DBAP/ DURHAM—Last night's game was set up as a pitchers' duel: Durham's Matt Moore versus Columbus' Zach McAllister. It came close to its billing. Columbus beat Durham, 3-0, behind six excellent innings from McAllister, who was backed by Chad Huffman's solo homer and booming RBI double. The Bulls went hitless after the fifth inning against McAllister and two relievers—and two of the five hits they got up to that point were bunt singles; a third was a chopper past the mound that went about 90 feet.
There's no question that McAllister pitched well. He kept his sinking fastball down, mixed in his slider and changeup, and made a team that has had a painfully hard time scoring runs look totally feckless. (Personal to DeMargel: is that what you wanted?) In the deathly quiet ninth inning, the heart of the Durham order—Matt Carson, Dan Johnson and Russ Canzler—all struck out swinging in lame sequence against Columbus closer Zach Putnam. As the teams left the field following the 2:23 game, it felt as if the Bulls would never score another run ever again.
They will, though. But will the bedeviled Bulls score enough to win a game?
And is there some other game being played on the DBAP field that's been keeping them from doing it?
For the fifth straight year, and Charlie Montoyo's fifth as manager, the Durham Bulls have qualified for the International League playoffs.
Before we go any further, it's worth taking a moment to appreciate what a rare and remarkable accomplishment that is—especially in the chancy environment of Class AAA baseball.
There are those who might argue that, because the Tampa Bay Rays have one of baseball's top farm systems, Montoyo's job is easy. All he has to do is preside over his two-dozen blue-chip prospects and watch the wins pile up.
For one thing, it doesn't really work that way—there are seldom more than three or four legit big-leaguers on any Triple-A roster. For another, every team at the Class AAA level has good players. The talent gap between the Durham Bulls and just about any other team, even the worst of them, is actually quite slim. Somehow, the Montoyo-piloted Bulls keep finding, every year, that margin of difference. We'll call it The Extra 2%, in honor of Jonah Keri's book-length homage to the Rays' acumen.
This year's team did not have the overall talent of last year's, which was so good that, for a while, it had eventual league OPS-leader Chris Richard batting seventh in the lineup. The 2011 Bulls were a more modest club in terms of talent and overall character. It wasn't until after the All Star break that this year's team really began to come into focus, when half a dozen Montgomery Biscuits began their collective rise to Durham. Those younger players, along with a few Class AAA stalwarts, helped Durham finish 80-62, good for the league's third best record. It was an over-achievement, and another boldfaced bullet-point on Charlie Montoyo's already loaded résumé .
The Bulls' reward for their accomplishments this year is a first-round rematch of the 2010 Governors' Cup Championship Series against the International League's best team by far: the Columbus Clippers.
"I kind of like it," Montoyo said this afternoon. "Because if we go through Columbus, our chances are better."
I actually have a prediction for this series. You can read through to the end, or just cheat and skip. But you'll feel dirty if you do.
KNIGHTS STADIUM/ FORT MILL, S.C.—On the ride home from Charlotte, not too far from Durham out on Interstate 85, they were doing late-night road work. The northbound route narrowed to one lane, traffic slowed to about the speed of an R. J. Swindle curve ball, and for a few miles we were riding behind a garbage truck.
Ah, the perfect way to close out this long, late-August sequence: For close to two weeks I've been following the Bulls, first to Norfolk, Va., then back to Durham, and then further south to Charlotte. Almost all along, they've stunk, and their drive toward the playoffs has been slowed.
The Bulls lost last night to Charlotte, 2-0. The game really came down to one pitch. Mike Ekstrom, on in relief of Chris Archer, who had pitched seven shutout innings, allowed a leadoff single in the eighth inning to rehabbing White Sox catcher A. J. Pierzynski. Dallas McPherson followed with a double to right-center field, and a scoreless tie looked sure to be broken.
But Ekstrom fought back, striking out Lastings Milledge and Jim Gallagher on consecutive full-count pitches.
On the very next pitch after Gallagher struck out, Jordan Danks dinked a 130-foot, opposite-field, namby-pamby double over third base, right on the chalk line, to score two runs.
And so it goes. Game over. I've been writing that a lot lately, and seldom on Durham's behalf.
It's not just the Bulls who lost a chance to win. The Gwinnett Braves sent ace Julio Teheran to the mound in Norfolk, he was bombed for six runs in three innings, Gwinnett lost, and Durham is now just a single win or Braves loss from clinching the IL South Division.
I'm not sure I can say anything else with any certainty, but I'll try.
KNIGHTS STADIUM/ FORT MILL, S.C.—From guts and more guts to tripe. The Bulls played a couple of anxious, playoff-tense, one-run games against heel-nipping Gwinnett on Monday and Tuesday. The Braves won the first but the Bulls, crucially, won the second, pushing their IL South Division lead up to a reasonably comfortable 3 1/2 games with six to play.
In the Bulls' exciting win on Tuesday night, they showed the strength and courage I had vaguely questioned after Monday's loss: Pitchers toughened up in the face of trouble; a Bull got a clutch hit (finally!) in a fraught late-game situation; and another player made a risky, diving, game-ending catch. Encouraged by these signs, I ended my game story envisioning that the next night in Charlotte might reveal "not just the strength but the length of their guts."
Didn't even make it past the duodenum. In the bottom of the first inning last night, the Bulls' infield made errors on consecutive grounders hit by the Knights' first two hitters. Then a couple more grounders—or perhaps "dirtballs" (see video below)—deflected off of Durham starter Andy Sonnanstine (first glove, then leg) for singles. Then Sonnanstine allowed consecutive doubles to Jim Gallagher and Jordan Danks; and it was suddenly 5-0, Charlotte.
Game over. Oh, they went ahead and played the rest of it anyway, because they had to. Sonnanstine gave up a couple more runs in the third, including the second homer he has allowed to Dallas McPherson in as many games against him, and was lifted after three innings—but not because he was desperately ineffective: Instead, he was rewarded with a callup to Tampa Bay, joining Justin Ruggiano and Brandon Guyer. Sonnanstine had in fact only been scheduled to throw three innings in the first place, yet he was so bad that he nearly didn't make it that far. Brian Baker relieved and allowed three more runs, and the final score was 10-2, Knights. The Bulls pitched, hit and fielded miserably. They were, and perhaps are, offal.
Gwinnett helped out a bit, splitting a doubleheader at Norfolk, so the Bulls saw their division lead level off at three games with five remaining. They can continue to play this badly and almost surely win the division anyway. It's almost too bad.
DBAP/ DURHAM—Yesterday I was wondering whether the Durham Bulls had guts. Let me direct you to the top of the ninth inning of the Bulls' exciting 4-3 win over the Gwinnett Braves last night, a huge step toward getting Durham into the post-season.
There was one out and the score was 4-3, Durham. The out was secured by left fielder Russ Canzler, who was named league MVP earlier in the day, drove in the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth with a clutch two-out single—after striking out in his three previous at-bats—and had just raced to the retaining wall in foul territory and caught Wilkin Castillo's foul fly ball. Not a great play, by any means, but a good one, especially for a guy who takes flak for his fielding.
The next batter was the Braves' other Wilkin, the one named Ramirez. He goes around singing to himself, "With the thoughts I'd be thilkin' / I could be another Wilkin." Ramirez singled to left field off of Rob Delaney.
I am psychic. I've said it before and will have cause to say it again. This is not a boast. We are all psychic, but our minds are over-cluttered with stimuli and so we can't hear the messages that the future sends us. What I like about watching baseball games is that their deep but thrumming quiet, and their extraordinary, head-clearing equilibrium, push out all of the mental obstructions and allow you to see the future.
I thought to myself: Someone is going to make a diving catch to decide this game.