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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Davis remains coy on NCAA investigation, but coaches cut up at Pigskin Preview

Posted by on Thu, Jul 22, 2010 at 7:35 PM

WASHINGTON DUKE INN/DURHAM Ruffin McNeill is heading into his first season as football coach at East Carolina.

UNC coach Butch Davis
  • UNC coach Butch Davis
And at his debut at the annual Pigskin Preview sponsored by the newly christened Bill Dooley Triangle/ East Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame, McNeill said it’s been a “whirlwind” ever since he took the job.

But at least for him, it has been a good whirlwind.

“You think Ruffin would like to trade whirlwinds?” UNC coach Butch Davis quipped in front of the packed banquet hall, in which Duke coach David Cutcliffe, N.C. Central’s Mose Rison and N.C. State’s Tom O’Brien were the other featured speakers.

Davis has been dealing with a big mess over the past two weeks, first with a marijuana-related arrest of star linebacker Quan Sturdivant on July 10 followed quickly by the news that the program was under NCAA scrutiny for possible rules violations with players talking to sports agents.

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Bulls battle back, but fall to Columbus in 12 long innings

Posted by on Thu, Jul 22, 2010 at 12:02 AM

DBAP/DURHAM It’s Game 3 of the four-game series between the leaders of the International League’s South and West Divisions, and so far the competition has been very close.

Bulls infielder Angel Chavez
  • Photo courtesy Durham Bulls
  • Bulls infielder Angel Chavez
The Durham Bulls and Columbus Clippers have split their first two games here as well as the season series overall, and unless there’s a monumental collapse on the part of one of them they’ll be meeting in the first round of the Governors’ Cup Playoffs in September.

It’s warm but not overly hot in downtown Durham as Virgil Vasquez (4-1) takes the hill for the Bulls against Justin Germano (2-2).

The game doesn’t last forever but it seems like it, with Columbus winning 8-6 in a 12-inning affair that lasts 4:21.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Durham Bulls shut out Columbus to snap mini-skid: In late, out early

Posted by on Wed, Jul 21, 2010 at 6:00 AM

Richard De Los Santos led the Bulls to Tuesdays win
  • photo courtesy of Durham Bulls
  • Richard De Los Santos led the Bulls to Tuesday's win
DBAP/ DURHAM—I was sure it was Ernest Hemingway who gave writers the advice to "get in late and get out early," but it turns out to be either the playwright David Mamet or the anonymous wind Mamet received it from; it's one of those dicta that seems to have acquired the force of nature. Start your story (scene, etc.) somewhere in the middle, after the action has already gained momentum, and end it before the last "thing" happens. Better dramatic compression.

Perhaps it's good that the source of the quotation remains unclear, because it has to be corrupted a little in order to apply it to the Bulls' 7-0 victory over Columbus last night. Rain delayed the start of the game by 91 minutes—that's the in-late part, and there were three early gettings-out. One of them certainly affected the outcome, and the other two probably did as well.

But nothing affected Bulls' starter Richard De Los Santos, who looked good from his first pitch and went on to turn in one of his best starts of the season, perhaps trailing only his seven shutout innings at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on June 2. Last night he threw six scoreless innings against Columbus, his sinking two-seam fastball, slider and changeup all working beautifully in an 87-pitch, walk-free performance. The previous night's 12-walk debacle, which led to a six-inning bullpen burnout in the Bulls' 8-3 loss on Monday, "put a lot of pressure on me to have a great game," De Los Santos said, not long after he had just that. Only two runners reached second base, and none made it to third, thanks partially to a pair of pickoffs. "Those little guys like to run," De Los Santos said of Columbus's speedsters, although he was really just referring to Jose Constanza, who leads the league in stolen bases. "So I had to pay attention."

The early exits and the late entries after the jump.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sands' homer gives Chattanooga split with Mudcats

Posted by on Tue, Jul 20, 2010 at 4:18 PM

Jerry Sands made sure his first series against his hometown Carolina Mudcats would be a memorable one.

Mudcats pitcher Tom Cochran
  • Photo by Nikolaus © 2010 Carolina Mudcats
  • Mudcats pitcher Tom Cochran
The Smithfield-Selma High alumnus ripped a solo homer in the sixth inning, giving Chattanooga the eventual winning run in a hot 3-2 result at Five County Stadium that gave the Lookouts a split of their four-game series.

Jon Huber (2-1) was the winning pitcher in relief. Mudcats starter Tom Cochran (7-4) took the loss, going five innings and allowing two runs on two hits with four strikeouts against four walks.

Felix Perez led Carolina at the plate with three hits and scored both runs, while Kris Negron doubled and singled.

The Mudcats will have Wednesday off before heading to Montgomery for a five-game road trip.

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Slumping Durham Bulls begin homestand with another loss to Columbus Clippers

Posted by on Tue, Jul 20, 2010 at 6:00 AM

DBAP/ DURHAM—When a team hits a slump, it generally isn't for just one reason, and no one wants to point fingers or make excuses. Asked an inevitable question, Jeremy Hellickson answered that no, his two-week break from pitching in anything but an exhibition (the Futures Game, part of the All-Star break pageant), for just two innings, had nothing to do with his poor outing last night. Nor was he interested in laying much blame on the toaster-sized strike zone of home plate umpire Derek Crabill, which helped along Hellickson's five-walk performance in a stint that lasted only 3 1/3 innings. Asked what he would do in order to pull his team out of its doldrums, manager Charlie Montoyo was quick to tell us that he wasn't planning on throwing chairs or yelling at his veteran team, which probably wouldn't take too well to being treated like disappointing children anyway. None of the Bulls' hitters agreed that having to wait out an interminable fourth inning, during which Hellickson and Dale Thayer threw 63 pitches (!), walked five men and gave up five runs on a sticky night at the ballpark, had anything to do with the lineup's failure to get another hit until the bottom of the seventh inning.

But anyone can see that there are causes and effects there, without question. The Bulls need a shakeup after losing to the Columbus Clippers, 8-3 last night, the fifth loss in their last six games. The tight strike zone was certainly a problem. Hellickson used up 46 pitches to get through the first two innings after his hiatus, and barely half of those pitches were strikes. The hitters looked overmatched again, this time by yet another guy with ho-hum stuff and a 5.61 ERA—and whom they hammered for 10 hits and eight runs back on May 14 in Columbus. Two of their runs scored on a flyball homer by Justin Ruggiano that got up in the air and somehow sailed over the Blue Monster. It was a surprise to glance at the scoreboard in the bottom of the fifth inning and see that Durham was still well in the game, only three runs down—the game seemed like it was over after the disastrous fourth inning, when Hellickson and Thayer, squeezed by Crabill, got burned for five runs, the big blow a three-run double by Jordan Brown on an 0-2 pitch, one that Thayer left out over the plate. That made it 6-3, and for the third straight game, the Bulls failed to score after the fourth inning.

Some thoughts on the Bulls' July retreat follow.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Lookouts pound Mudcats to end their losing streak

Posted by on Mon, Jul 19, 2010 at 11:17 PM

FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON It’s Game 3 of the Carolina Mudcats’ four-game home set with the Chattanooga Lookouts, and the home team is starting to think about a sweep.

Mudcats pitcher Scott Carroll
  • Photo by Nikolaus © 2010 Carolina Mudcats
  • Mudcats pitcher Scott Carroll
The Mudcats are back tied for first place in the Southern League’s North Division as they go into the 25th game of the second half, while Chattanooga hasn’t won a game in a week.

Game time temperature is reasonable in the high 80s, a brief respite for what is apparently going to happen later this week.

Scott Carroll (2-4) will take the hill for Carolina tonight against Lookouts southpaw Brent Leach (4-2).

It’s not a good night for the home team, as the Lookouts roll to an 8-1 victory.

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Charlotte Knights take down Durham Bulls: Perception Shifts

Posted by on Mon, Jul 19, 2010 at 6:00 AM

CHARLOTTE KNIGHTS STADIUM/ FORT MILL. S.C.—Hey, Bulls fans: your team will play five more games at Knights Stadium this season (August 16-18 and 28-29), and if you're one of those so-called purist types who can't quite handle the amusement park ethos of the DBAP, you ought to do yourself a favor and go down for a day or two. You'll get a whole new perspective on your team, and not only because you'll be seeing them in road grays. You'll see a bunch of guys trying, like every other Triple-A striver, to make a living and maybe break through to the other side, where the minimum salary is $400,000 per year and you fly in team-owned jets to play ball in glittering cities like Seattle and Chicago before tens of thousands of fans. The good folks at the DABP do their best every night to make the hometown boys look like rock stars. Go see them play in low-key, low-noise Charlotte (or, I'd wager, in Allentown or Toledo), and they look like a buncha no-name guys from the visiting team, whose fans have never heard of 'em.

And right now, they look like bums. Sure, Dan Johnson and Chris Richard homered on Sunday afternoon (Johnson's was his league-leading 25th), and Fernando Perez had three hits, but otherwise the Bulls—especially their pitchers—again looked glassy-eyed and overmatched against the suddenly potent and dogged Charlotte Knights, who beat Durham 8-4. The Knights took three of four from the Bulls in the home-and-home four-game series, shaving Durham's nine-game lead down to seven. "Right now I don't want to say they have a better team than we do," Charlie Montoyo said of the Knights after the loss; but the mere fact that he felt the need to preface his interview with that disclaimer was revealing. For the first time this season, the Bulls don't necessarily look like the best team in the South Division, let alone the International League. For the first time this season, they look flat and flimsy. For the first time this year, they look like a different team than the one we might have thought we had. Perceptions have shifted.

The new view, after the jump.

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tabor, Mudcats hold off Lookouts again to keep pace in division race

Posted by on Sun, Jul 18, 2010 at 6:05 PM

FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON It’s the second of the Carolina Mudcats’ four-game home set with the Chattanooga Lookouts, and it’s going to be a hot one.

Mudcats pitcher Lee Tabor
  • Photo by Nikolaus © 2010 Carolina Mudcats
  • Mudcats pitcher Lee Tabor
The Mudcats have some momentum going in, having won Saturday night’s opener to end a three-game losing streak, and they’re just a game out of first in the Southern League’s North Division. Chattanooga is trying to end a six-game losing streak.

The home team is colorful today, with pink and black stripes on its jerseys as part of a breast cancer awareness promotion. The horizontal stripe motif is reminiscent of the so-called “creamsicle” jerseys worn by the Houston Astros two decades ago.

Daryl Thompson (0-4) — who was recently diagnosed with mononucleosis — will pitch for the Mudcats against Chris Withrow (3-4).

For the second straight game the Mudcats get an early lead and hold on, beating the Lookouts 5-2.

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Mexican standoff in Durham as Cruz Azul rally for 1-1 draw; RailHawks defeat Rochester

Posted by on Sun, Jul 18, 2010 at 2:27 PM

Águila fans on the Cruz Azul side
  • David Fellerath
  • Águila fans on the Cruz Azul side
O'KELLY RIDDICK STADIUM/ DURHAM—It wasn't quite like the Secret Game, but for a gringo like myself, and my equally gringo companion, witnessing this affair was like being privy to a vibrant underground event that will go unnoticed by the cultural mainstream. But we knew about this game thanks to a flyer we spotted in a Mexican restaurant.

It was Cruz Azul, lions of Mexican soccer, versus Club Deportivo Águila, feral tomcats of Salvadoran soccer, duking it out on the artificial turf of N.C. Central University's football stadium. Despite an afternoon of heavy rain, and despite the $30 ticket price, several thousand showed up for a spirited and occasionally violent contest that ended in a 1-1 draw.

This is the season of the international club friendly as foreign teams barnstorm the United States and Canada in preparation for their upcoming seasons. These past few nights tell an interesting story about soccer in North America.

On Friday night, 40,000 fans showed up in Toronto's Rogers Centre to watch Manchester United's non-superstars beat the Scottish power Celtic, 3-1. Manchester United is the world's richest sports club, and their appearances constitute upscale entertainment ($90—$150 Canadian). In contrast, the English Premier League's mid-table mediocrity, the Bolton Wanderers, had to settle for the USL-2 (division 3) Charlotte Eagles on Wednesday night and the USL-2 Charleston Battery last night (where ticket prices started at $15).

What I found interesting was the existence of parallel soccer cultures—most especially in Charlotte. The Bolton game versus the Charlotte Eagles drew 2,383 fans to a 4,000-seat stadium. On the very same night, however, the Cruz Azul-C.D. Olimpia battle drew approximately 6,500 to a 24,000-seater, according to Carlos Villamarin, the Raleigh-based promoter of both Cruz Azul matches. Villamarin added that he won't be given the official figure for another two or three weeks.

Predictably, the Charlotte Observer covered the Bolton-Eagles game, played in the northern suburbs of the city, but the reporter did include a note about the result of a contest that drew three times as many fans to a stadium 10 blocks or so from the newspaper's downtown offices.

Last night in Durham, we'd believed the game time to be 7 p.m., but the national anthems (including "The Star-Spangled Banner") didn't go off until around 7:45. So, we had ample opportunity to stroll around the stadium. The crowd was almost exclusively Latino; it was mostly young men but there were plenty of families, too. There was a food truck or two, but we opted for a ramshackle mom 'n' pop setup on the visitors' side that was doing a brisk business in tamales and pupusas. Presumably because this event was on a college campus, there appeared to be no alcohol sales.

We looked out at the field, which NCCU converted to artificial turf last year. Nothing could be done about the gridiron markings, but NCCU's operations staff manfully prepared the pitch. The soccer lines were applied Friday night with special water-soluble paint acquired from a company in Missouri. The goals came from the intramural fields, and were equipped with new nets. (NCCU has no varsity soccer team.)

An impressive proportion of the crowd came decked out in colors—approximately two-thirds were in blue, while a substantial element turned out in Águila's very cool tiger-orange kit with black stripes. There were also vuvuzelas, this year's bane of popular culture. It doesn't take many to make a racket, but thankfully most of the blowers lost interest once the game got going.

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Durham Bulls quiet Knights in the Charlotte night: A road trip

Posted by on Sun, Jul 18, 2010 at 6:00 AM

Knights Stadium, Fort Mill, S.C.
  • Knights Stadium, Fort Mill, S.C.
KNIGHTS STADIUM/ FORT MILL, S.C.—Yes, the dateline is correct. This morning Heather and I were feeling a need to get out of town, and it wasn't long before the Triangle Offense beat writer in me came up with the idea to see what the Durham Bulls look like in their away uniforms. Informed of this motivating desire, Bulls utilityman Elliot Johnson quipped, "Only reason we can get a road reporter." Yo, E. J., it's either that or money, and there ain't no money.

So I'm coming to you from a Rock Hill motel tonight, Heather already half-asleep behind me, with a report not only on the Bulls' 2-1 victory over Charlotte at Knights Stadium, but a little bit about Knights Stadium itself. I know what you're thinking, and in reply, let me just say: Hey, you're welcome. Somebody had to do it.

The basics of last night's Bulls victory are, well, basic, for those that would like to stop there: Two good starting pitchers kept two good-hitting lineups in check. (Elliot Johnson and Chris Richard both weighed in later with the old axiom that "good pitching will always beat good hitting.") The Bulls' Heath Phillips, who Charlie Montoyo thought was throwing a bit harder than he had been lately, perhaps emerging from a dead-arm period, allowed only a solo homer to Stefan Gartrell (Gartrell's 17th), an opposite-field salvo that barely cleared the very, very near right-field wall—it's only 347 to the alley at Knights Stadium. Phillips had one of his better starts in recent memory, using his breaking pitches very effectively. I think he throws a cut fastball (it could be a slider), but he was leaving the park as I went down to conduct interviews and so I couldn't ask him any questions. I'll try to get to him Sunday.

The Knights' Matt Zaleski was almost as good as Phillips; in some ways he was better; but a walk and a pair of hit batters cost him two runs, and the ballgame. Neither team scored after the fourth inning, despite some chances, especially for Durham, which stranded eight runners in scoring position. The Bulls still don't look good at the plate since the All-Star break ended, and although it probably made the team feel good to win a game in which they had just six hits—three by Chris Richard, who said afterward that he likes hitting here—there are really no excuses at this point. Plenty of other teams are hitting. Perhaps coming away with a quiet win will get the bats out of their cave.

More on the game, and notes on the Knights' roundtable diamond, after the jump.

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