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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Durham Bulls down Norfolk Tides, win third straight division title

Posted by on Sun, Sep 6, 2009 at 5:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM---Shortly before game time last night, a debate broke out in the press box about the Bulls' "magic number" for clinching the International League South Division title. The Bulls were two games ahead of Gwinnett going into the game, so it seemed initially that, with three games to play, it would take any combination of Durham wins and Gwinnett losses totaling two to seal the deal.

But others pointed out that, in case of a regular-season tie, the Bulls would, for the purpose of the playoffs, be named the winner by virtue of their better record within the division. (The first tiebreaker, the teams' head-to-head record, was nullified because the Bulls and Braves were 11-11 in direct competition with one another.) The Braves would be the wild card team. Thus, it was argued, the magic number was really only 1, because a single Bulls win or Gwinnett loss would assure an outcome no worse for the Bulls than the tie they needed.

Someone else countered that a tie is still a tie, and the tiebreaker was merely a latency, a fiction until it had to be actually wielded; and then someone else used the word semantics, kind of grouchily, and in any case it was decided that the score of the Gwinnett Braves' game versus the Charlotte Knights would occasionally, as the evening progressed, be flashed on the big screen affixed to the Blue Monster.

As it happened, that game began an hour before the Bulls took on the Norfolk Tides, so just as the action as the DBAP was beginning, the out-of-town score went up on the board. It was already 6-1 Charlotte in the third inning down in Georgia.

Cheers from the stands. Then Bulls' General Manager Mike Birling rendered much of the rest of the debate immaterial by informing us that the champagne was already on ice down in the clubhouse.

And the Bulls made it even less material by beating the Tides, 5-1. It was Durham's third straight division title, and the team's in the last 12 years, a truly remarkable run.

The game itself was actually rather ho-hum, and noteworthy mainly for how it hearkened back---perhaps appropriately---to the type of game the Bulls often won early in the season: a short but effective starting pitching performance, inefficient hitting with runners on base, and a lockdown bullpen.

An oddity of minor-league baseball: on the night when the Bulls could clinch their division title, their starting pitcher had made precisely one previous appearance in a Bulls uniform. Rayner Oliveros, who pitched 4 2/3 so-so innings in relief of Jeff Bennett on Monday, was pretty much the only thing resembling a rested, long-haul vessel in Charlie Montoyo's hangar, so Oliveros took the mound. His numbers in Montgomery had been good, but they were nowhere near as good as last night's performance suggested. He tossed 5 2/3 innings of two-hit ball, allowing just one run, which was unearned thanks to one of Elliot Johnson's two fielding errors. Oliveros walked just one and struck out eight.

Honestly, it was hard to figure out how he was mastering the Tides. His fastball topped out at 88 mph, and he had some average-looking offspeed pitches and breaking balls. But he looked like an ace out there. When I wondered aloud how he was doing it, Dave Levine, the Bulls' gamecast operator, replied succinctly, almost offended by my ignorance of the plainly obvious: "Because Norfolk sucks."

And so they do, another team looted by its parent club and left for dead. When the Tides last visited the DBAP, they were sparked offensively by leadoff man Joey Gathright, who has since been traded, and powered by Michael Aubrey and Jeff Fiorentino, both recently promoted to Baltimore. Without those three, it isn't much of a lineup. Oliveros dominated the Tides' spindrift and their newly called-up accomplices, who didn't accomplish much. They managed only five baserunners all night, while striking out 12 times.

Part of their futility owed to the Durham bullpen. Taking no chances---and, I suspect, acknowledging a debt to the relief horses that got his team to the playoffs---Charlie Montoyo honored his go-to guys by using Julio DePaula, Dale Thayer and Winston Abreu for the final 3 1/3 innings. DePaula pitched a 1-2-3 seventh inning after getting the last out of the sixth for Oliveros. DePaula's final pitch was a 94-mph fastball for strike three against Ambiorix Concepcion, just called up from Double-A Bowie five days ago. Thayer worked around a two-out single in the eighth, and then Abreu did his usual shaman work in the ninth, twitching and imprecating on the mound, and at one point rearing back and throwing so hard (one pitch touched 96 on the DBAP radar gun) that he almost fell over after finishing his delivery. When he fanned Brandon Snyder for the final out of the game, his teammates stormed the field with bottles of bubbly, which they sprayed on each other enthusiastically.

The Bulls left the bases F.O.B. twice in this game, once failing to score after loading the sacks with no one out (we've seen that before). They also grounded into double plays to end four consecutive innings. But they did enough damage to score three times through the first seven innings, and three runs felt like twice that many against the desalinated Tides. When Michel Hernandez finally delivered a big hit, a two-out, two-run single in the eighth, it was all over.

The little sequin on the game owed to a combination of good baseball and coincidental timing. With one out in the bottom of the fourth, the Bulls leading 1-0, and new Bull Sean Rodriguez (welcome to the club!) on first base, the scoreboard flashed an updated score from Gwinnett: Knights 10, Braves 1 in the sixth inning. A roar went up from the healthy crowd of 8,855. Immediately after, Matt Joyce lined a single to right, advancing Rodriguez to third. That was the key hit in the Bulls' two-run surge in the inning, and it made the game feel like Durham had total command.

Three innings later, just as the top of the seventh was beginning, another update: the score in Gwinnett had gone final. The crowd roared again. Right then, Brandon Snyder hit a tailing liner down the right field line. Matt Joyce stepped back into the limelight: he went into full gallop, and then made a diving, full-extension, highlight-reel catch, saving a double or perhaps a triple. If the Tides had any spark left in them, Joyce's grab smothered it right then and there.

It was nice to see Joyce do so well in a game that meant so much. He hasn't had quite the breakout year the Rays were probably hoping for---a shortfall sharply and brightly contrasted by the outstanding numbers being put up in Detroit by the guy he was traded for in the offseason, Edwin Jackson. Joyce has seemed a bit tense, a bit tight at times, as if he knows how high the expectations are and is feeling over-pressured, because of those expectations plus Jackson's superb year. Joyce is a very good hitter who has often looked impatient at the plate, and he has struck out and popped up a lot this year while trying, to my eyes, to do a little too much. I'm betting that he shows marked improvement in 2010, and gets himself called up and given a shot to earn regular playing time in Tampa---or flipped to another team, where he might have a chance to turn himself into a Paul O'Neill-type, line-drive-hitting right fielder.

***

All the lockers in the clubhouse were covered in plastic to accommodate the airborne alcoholic bubble bath already in progress when I walked in, about 10 minutes after the game ended. Most of the players were fully soaked, but they were still going at it with gusto, especially Ray Olmedo, who kept squealing, "cerveza!" and then pouring it on people's heads. Winston Abreu strafed me with a tallboy of Bud Light. Rising star Jeremy Hellickson, who had been in his civvies (he was charting pitches from the stands), was forced to change into something more suitable for drenching, and he was quickly doused with a cocktail of beer, champagne and ice.

The celebration was gleeful and heartfelt, but also a little odd. A good portion of the current roster hasn't been with the team very long, so the festivities had the feel of a wedding reception at which many of the guests don't really know the bride and groom. They're happy to be part of the revelry---and they know what to do with an open bar or champagne bottle when they see it---but their investment simply doesn't equal others'. It was no surprise that the leaders of the merriment were guys like Abreu, Joyce, Olmedo and Justin Ruggiano, who have been here for most or all of the 2009 campaign.

Charlie Montoyo declined to make the speech his players were asking him for---he asked, rather touchingly, where Jon Weber was. Perhaps Weber and/or Jason Childers, training with Team USA in Cary, were expected last night. Apparently there will be a team party following Sunday's game; I'll wager that the two soon-to-be-servicemen will be there.

I asked Montoyo about the year as a whole, and he remarked again that, although the season was unusually dense with roster turnover, he knew how to weather it. Still, he acknowledged, "to get to this point again is outstanding---amazing, actually." Then he noted an irony in the way the Bulls' fortunes rose, fell and rose again. "One thing in Triple-A I found out: whenever you're not good"---and by "not good," he very clearly meant the caliber of his team's talent, which fluctuated quite a bit---"if you can hang in there and play .500---." He interrupted himself here: "What happened was, when we were not good, we played over .500." He was referring to the late-May/early June stretch when the team was raided for spare parts by the injury-ravaged major-league club, and was also beset by injuries of its own, forcing desperate callups and independent-league temp hires. Yet during that time, the Bulls went on a tear, at one point winning 19 of 26 games with fifth-ranking catcher Alex Jamieson playing first base a couple of times, only 11 position players on the roster for a few days, and one memorably weird game when fourth-string catcher Craig Albernaz had to play second base. Guys like Brandon Chaves and Chris Nowak, both of whom are now footnotes, made solid contributions.

But later, at the beginning of August, right after Montoyo called his suddenly talent-loaded club "the best team of the year so far," they fell into .500 mode and below, going 9-12 for three weeks before finally recovering late to surge back up to the top of the division. "You never know about this game," Montoyo said. "That's why we love it." And so it was quite apt that the winning pitcher last night was an unknown, virtually a ringer.

I tried to get Montoyo to assess the work that he himself did in guiding this complex team to the title, but in his typically modest way, he wouldn't bite, except to say, "I play everybody so that everybody feels part of the team. That's what I do. There isn't one guy that hasn't played a lot. So whenever somebody gets called up, that guy's been playing already." Montoyo added that he played Triple-A plenty himself, and he didn't like it when he didn't get much time on the field. He's making it up to all of his prospects now by sharing the wealth on the diamond. It's a matter of more than procedure to him; it's a moral philosophy and a well-developed praxis.

The clubhouse was so full of carbonated fun that I forgot to ask Montoyo who will start for the Bulls on Sunday: there's no one currently in that slot in the rotation. But don't think Montoyo's anxious about that---and not only because, to be honest, the game doesn't matter at all now that the prize has been claimed. One thing I did happen to notice, though: Craig Albernaz, the unheralded, diminutive catcher, pressed into action for Durham early this season due to injuries to catchers all over the Rays' system, has been reactivated off the disabled list (and was actually never injured to start with). Albernaz pitched a scoreless inning of blowout relief for Montoyo not long ago---an example of Montoyo's commitment to finding playing time for everyone---so don't be surprised if you see him on the mound again at some point on Sunday or Monday, chucking his 89-mph fastballs plateward. (Maybe Montoyo will even contrive to give Albernaz a chance to pull off this rare feat.) The weather's going to be lovely; players will be swinging early in the count so you can make your Labor Day cookouts on time; and these will be the last two strictly-for-fun games before the crackle-and-buzz of the playoffs hits the DBAP on Wednesday, when the league-best Louisville Bats swoop into town.

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