The Triangle’s college football season will start with a bang this weekend, with one game tonight followed by a trio of home contests on Saturday.
Tennessee is listed as a three-point favorite. The Vols lead the series 2-1, but it was last contested in 1938. The game will be shown on ESPNU.
And then there will be football traffic all around the Triangle all day Saturday.
UNC (7-6 last season), which won’t be going bowling this season because of NCAA sanctions, will kick off the Larry Fedora era in a 12:30 game against neighborhood rival and Southern Conference member Elon (5-6) at Kenan Stadium. The game will be shown on WRAZ-50.
N.C. Central (2-9) will kick off against former CIAA rival Fayetteville State (4-6) at 6 p.m. at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium.
And in the nightcap, Duke (3-9) will square off with Florida International (8-5) at 7 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium.
It was the Bulls' sixth straight victory, their longest winning streak of the year. The last five of these wins have come at the expense of the Norfolk Tides, and there is a little precedent for this. The Bulls and Tides played a home-and-home seven-game series in 2010, and the Bulls won six in a row, the first five at Harbor Park in Norfolk. The Bulls were the class of the International League that season, on their way to an impressive 88-55 record, and the Tides would finish last in the South Division.
Things are much reversed this time. Norfolk was in contention for the playoffs when the just-concluded series began. After the Bulls five-finger-discounted them, though, they're about finished. Last night's loss drops Norfolk under .500 and 5 1/2 games back of wild-card leader Pawtucket with only seven games left to play, and two other teams, Lehigh Valley and Columbus, between them.
And for the Bulls, not only have they played spoiler, but a moral victory is at hand, too. They are now 3 1/2 games better than last-place Gwinnett in the IL South. Barring a total collapse, Durham will at least finish the year out of the basement, which they shared with the G-Braves less than a week ago. It's certainly possible that the Bulls will go into a final, week-long slump and end the season on a low note, but as it stands now, they've very nearly salvaged 2012 in these last six days. The team lost 13 of 14 straight road games in April, spoiling the soup before it was even on the stove. Had they gone 7-7 on that trip, not an unreasonable outcome to hope for, they'd be a .500 team as of today. That one freakish and ruinous stretch is the scar on an otherwise decent body of work.
So how have they turned themselves around?
DURHAM BULLS ATHLETIC PARK It’s a bit too late to do anything about the pennant race, but the Durham Bulls are very hot right now.
And they’ll have a solid arm on the mound on an unseasonably cool, as big Jeff Niemann (0-0, 8.31) will make his second rehab start. Zach Clark (4-1, 1.44) will go for Norfolk.
The Bulls get the fourth save in five days from Dane De La Rosa, who gets his 19th of the season in the 5-3 win.
They came down, one by one, via a pleasing route that wound them across the outfield, over the right-field stands, and then, banking sweetly, back into the outfield again, where they landed on the grass to rousing applause. It was a sort of pageant from above, and Mother Nature provided an encore not long after. It's that time of year here, late August, when the angle and texture of the early-evening sunlight are growing autumnal, but still with the warmth of summer, and so the ballpark was bathed in luminous gold as the game began. This was the kind of magical light that could calm the most agitated soul, lift the morose from misery—or inspire dreadful purple prose.
And then, in a final flourish, the sky in the bottom of the second inning was dominated by a high-arcing rainbow that stretched from way out behind center field off into the beyond.
And after Chris Gimenez and Leslie Anderson added to the airborne events a pair of homers that accounted for four runs—and, okay, the Tides hit a couple homers of their own off of Bulls starter Matt Torra (who got his 12th win anyway)—the Durham bullpen set the sun down slowly and the Bulls beat Norfolk 8-3.
It was the Bulls' fourth win in a row and their third straight over Norfolk, ebbing the Tides' playoff aspirations almost all the way out to sea. As the season winds down into its final fortnight, Durham is playing much better baseball—they are playing like a winning baseball team, in fact—and although they are out of contention for the post-season, there is plenty left to play for, much more indeed than the International League playoffs. The Bulls' sights are set higher: on the paradise of the major leagues, and on the sky's-the-limit promise of next year.
They didn't need one. Archer had his best start of the season, according to Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo—a big-league start in its precision and potency—and he was backed up by solid bullpen work, especially that of lefty reliever Adam Liberatore, who has been quietly excellent since his promotion from Class AA Montgomery about a month ago. He threw 1 2/3 perfect innings last night and set up Dane De La Rosa, who pitched around a hit and a walk to earn his 17th save, which is tied for third in the league. "I never take him for granted," Montoyo said of De La Rosa after the game, "because it ain't easy to close games at any level"—especially two nights in a row, as De La Rosa did, preserving two-run margins both times.
De La Rosa's 50 appearances this season are three off the league leader's 53. His walk rate is way up, but he has allowed only 35 hits in 64 innings pitched, with 81 strikeouts. After struggling badly to start the season, he has a 1.70 ERA since the second week of May.
Besides "breaking up" the Tides' no-hitter in the first inning, Gimenez also drew walks in his other two plate appearances, including the one that pushed across the Bulls' first run in the sixth. With apologies, however, to him, to Liberatore and De La Rosa and all the rest of the Bulls, you won't be hearing much more about them today.
The night belonged to Chris Archer.
DURHAM BULLS ATHLETIC PARK The Durham Bulls play the back half of their two-game set with the Charlotte Knights, who are closing in on the South Division title.
It’s the fourth game of the Bulls’ last extended homestand of the season, and Durham is on a five-game losing streak.
Former Bulls Dan Johnson and Hector Gimenez are in the middle of the Knights’ lineup.
Lance Pendleton (7-5, 4.76) will try to right the ship for the Bulls’ beleaguered pitching staff on a mild evening, while Dylan Axelrod (7-4, 2.97) will go for Charlotte.
This time it’s an actual pitchers’ duel, with the Bulls getting a couple of runs late to win 3-1.
The Bulls are tied for last place in the South Division with the Gwinnett Braves. To borrow from Tolstoy (there, I'm a book critic), all good teams are alike, but each bad team is bad in its own way. The Bulls' method is traditional and expedient: allow sh*t-tons of runs. The Braves, it seems (I don't really know; I only pay attention to them when they play Durham, although I did go to a G-Braves/Tides game down in Georgia recently—and I have proof and more proof), ah, the Braves seem to have the capacity to lose in such weird ways that it is almost wonderful. Their loss to Norfolk last night warrants this little detour down I-85:
Gwinnett took a 3-0 lead into the top of the ninth, having allowed just four hits, only to have the Tides tie it up against the Braves' late-inning B-squad relievers. Manager Dave Brundage had had to burn up the A-list the previous night in order to enable his team to rally and beat Durham in 11 innings. And it was the 11th that would decide the game again for Gwinnett last night. Reliever Ryan Buchter, who had faced five Bulls on Sunday night and walked four of them, came into the game and walked three more batters. He did manage to erase one of them at third base on a sacrifice bunt attempt, but cancelled that out by committing a throwing error on another sacrifice bunt.
After the third walk, Dave Brundage removed Buchter from the game with the bases loaded and the go-ahead run already in for Norfolk. The thing is, Brundage really didn't have anyone to replace Buchter; that's what consecutive 11-inning games will do to your bullpen. So he called on a position player to pitch, but not one on his bench. No, shortstop Josh Wilson walked over to the mound, replaced at his position by Brian Friday. (I guess Wilson pitched rather than Friday because Wilson, 31, is a minor-league soldier type and Friday is 26, still hanging onto prospect status.) Wilson, in Albernazian fashion, was actually making his third pitching appearance of the season. Guess who the second was against? The Durham Bulls, in a 16-8 loss on July 25. Wilson tossed a scoreless ninth inning against the Bulls.
So Wilson trots over the mound from shortstop and promptly allows a two-run single to L. J. Hoes. That makes it 6-3, Norfolk, which will be the final score, but the Braves do add a little more fish to this bicycle: The Tides' Ryan Flaherty follows Hoes' single by popping out to... Brian Friday at shortstop—and I can kind of imagine Wilson standing on the mound and kvetching, enviously, "That's my putout!" And finally, in the fruitless bottom of the 11th, Wilson is the only Brave to reach base when he singles with one out.
Sure, you can make this stuff up, but fortunately you don't have to. You have the Gwinnett Braves and the Durham Bulls, tied for last place, doing it for you by being nice to other teams, allowing 52 hits in three days and putting shortstops on the mound in tense extra-inning games. And you probably know what the vicious and venerable manager Leo Durocher said about nice guys: "Nice guys finish last."
That's why the big cognitive dissonance thing going on at the DBAP these days—other than the sight of a Charlie Montoyo-managed, five-time division champ stumbling around in the late-August basement, of course—is the constant sound of Alice Cooper's "No More Mr. Nice Guy" on the PA system.
But you know what? Watching the replay multiple times, slowing it down and freezing the frames, I discovered that Beckham did indeed catch Wrigley's throw while touching second base with his foot. He timed his arrival there so that his momentum, upon catching the ball, would let him half-leap toward the outfield, out of the way of the charging baserunner, and enable him to make an unobstructed throw to first. Hell of a play by all three fielders, especially Beckham. My bad.
I bring this up not only to right a wrong, mine, and not merely to recount what few bright spots shine for the Durham Bulls, mid-August, 2012. I also want to lead with Tim Beckham, because Beckham is by far the most interesting Durham Bull this season, with a knack for finding/putting himself in the thick of things. In Durham's 13-10, 11-inning loss to Gwinnett on Sunday, wherever the action was, he seemed close to it.
On Saturday, the Bulls lost despite the highlight-reel double play. The game was decided during a disastrous (for the Bulls) fifth inning during which Durham reliever Josh Lueke allowed eight straight batters to reach base safely. Remember that detail.
Sunday's game was played under a heavy, gray, low-barometer sky and a fair amount of rain and drizzle. I was actually cold after the sun set. This game, too, seemed like it would be decided early, but in the Bulls' favor. In a stretch of the bottom of the third inning, six of eight batters reached against Gwinnett's Julio Teheran, who is in total free-fall after coming into the season rated the Braves' top prospect. It was 7-3, Bulls, by the time Teheran was lifted for a reliever, and at that juncture I was thinking what a difference a day makes. Sure, the Bulls aren't a quality team this year, but baseball's incessant dailiness has a refreshing eraser effect. The Bulls, behind rehabbing Rays starter Jeff Niemann, were going to ride their seven early runs and their big-league guest star to victory.
They tried to hand the game to Gwinnett, as Niemann and piggyback "starter" Matt Torra let in six runs over seven innings, including Torra's league-leading 23rd home run allowed. But Gwinnett kept handing it back. It was 7-4, then 8-4, then 9-4, 9-6, and so on. After seven innings, the margin was again four runs, as it had been in the third, 10-6. Lefty reliever Frank De Los Santos, who has pitched his way onto the Tampa Bay Rays' bullpen radar, was going to pitch the eighth for Durham, and Dane De La Rosa, tied for fourth in the league in saves, was lined up for the ninth.
Except Gwinnett scored four runs in the eighth to tie the game.
Many years later, as he faced the Braves' firing squad, Colonel Josh Lueke was to remember that distant afternoon when... I mean, Josh Lueke, 11th inning, hours later, extends opponent on-base streak to 12, takes loss, shoulder back on ice. Like the poet said yesterday, if it weren't for bad Lueke, the Bulls would have no Lueke at all.
The Bulls are now tied with Gwinnett for last place in the IL South Division.
But let's get back to Tim Beckham.
No player in American professional soccer this year has epitomized being a super sub more than Ty Shipalane of the Carolina RailHawks. Entering Saturday evening’s match against FC Edmonton at WakeMed Soccer Park, Shipalane was one of only three RailHawks to appear in every league match this season. However, whereas both Nick Zimmerman and Ray Burse also started every game, Shipalane had only cracked the starting XI four times. But, oh, has Shipalane given RailHawks fans their money’s worth.
Coming on in the 85th minute, Shipalane put on another sublime display of offensive effort to score a stoppage-time, game-winning goal in the RailHawks’ 3-2 comeback victory over FC Edmonton. Including both league and U.S. Open Cup competitions, it was Shipalane’s fourth game-winning or tying goal this season, all but one coming in the 88th minute and beyond (Shipalane’s electrifying 75th minute equalizer against the LA Galaxy being the other) but none coming in games Shipalane started. He has also four assists, all after the 85th minute and two setting up game-winning or equalizing scores.
Sorry about that. Couldn't help myself. In fact, Bulls reliever Josh Lueke had been on an oversized roll after an absolutely dreadful first three months of the season. Through all of July up until yesterday, Lueke had allowed just two runs over his last 23 innings, shaving more than two runs off of his bloated 6.57 ERA. "My hottest guy," Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said later of Lueke, and he wasn't talking about Lueke's looks.
So last night, the Bulls were leading the Gwinnett Braves, 4-1, in the top of the fifth inning. Durham starter Jim Paduch, back in the rotation temporarily while up-and-coming prospect Alex Colome deals with an injury (upper rib cage, it seems), put the first two Braves on base with a hit and a walk. Paduch hadn't exactly been stellar to that point, despite having allowed just the one run. Nursing a three-run lead, Montoyo decided Paduch should quit while he was ahead, and called on Lueke.
Lueke struck out Felix Pie for the first out.
Then the next eight men reached base, seven of them via hits.
The only other out Lueke recorded came when Jose Yepez, with runners on first and second, hit a high and deep fly ball to right field. At the wall, the Bulls' Stephen Vogt leaped but could not make the catch. The two runners on base waited, as they are trained to do, to see if the ball would fall in safely. But Yepez did not. He assumed he had a double, and by the time he looked up, halfway to second base, he saw Josh Kroeger standing on it, and was put out on the basepaths after a 320-foot single.
Four hits and a walk after that, with six runs and about 40 minutes already in the books since the inning had begun, Adam Liberatore relieved Lueke and allowed a two-run single to Pie, which a) made the score 9-4, Gwinnett, after an eight-run inning, and b) gave the Braves a share of what must be a very rare feat: every batter in the lineup had exactly one hit in the inning—which took so long to play that Braves starter Randall Delgado went down to the bullpen with backup catcher J. C. Boscan and threw warmup tosses, just to stay loose. Halfway through the game, we were on a four-hour pace. (These two teams played a nine-inning game even longer than that last month down in Georgia, a 15-walk slog that took 4:15 to play.)
Speaking of slogs: From what I can tell, the Bulls took an overnight bus ride from Ohio, got in around lunchtime, tried to sleep/unpack/regroup, and then headed to the DBAP to play against a Gwinnett team that was chilling at the Marriott and ducking into Beyu Caffe for lunch.
The Braves went on to win, 10-5. They're just a game behind Durham, poised to push the Bulls down into last place in the South Division.
The Charlotte Knights, meanwhile, beat the Norfolk Tides, mathematically ending the Bulls' chances of winning the division and their run of five straight division titles. After you stop crying, believe in magical thinking anyway and make the jump.