.
There’s an interesting set of philosophical dynamics at work here. It almost certainly makes sense for teams to play their right-fielders so far off the foul line. And if minor-league baseball was primarily concerned with winning, it would obviously make sense for Tides’ hitters, right-handed hitters in particular, to shoot for that open space as much as possible. However, what works for the Tides’ interest would work against the Baltimore Orioles’ interest in developing players. Most major-league teams don’t play their right fielders so far off the foul line, so there’s less of an advantage in being able to hit balls down the line. It’s a skill of no use and developing that skill hinders the development of other, more useful skills.
It is interesting to speculate on baseball with “free minor leagues”, in which farm system affiliations are eliminated and each team at each level is responsible for acquiring their own players. Would the Tides be more successful if they could win games by teaching their hitters to hit down the foul line? Or would better players, looking for the big contracts in the National and American leagues, skip the Tides to play in more standard ballparks? Would the Tides then develop their own players who’ll spend their careers in Norfolk? I just don’t know.
A few thoughts on the Tides 4-3, fourteen-inning win over Charlotte last night:
- After about the eleventh inning, most baseball games deteriorate into a slow slog of pitching-and-defense domination. Last night, Matt Antonelli hit a game-tying two-run home run in the seventh inning. Charlotte had a great chance in the tenth, with runners on first and third with one out – but Jordan Danks tapped a grounder to the pitcher. Conor Jackson on third broke for home on contact and was retired easily, and Ray Olmedo lined out to end the inning. In the Tides’ eleventh, the first two batters reached based, but Scott Beerer made a terrible sacrifice bunt attempt that led to a 5-6-4 double play, runners out at third and first. Then almost nothing happened for almost the next three innings. Charlotte got two walks in the thirteenth, but nothing came of it, and the Tides were retired in order in the twelfth, thirteenth, and the first two batters in the fourteenth before John Hester hit a line drive that just cleared the left-field wall.
Thinking about it, it’s not surprising that pitching and defense take over. The batters are tired, overanxious, and frustrated. They overswing and under-execute. Meanwhile, the game is in the hands of the bullpen, with fresh pitchers coming in after two or three innings. The batters may not see the same pitcher twice. So we should expect long, extra-inning games to be boring.
- It’s not unusual for a runner on first to break for second while a pitcher is making a pickoff throw. Most of the time, the runner is caught stealing 1-3-6; sometimes the runner successfully steals second. Last night, two Charlotte runners were caught breaking for second on a pickoff, and each time they turned their break into a rundown. Not to any real end – there were no other runners on base, and the first was ultimately retired 1-3-6-1 and the second 1-3-6-1-4-2-3. We think.
There’s not much to say about the Tides’ 7-1 loss to Gwinnett yesterday. The positives are that the Tides finally scored a run at home and that three veteran relief pitchers — Oscar Villareal, Miguel Socolovich, and Pat Neshek – pitched 5 2/3 innings of shutout relief. It was amusing that the first batter Socolovich faced was Joey Terdoslavich, “vich” tripped up the radio broadcasters for that at-bat. After Terdoslavich’s three-throwing-error performance on Monday, the G-Braves reacted by making him the designated hitter yesterday.
If the bullpen pitched well, and the team loses 7-1, that pretty much means that the starting pitcher didn’t. Because one of the four scheduled games in the Tides season-opening series against Charlotte was rained out and rescheduled into a doubleheader, the Tides chose to start long relief pitcher Chris George rather than bring Brad Bergesen back on three days’ rest. George gave up seven runs on nine hits in 3 1/3 innings, and left when Drew Sutton smashed a line drive off his body. George had relatively little trouble with the first four hitters in the Braves’ lineup. However, he faced the bottom five hitters twice each, and only got two outs against them.
George has been with the Tides since August of 2009. He was a first-round draft choice out of a Texas high school in 1998 and shot through the Royals’ system, reaching Kansas City at age 21. Much like current Tide Chris Tillman, he bounced between the majors and AAA for four seasons, becoming less and less effective in each successive season. He’s now 32, and I wonder why he’s still hanging on in AAA. There are many possible reasons, ranging from the pathetic — he doesn’t have anything better to do — through the mixed sad and inspiring — he believes he’s close to making it back to the major leagues — to the sort of noble — he just plain enjoys playing baseball. I don’t know which, if any of these are the real reason why Chris George is still pitching AAA. I do know that Chris George must be a good teammate and a pretty decent guy. For if he were a prima donna jerk, there’s no way he’d have stayed on the same team for his fourth season. Veteran AAA spot starters/long relief pitchers are a dime a dozen, and no team would put up with a jerk in that role for more than one season. I don’t know Chris George, and I wouldn’t say that I’m rooting for him in a baseball sense, but I am rooting for him to be happy.