DURHAM BULLS ATHLETIC PARK It’s Day 6 of “Matsui Mania” with the Durham Bulls, and not only does the Japanese legend have some work to do at the plate but his team needs to do some bouncing back.
And he went 0-for-4 the previous night, as the Bulls took a 7-1 whipping from the Charlotte Knights in the opener of their four-game series. Charlotte has won six of seven in the season series with the Bulls, who sit in an unfamiliar last-place spot in the International League’s South Division.
Game 2 today will pit Matt Torra (2-5, 6.26) against the Knights’ Matt Zaleski (1-1, 7.47). And the Bulls will be celebrating Wool E. Bull’s birthday.
Charlotte has Duke alumnus Jim Gallagher on the roster as well as former Bulls Hector Gimenez – who had four hits Saturday – and Dan Johnson and Ray Olmedo.
But it turns out that today is the Bulls’ day. Durham gets three home runs and another score on Matsui’s mad dash from first in routing the Knights 6-0.
So, why did an air of relief hover over the RailHawks’ 1-1 draw with the NASL table-topping Puerto Rico Islanders Saturday evening? In a word … hope. In a season without many, nay, any detectable positives, Carolina’s last two outings—including last week’s 2-1 loss at Minnesota—show an improving squad finally making necessary changes.
Four weeks after being drubbed by the Islanders in Puerto Rico, the RailHawks held the league's team scoring leader to less than two goals for only the third time this season and, interestingly, the first time on the road. Puerto Rico’s five shots were their second-lowest tally in eight games, and most importantly, it is the fewest surrendered in a game by the RailHawks this year. Indeed, Carolina outshot the Islanders 11-to-5.
DBAP/ DURHAM—It has been a big home stand at the DBAP, about as close to big-league as the environment ever gets at the ballpark. Hideki Matsui is here. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kevin Youkilis came through, too, plus all the attendant media and excitement. The world has been watching.
And last night offered more in the way of pageantry. Just two days after the historic Matsui-Matsuzaka meeting at the DBAP, Saturday was "one of the most important nights in the history of the Durham Bulls," as longtime PA announcer Tony Riggsbee, who donned a coat and tie for the occasion, put it. Riggsbee emceed a pregame ceremony on the field to celebrate the induction of former Bulls manager Bill Evers into the International League Hall of Fame. The Bulls also retired his jersey number (20).
Evers, who is now Minor League Field Coordinator for the Rays, has won more games than any other manager in Durham Bulls history, which dates back over 100 years. This was a well-deserved honor, and he was warmly received by the near-sellout crowd. International League President Randy Mobley was on hand, and made a speech. Evers said a few good words. His name and number were colorfully logoed into the grass behind home plate.
Meanwhile, the press box was still packed with Japanese media covering Matsui.
And then, 21 minutes after the game's scheduled start time, Shane Dyer took the mound for the Bulls, and all at once the excitement burst like a lukewarm water balloon.
DURHAM BULLS ATHLETIC PARK It’s the finale of that high-profile series with the Pawtucket Red Sox, and for the second straight night there’s a sellout crowd in the house.
Pawtucket’s other rehabbing star, slugger Kevin Youkilis, is back in the lineup tonight as the designated hitter. And the Bulls of course continue to hit Japanese legend Hideki Matsui, who seems to be at the moment in reserve until the Tampa Bay Rays have an opening, in the cleanup spot. Tonight Matsui will play left field for the first time as a Bull.
Clayton product Chris Archer (3-4, 4.71) will go for the Bulls against Ross Ohlendorf (3-3, 4.91).
Durham puts together a huge eighth-inning comeback, escaping with a 6-5 win to split the four-game series.
However, Carolina must first contend with the small matter of the top team in the NASL coming to town this Saturday. The Puerto Rico Islanders (has anyone mentioned that Clarke used to coach them?) are perched atop the league table with a 5-1-1 record. The Islanders defeated the RailHawks 3-1 a month ago in Puerto Rico, and PRI hosted Atlanta Wednesday evening and torched the Silverbacks 3-0.
Meanwhile, the winless RailHawks are mired at the bottom of the standings along with the Silverbacks. Buoyed by several lineups changes and roster additions, Carolina played its best game in weeks last weekend...and still lost to the Stars. If they fail to defeat the Islanders this Saturday, the RailHawks will tie the club record of nine consecutive games without a victory.
DBAP/ DURHAM—"It felt like Opening Day," said Jim Paduch, the Independent League veteran who is only in Durham because Alex Torres finally pitched his way out of a starting job and who, with 10,000-plus on hand at the ballpark for an All Nippon Airways type showdown between two of Japan's most famous baseball players, ever, threw six shutout innings against the league's best team and made a loser of Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Bulls blanked the PawSox, 5-0.
Henry Wrigley was drafted in the 14th round in 2005 and toiled for six years in the Rays' farm system before finally playing his way up to Triple-A. Now he has hit a home run off of Dice-K: a three-run blast, a moonshot, on a hanging 3-2 breaking ball, way over Ye Olde Snorting Bull. It put the game away in the sixth inning.
On Wednesday night, after the Bulls lost their second straight game and fell to 15-26, manager Charlie Montoyo pinpointed two reasons why his team was in last place: too many walks, and too many guys left on base.
Thursday, they walked four—as opposed to 11 (!) the night before. They put exactly one runner in scoring position, and that one only because of the second catcher's interference call on Ryan Lavarnway, with Hideki Matsui batting, in as many nights.
That one RISP scored on Wrigley's homer.
This... is a simple game. You hit the ball... (etc.)
DBAP/ DURHAM—There are suddenly many more things to observe than usual at the DBAP. There is the riveting preoccupation of witnessing the difference—ineffable yet undeniably profound—between great major-leaguers like Hideki Matsui and Kevin Youkilis, and minor-leaguers like, well, almost everyone else on the field last night. There is the sideshow of the two dozen or so Japanese media members at the ballpark, doting on Matsui's every at-bat and word. There is the vexing surprise of attending to a team that, after five years of success, is quite simply bad—and attending to its manager, who is in a very unfamiliar position.
But after the Pawtucket Red Sox beat the Durham Bulls, 5-4, last night—the PawSox' sixth straight win over Durham in less than a month—a simpler, quieter, more fleeting observation offered the most useful perspective on the way things are in the Bull City.
After we reporters—the three of us local, Triangle-based reporters, that is—did our customary postgame interview with Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo, we were extended an offer to interview Hideki Matsui. Matsui, as you probably know, just became a Durham Bull on Tuesday, less than three years after becoming the MVP of the World Series as a New York Yankee.
Of course we accepted this offer, and we were happy to wait a few minutes while Matsui went to his locker, peeled off his uniform, and then hit the showers. After he got down to a base layer, Matsui sat for a few head-clearing moments in the chair before his locker—silent, still, meditative.
What was most arresting about this moment was Matsui's posture, which was upright yet comfortable, like a yoga pose. Ballplayers tend to be slouchy and curved-spine. They throw themselves around like big puppies, are often loud and surprisingly ungainly when not engaging in the elegant beauty of playing baseball, are in each others' space and, it often seems, not really in full possession of their own.
Yet there was Hideki Matsui, composed and straight, calm and self-knowing, and it seemed in that moment that therein lay the change from major to minor, between winners and losers.
FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON Checking in on the Carolina Mudcats, who are in the thick of the Carolina League’s Southern Division race.
The teams are coming off a doubleheader split from Tuesday night on a cloudy evening, and Will Roberts (1-1, 4.50) will take the hill for the Mudcats against Ryan Pressly (2-1, 7.13).
The Mudcats nearly come back from the dead in the ninth, but fall short in a 5-4 defeat.
No victory should be taken for granted by the winless RailHawks, so a win over PSA Elite, or any team for that matter, is certainly not a foregone conclusion. Still, it’s hard to ignore the tantalizing prospect of hosting arguably the biggest soccer match in Carolina's history against the flagship franchise of MLS, which boasts such soccer superstars such as Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Robbie Keane.
That said, it is common for MLS clubs to rest many of their regular starters during the early rounds of the U.S. Open Cup. In the Galaxy’s case, they play a league match at Houston three days prior on May 26. Although the Galaxy don’t play another MLS match until June 17, the U.S. Men’s National Team faces Brazil in an international friendly on Wednesday, May 30, further diminishing the chances that Donovan and possibly Edson Buddle would appear in an Open Cup match the night before. Moreover, Keane is captain of the Republic of Ireland football team, which takes on Denmark in a friendly on May 28.
Still, professional athletes have long memories, and many of the Galaxy’s players and coaches undoubtedly recall being eliminated from the 2010 CONCACAF Champions League by the Puerto Rico Islanders, another second division club coached by Colin Clarke, who now manages the RailHawks.
Also of interest are the potential pairings involving other regional pro soccer clubs. Obviously, the ultimate matchups depend on the results of the May 22 second round games. However, it is possible that on a single night of U.S. Open Cup competition on May 29, the Galaxy would play the RailHawks in Cary, the Portland Timbers would face the Hammerheads in Wilmington, the New York Red Bulls would visit the Battery in Charleston, the Seattle Sounders would take on the Silverbacks in Atlanta and DC United would travel to Richmond to play the Kickers.
Joining the Bulls on a minor-league contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and batting cleanup is Hideki Matsui, trying to make his way back to the big leagues after failing to get a contract following a .251-12-72 season with Oakland in 2011. The former Yankee and Yomiuri Giant will be playing his sixth regular-season minor-league game.
Matsui’s appearance is the first of several established major leaguers scheduled to appear here during the series with the Pawtucket Red Sox. Third baseman Kevin Youkilis is set to join the PawSox on a rehab assignment beginning Wednesday, while Daisuke Matsuzaka will start on the mound for Pawtucket on Thursday.
About 35 Japanese media are credentialed to follow Matsui’s tenure in Durham, and that number is expected to swell past 50 when Matsuzaka makes his start on Thursday.
The Bulls are coming off a decent road trip, having won three of four in Rochester over the itinerant Empire State Yankees after going 1-3 at Syracuse.
Durham is in an uncharacteristic last place in the International League’s South Division. The Bulls come into the game with a 10-7 home record, but are 0-4 against the PawSox.
Matt Torra (2-4, 5.63) will go for the Bulls against Brandon Duckworth (4-0, 4.10).
Each hits two home runs but the visitors’ blasts come with guys on base, and Pawtucket takes the opener 8-2.