DBAP/Durham - Durham Bulls 6, Gwinnett Braves 5 in nine innings. The game was THIS close to being the third straight extra inning game to start the season. Jokes were offered in the press box in this regard. Everybody was relieved when the game ended in nine innings, albeit still late in time in walk-off fashion at the 3 hour 25 minute mark.
I want to offer a couple of qualifiers before I report on tonight's game.
I haven't written a story about the details of a sporting event since I was sports editor of The Pamlicoan, the weekly student paper of Washington (N.C.) High School, published each Friday in the Washington Daily News (my hometown sits on the Pamlico River – the Tar River changes its name to the Pamlico at the Hwy 17 bridge in downtown Washington). Probably, the last sporting event I covered was a boys and girls track meet between Washington and Tarboro/ Edenton/ Williamston/ Ahoskie in the spring of 1985.
It may take me a while to get the hang of this, which is why I skipped the post-game press interviews. I felt a need to make it back to my place on the Durham side of Chapel Hill to start writing this piece. Also, media access to players and manager Charlie Montoyo would be delayed by the post-game autograph session the Bulls were offering to fans. So I bolted.
I'm sitting at my desk listening to the Rays-Yankees from St. Petersburg (Rays win 8-6). Last year the Rays had more players that had played for their AAA team than any other team in the MLB playoffs. 21 of the 25-man Rays playoff roster went through Durham on their way to St. Pete. The organic connection between the Bulls and Rays makes the Bulls the most interesting minor league baseball franchise.
Tonight's pitching matchup was a mismatch on paper. Braves RPH Julio Teheran is one of the best pitchers in baseball not in MLB. Last year he was 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA. It's a minor upset that he didn't make the Atlanta Braves roster, but he's only 21, and barely that (born January 27, 1991). Meanwhile, the Bulls' starter, Bryan Augenstein, age 25, started only one game for the Memphis Redbirds last year and lasted 1.1 innings. The year before that, Augenstein was 6-9 with a 6.49 ERA in a season split between AA Mobile, Alabama and AAA Reno, Nevada in the Diamondbacks organization.
As usual, the Rays organization appears to know what they were doing in picking up Augenstein. He was brilliant tonight, outpitching the heralded Teheran by a large measure. You could attend games at DBAP the rest of this season and I don't think you'll see a pitcher spot his fastball better than Augenstein did today/tonight (more on the late afternoon start soon). He was living on the corners. His fastball peaked at 92 and he was around 89-91 consistently. He walked nobody and struck out 8 batters in 6 innings of work. He threw 74 pitches in 6 innings.
The initial reason Augenstein gave up any runs is that he lost a swinging bunt by Braves' leadoff hitter, centerfielder Luis Durango, in the sun. That's right, he lost a ground ball in the sun. The 5:05 first pitch on April 7 meant that the sun was directly behind home plate. The shadow cast by the DBAP grandstand was perfectly symmetrical around the diamond. The middle of the shadow was at home plate when Augenstein threw the first pitch of the game. Both Augenstein and Teheran pushed the bills of their caps down as far as they could to block the sun. Both centerfielders wore sunglasses. Durango was overmatched by Augenstein, but on a 0-2 count he managed to get enough wood on the ball to clip a high bouncer toward Augenstein, who lost it in the sun. The ball trickled between his legs.
Braves manager Dave Brundage put on a hit-and-run with the next batter, rightfielder Jordan Parraz, moving Durango to second base with an out, and the following batter, second baseman Drew Sutton, hit a triple into the right-center gap. The next batter, DH Ernesto Mejia, singled and the score was 2-0. It felt like it might be enough for Teheran.
I wasn't the only one who felt the urgency of the moment. With the Braves up 1-0 and a runner at third base with one out in the top of the first, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo brought his infield in. How often do you see an infield brought in in the first inning? The presence of Teheran was at work.
Teheran shut down the Bulls on 11 pitches in the first inning, hitting 94 mph with his fastball showing tremendous late hop. Teheran retired Leslie Anderson on 3 pitches to open the second inning. What happened over the next 30 minutes was the kind of mysterious change that seems to only happen in baseball. Rightfielder Jeff Salazar worked a 2-2 count on Teheran and then fouled off two more pitches. Then he pulled a fastball about 400 feet over the wall in right-center. Score 2-1 Braves.
The next batter, the right-handed hitting catcher Chris Gimenez, worked the count full and hit a double into the wide gap in left-center, with Durango playing well into right-center, not expecting Gimenez to pull. Teheran then walked two consecutive batters on full counts, second baseman Shawn O'Malley and leftfielder Kyle Hudson. With the bases loaded and the Bulls back at the top of the order, third baseman Will Rhymes, worked the count to 2-2, fouled off two pitches, and then he was hit in the foot by a Terehan curve ball, forcing in a run. Teheran and Braves' manager Dave Brundage both thought the pitch didn't hit Rhymes. They thought it bounced in the dirt. The call stood. Score now 2-2.
The next batter, shortstop Tim Beckham, who Teheran struck out on 4 pitches in the first inning, fouled off five pitches with the count 1-2 before hitting a sacrifice fly to left field. It was an impressive at-bat for Beckham (he had two other long at-bat walks later in the game). Score 3-2 Bulls.
Teheran threw 43 pitches in the second inning to only seven batters. After Teheran's quick work of Anderson to open the inning, each Bulls batter after that went 5-8 pitches into the count. With two outs, Brundage relieved Teheran with LHP Ben Swaggerty, who threw one pitch and got out of the inning.
The game calmed down and quickened for the next five innings. Augenstein faced only 18 batters over the next five innings and no Braves runner made it past second base. He left the game at the end of six innings having thrown 74 pitches, 54 strikes. The way he moved his fastball in and out, up and down, was artful. I wanted to ask him about losing the swinging bunt in the sun; maybe on Monday I'll do that.
By the way, I should confess that my pitch count numbers might be off by a number or two. I was distracted for a few seconds here and there. I sat in the stands behind the plate for most of the game. I noticed that Herman Reeder, the cotton candy vendor, was back this year. Then I noticed a family of four arriving at their seats, very concerned about exactly which seats where theirs, at 6:50 p.m. after a 5:05 first pitch. They were expecting a 7:05 start. When they discovered their error, the look on the patriarch's face said it all: "OMG, what inning do they stop serving beer?"
There was also the young woman sitting by herself a row in front of me, maybe 25 years old. She couldn't have weighed more than 115 pounds. She sat down in the first inning with an aluminum 24 oz. Bud Lite missile. A couple of innings later she disappeared and returned with a 20 oz. draft of a dark beer, probably a micro-brewed pale ale offered at the DBAP. I wondered why she made the switch from "gulp" beer to "sipping" beer.
Brandon Guyer hit a solo home run in the fifth to make the score 4-2 Bulls. His bomb caromed off the Triangle Orthopedic Associates sign slightly left of dead center, the ball banging off the metal sign with the pitch MPH indicator. Scouts attest that the MPH indicator at Bulls games is accurate; often it aggrandizes things at other stadiums.
The Braves got a run in the 7th when SS Josh Wilson was walked by Bulls/Rays newcomer, LHP John Graub, and was driven in on a triple by Durango. RHP Brandon Gomes worked out of the jam and then got through the 8th inning. Score 4-3 Bulls heading into the top of the ninth.
The Bulls brought in the 6'5" 270 lb. right-hander Romulo Sanchez to close out the game. Sanchez walked the first batter, leftfielder Cory Harrilchack, and then he hit the next batter, SS Wilson, on the first pitch. The next batter, catcher, J.C. Boscan, hit a swinging bunt to move the runners to second and third. The fourth batter, leadoff hitter Durango, beat out a soft grounder to Bulls SS Beckham, RBI single. Score tied 4-4.
The fifth batter, RF Jordan Parraz, hit a line drive off the leg of Sanchez. The shot hit the 270 lb. Sanchez so squarely the ball bounced into foul territory near the Bulls' first base dugout. RBI single. Score 5-4, and Sanchez left the game limping, with help from the trainers. LHP Cesar Ramos replaced Sanchez and closed out the inning with a 6-4-3 double play, but not before walking a batter on four pitches, including a few bouncing pitches in the dirt.
As Adam Sobsey has reported after the first two games of the season, the Bulls' bullpen roles are the biggest questions in early season. The starting pitching is remarkable, and the battling lineup has grit and potential. But how will they close out games on the mound?
The bottom of the ninth for the Bulls, down 5-4, began with another long at-bat walk by Beckham. After a Brandon Guyer ground out, DH Matt Mangini singled up the middle, and Beckham was driven home by a line drive to the left-centerfield wall by Leslie Anderson, who went 3-4 tonight with a base on balls.
After Anderson's walk-off RBI, the Bulls dugout erupted. Led by Will Rhymes, 24 Bulls plus the coaches rushed onto the field to congratulate Anderson, who didn't want to make it easy. He mischievously tried to elude the onrush. Watching Anderson dodging teammates made me think of the childhood game "tackle the man with the ball," in which you'd have ten kids in a yard and one football. Nine kids would chase the one kid with the ball and try to maul him (mostly this was a male kid game, as far as I knew) and take the ball. Whoever got the ball would then become the new target for nine kids. Do kids still play that game? Or did we only play it in "little" Washington? Leslie Anderson must have played something like it growing up in Cuba. He looked like a natural.
Adam Sobsey will be covering Sunday's game. I'll be back Monday.