A little interlude here (well, really a long one) while the Durham Bulls enjoy what Brandon Guyer called "this glorious off day"—the Bulls' last of the regular season—in a Tweet early this afternoon. After they split two games this past weekend up in Norfolk (see reports here and here), they find themselves six games ahead of second-place Gwinnett in the International League South Division with 15 to play. Gwinnett plays Charlotte at home tonight, so the number will change by half a game before the Bulls play Norfolk, again, on Tuesday; but either way Durham will still hold its largest division lead of 2011.
Let's say the G-Braves beat Charlotte tonight. That would make them 69-61. Durham is 74-53. Because of two games canceled by rain earlier this season (both at Syracuse), the Bulls will play two fewer games than Gwinnett. In a scenario in which the teams finish in what they call a virtual tie for first—that is, without numerically identical records but proportionally even ones—the Bulls would have a slightly higher winning percentage than the Braves. Thus the Braves have to finish a game better than the Bulls in order to win the division. Even if the Bulls were to go, say, 5-10 over these last 15 games—which would be their worst stretch of the season, by far—Gwinnett would still have to go 12-3 to overtake them.
Teams can fall apart at any time, but it should be noted that the Bulls haven't really done that this year, at any point. The team's worst slump this year lasted five games. That actually happened twice, once in late April and once in late May. Since the latter five-game skid, the Bulls have lost as many as three straight games only once, and that was in the first week of June. For the last two months or so, the team has slowly but steadily won the race, or at least nearly won it. Durham was just three games over .500 on June 12, when they lost to Norfolk in a game delayed over three hours by rain. They've gone 41-23 since then, and have really surged recently, having gone 12-4 over their last 16 games.
The dread September 1 major-league roster expansion threshold is approaching; that means, as it does every year, that some of the best Bulls will be called up to a higher pasture. But if the Bulls put together a good home stand, they could extend their lead to a more or less unreachable length. That would make September 1 just another day to say rabbit-rabbit, and Durham could leap on into the playoffs without missing a hop.
Still, they'll have to find a little more spring in their step in order to get there. The baseball season is long and taxing and full of wearying travel and nagging injury. My road trip to Norfolk left me with plenty to chew on, but nothing so chewy as this: Most of these players, much as they love what they do—they get to play baseball for a living!—would really like to go home.
More on that, by way of Dane De La Rosa, and then some thoughts about Norfolk—its team, its ballpark and its town—follows.
Montoyo actually tried to interrupt me before I could say the word '"six." "Don't tell me!" he pleaded, too late. Then he looked down at his desk, a little glumly, like a kid who has just been informed three days before Christmas what his presents are.
It's well-known that Montoyo works very hard not to know exactly where his team stands, even late in the season, as long as "we're playing for something." That phrase, which Montoyo has used a few times recently, is a surrogate for "heading for the post-season."
The Gwinnett Braves had already lost to Charlotte before the Bulls even took the field yesterday. Montoyo noted, almost resentfully, that the Harbor Park scoreboard cycles through the International League scores all during the game, making it impossible not to know how his closest rivals had fared.
He had other things on his mind early. Durham and Norfolk combined to score six runs in the first three innings of last night's game, collecting 10 hits and six walks in that early stretch. Tides starter Chris George allowed five hits and five walks in just three innings of work, yet the Bulls scored only three times off of him, grounding into a double play, getting caught stealing, and stranding four runners in scoring position through three times at bat against George.
Meanwhile, the Bulls' Matt Torra, not sharp and victimized by first-inning bad luck, gave up five hits and a walk of his own. The score was tied, 3-3, after 2 1/2 innings, and we appeared to be headed for one of those ugly 11-8 games. Rain fell steadily from the second inning into the middle part of the game. There was lightning. There was also smoky haze that had drifted up from a fire in Dismal Swamp, the (currently closed) state park down over the North Carolina border. It seemed we might be here all night, peering through the polluted night at a polluted game.
But then, oddly, the game totally changed its course. Neither team scored again from the third inning until the top of the 10th, when Tim Beckham hit the third of three consecutive one-out singles to score Ray Olmedo. The Bulls held on, Dane De La Rosa laboring through two tense innings to earn the win, and Rob Delaney benefiting from two good fielding plays to save it for his bullpen comrade.
I owe Matt Torra an apology, too, and I'll tell you why below. That apology has to do with why tonight's post will again be relatively short. I'll be back later Monday—an off-day for the Bulls as they gear up for their final home stand of the season—with more detailed notes and thoughts about the game, the team and Norfolk. I'll also have some cheering news about the future of our Bulls coverage here at the Independent. Read on, and then check back later for more.
On this late-summer evening, however, it was the Carolina RailHawks of old that flocked around WakeMed Park’s pristine pitch. Before 4,629 eager partisans, Carolina was as keen as mustard, finding goals from familiar wellsprings while earning their first 90-minute clean sheet since the July 3rd whitewash of Montreal.
The Bulls charged into town last night—actually, at around 5:00 a.m. much, much earlier yesterday morning, after a seven-hour bus ride from Pennsylvania—as the proud owners of a season-high six-game winning streak. They had just improbably swept the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees; they had worked out their little bullpen kinks, which plagued them for the first two games of the trip up in Buffalo; and their closest division rivals, the Gwinnett Braves, had fallen off some, allowing the Bulls to build their South Division lead out to five games.
And then the Bulls lost 3-2 to Norfolk, the league's second-worst team. Tides starter Rick Vandenhurk threw well and held Durham to two hits over six innings, and the Bulls weren't quite able to break through against Norfolk's bullpen. Andy Sonnanstine was the hard-luck loser, giving up three runs in six-plus innings but pitching better than his line showed.
This report is going to be on the short side (for me, anyway). When you cover a team only at home, as I normally do, road games are strange. Harbor Park drew its largest crowd of the season last night, over 11,000—so it was both eye-opening to witness and, at the same time, I was assured, quite unusual: even Tides employees seemed a little perplexed by the turnout. Some of the fans were really just there for a pregame concert by an Elvis Presley impersonator—he and his band, which was pretty good, set up their little stage right on home plate (Elvis died 34 years ago last week, is that why we saw this?)—and some others were apparently lured in by the between-innings antics of the Zooperstars (follow the link if you really must know). There is also a brand new metro rail system that stops at the ballpark—really brand new; its first ever day of service was the day before yesterday—and apparently it was free to ride all week. I repeat, Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill: a metro rail system.
So there was a lot of stuff going on, what with the unfamiliar setting; the huge crowd; the big oversized inflatable Zooperstars; the Elvis; the trip from the Press Box to the clubhouse that took reporters through what I believe were actual catacombs; etc. The game was very nearly an afterthought. Except that it wasn't, and those before- and afterthoughts follow.
The day after the second loss up in the City of No Illusions, it rained, washing out yet another Bulls game—I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I bet that something like one in every five games this season has been delayed, postponed or canceled by rain.
Usually, rain is unwelcome, of course—what little momentum baseball generates owes not to its fitful in-game action but to its nearly unbroken run of days and innings over the long spring and summer.
Yet this rain-out was a welcome one, or at least the subsequent results suggest as much. The Bulls swept a doubleheader from the Bisons the following night, Monday, and then went down to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Penna., where they took the first two games of that series from the Yankees—whose third baseman was a major-league rehabber by the name of Alex Rodriguez. Sometimes, perhaps, you need the threat of the drought of a potential losing streak doused by a forced day off.
A sprinkling of details of how the North has been won (so far), prefaced by some thoughts about developments closer to home—right in downtown Durham, in fact—that could very well be relevant.
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—Playing for the first time at WakeMed Soccer Park since manager Martin Rennie was tapped to lead the MLS's Vancouver Whitecaps in 2012, Carolina RailHawks offered fans a pre-game parking lot feast at the annual Taste of the Triangle and a 1-1 draw with the NSC Minnesota Stars that was hard to digest.
The result snapped a nine-match home winning streak for the table-topping Cary club (14-3-4). It also means that after three attempts, the RailHawks still lack a victory this term against Manny Lagos' well-organized, fourth-place Minnesota squad (7-8-6).
RailHawks striker Pablo Campos saw his ninth goal of the season, a neatly tucked away 48th-minute shot that slid through goalkeeper Joe Warren's legs, cancelled out just seven minutes later from a deft side-netting finish from Lucas Rodriguez.
Rodriguez used his purple boots to draw the match level in the 55th minute. He was put in from a sweet, scooped ball from Simone Bracalello over the heads of a stranded Carolina back four that he ran onto and parlayed into an angled, expert equalizer.
"There was a free runner coming across the back, probably a little bit of miscommunication there," said new signing Tony McManus, who deputized at right back in his home debut and second match with the side.
"It was a good goal, you can't really say much about it, but it's something that we should never give up."
FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON The Carolina Mudcats are playing something close to sudden-death baseball as they play the finale of their five-game home series against the Montgomery Biscuits.
The Mudcats, the worst team in the Southern League in the first half, trail the first-place Chattanooga Lookouts by 6 ½ games in the North Division. And tomorrow will present the proverbial golden opportunity, as the Mudcats are preparing to leave for a five-game series with the Lookouts beginning Tuesday.
Montgomery is second to the in-state rival Mobile Bay Bears in the South Division, but the deficit is nine games with 21 to play.
The Mudcats hit hard early and hold on, winning 6-5 to take the set 3 games to 2 and move to within six games headed into the must-win series.
Two days later, Rusin would be gone, bound for HB Køge of Denmark’s top division. And over the coming month, the team would become enveloped by rumors regarding other players possibly departing for greener pitches, including leading scorers Etienne Barbara and Pablo Campos. Then last Tuesday, Rennie was announced as the next head coach of Major League Soccer's Vancouver Whitecaps effective at the end of this season, capping weeks of speculation about possible job offers from Montreal and elsewhere.
The RailHawks’ most important fortnight thus far this season got off to an inauspicious start Saturday night, as Carolina fell to the Puerto Rico Islanders 2-0 in Bayamón. It was Carolina’s second straight defeat, the first time they have lost consecutive games this year.
FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON Time to check in again on the Carolina Mudcats, who are going to need a miracle to make the playoffs in their final season in the Southern League but are having a respectable second half.
Montgomery, which has about half of its first-half team now playing with the Durham Bulls, is in second place in the South Division but seven games behind the first-place Mobile BayBears.
Justin Lehr (0-1, 3.74) will be taking on the Biscuits’ Shane Dyer (6-7, 4.67) on what is fortunately a mild 74-degree night.
The Mudcats struggle early but pour it on the rest of the way, sending the home fans happy with a 9-4 victory.
This is Part 2 of a two-part story; read Part 1 here.
Carolina has been successful by these criteria for two stretches in the last generation—between 1979 and 1983 under Dick Crum, when Carolina attended five straight bowl games (winning four), claimed the 1980 ACC title, and was a fixture in the national rankings, and between 1992 and 1997 under Mack Brown, when Carolina attended six consecutive bowl games and spent much of the 1996 and 1997 seasons in the national top 10.
Since then, Carolina football has only been sporadically successful; the Tar Heels had a record of 32-48 in ACC games in the 2000s, improving slightly to 15-17 in the past four seasons under Davis (2007-10). Yet many of Carolina’s football-first fans get irate if it is suggested that a reasonable aspiration is simply to try to duplicate the most successful period of the Crum and Brown years, then go on from there. They insist instead that for a school with UNC’s stature and assets, real successes must be measured in BCS appearances and, eventually, national titles.
Unfortunately, achieving that level of success is much harder in today’s expanded ACC than in days gone by. In the 1980s or 1990s, Carolina could schedule three easy or at least winnable non-conference games, expect to beat Duke and Wake Forest most years, then hope to win half of the remaining games to get to an impressive-looking 8-3 regular season.
But today, in the ACC Coastal division, Carolina has the job of trying to supplant traditional powers Virginia Tech and Miami, outcompete Georgia Tech, and make sure there is no resurgence at Virginia. Given the competitiveness of the modern ACC, many UNC fans were persuaded that a figure like Davis was needed to put Carolina over the top.
Yet a key irony is that there is good reason to doubt that Davis was in fact the coach to lead Carolina to the promised land. In addition to four losses to N.C. State, Davis’ Carolina teams, while generally competing hard, lost numerous winnable games after leading in the fourth quarter, including four occasions in which the Tar Heels gave up second half leads of two or more scores. Davis’s record in games at Carolina decided by seven or fewer points was a mediocre 13-16.
Worse, his teams’ play was often marred by indiscipline at key moments. In Davis’s last game as coach, against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl, the field goal unit inexplicably ran on the field as quarterback T. J. Yates was trying to hike the ball and spike it in the waning seconds of regulation, a mistake that came within a split second of costing the Tar Heels the game. Davis himself named attention to detail and discipline as key issues for his program after the 2009 Meineke Car Care Bowl 19-17 loss to Pittsburgh, a game in which Carolina had back-to-back illegal formation penalties that turned a first-and-goal from the 5 into a first-and-goal from the 15, Greg Little punted the ball into the stands after a touchdown, Carolina committed a 15-yard interference penalty on a punt return to set up one field goal, then jumped offside prior to a 47-yard field goal attempt to prolong Pittsburgh’s final drive and allow them to boot the game-winning kick from just 33 yards out with under a minute to go.