DBAP/ DURHAM---There's a tacit understanding among ballplayers regarding season-ending series. If the postseason is all settled, the deal is this: the pitchers throw strikes, the hitters swing at them; you avoid long at-bats; you avoid injuries, too, by staying out of collisions on the basepaths; you try to decide games quickly and painlessly---and with a bonhomie that revolves around mutual good sportsmanship.
Cut to last night at the DBAP, home of the IL South Division Champion Durham Bulls. After three innings, the game was on a brisk 90-minute pace. The two starting pitchers had combined to throw just 57 pitches. Only one man had reached base, Justin Ruggiano, and he was thrown out (on what looked like a bad call) trying to stretch his liner off the Blue Monster into a double. We were cruising, coasting, flying toward the finish line. When Sean Rodriguez hit his first home run as a Bull, a solo shot in the fifth inning (which I predicted when he stepped to the plate!), it felt like that might turn out to be the only run of the game.
It wasn't. The Bulls fell behind, tied it up, and won 3-2---and wouldn't you know it, even with the suspense drained out of the regular season, they did it in dramatic fashion.
DBAP/ DURHAM---Shortly before game time last night, a debate broke out in the press box about the Bulls' "magic number" for clinching the International League South Division title. The Bulls were two games ahead of Gwinnett going into the game, so it seemed initially that, with three games to play, it would take any combination of Durham wins and Gwinnett losses totaling two to seal the deal.
But others pointed out that, in case of a regular-season tie, the Bulls would, for the purpose of the playoffs, be named the winner by virtue of their better record within the division. (The first tiebreaker, the teams' head-to-head record, was nullified because the Bulls and Braves were 11-11 in direct competition with one another.) The Braves would be the wild card team. Thus, it was argued, the magic number was really only 1, because a single Bulls win or Gwinnett loss would assure an outcome no worse for the Bulls than the tie they needed.
Someone else countered that a tie is still a tie, and the tiebreaker was merely a latency, a fiction until it had to be actually wielded; and then someone else used the word semantics, kind of grouchily, and in any case it was decided that the score of the Gwinnett Braves' game versus the Charlotte Knights would occasionally, as the evening progressed, be flashed on the big screen affixed to the Blue Monster.
As it happened, that game began an hour before the Bulls took on the Norfolk Tides, so just as the action as the DBAP was beginning, the out-of-town score went up on the board. It was already 6-1 Charlotte in the third inning down in Georgia.
Cheers from the stands. Then Bulls' General Manager Mike Birling rendered much of the rest of the debate immaterial by informing us that the champagne was already on ice down in the clubhouse.
And the Bulls made it even less material by beating the Tides, 5-1. It was Durham's third straight division title, and the team's in the last 12 years, a truly remarkable run.
It has happened twice in the history of major-league baseball. Rennie Stennett of the Pittsburgh Pirates did it in 1975---with someone else's bat, no less---and Wilbert Robinson did it, too, way back in 1892, when balls were made out of the hides of woolly mammoths and bats from the tusks. Seven hits in a nine-inning game. You probably won't see this happen again in your lifetime. And you probably aren't even very old.
Who knows about the International League, which has been around for 126 years? But I'd be willing to bet that Desmond Jennings etched his name into its record books and will stay there for a very long time. He came up seven times last night. He hit six singles and a double.
This is one of those records that requires you to be extraordinarily lucky and very, very good. (In Jennings's case, being very, very fast didn't hurt, either.) The beauty of it was that Jennings did it without overswinging: he hit three ground-ball singles up the middle; two more grounders that were knocked down by the shortstop, who was helpless to throw out the speedy Jennings; a solid line-drive to left; and then an opposite-field drive into the gap for a ninth-inning double. "I just went up there hacking," he is reported to have said. Yeah, sure, Desmond.
It's a very good thing, in retrospect, that the official scorer at Charlotte's ballpark had reversed a call earlier, when he charged Knights shortstop Justin Fuller with an error on one of Jennings's infield grounders. According to Bulls broadcaster Neil Solondz, Fuller had no chance to throw out Jennings. (I believe Solondz's exact words were "You've gotta be kidding me" when the scoreboard flashed E.) A couple of batters later, you could dimly hear the scorer announce the error-to-hit change in the background. Had he not done so then, you'd better believe Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo would have been on the phone to the press box, in high dudgeon, immediately after the game. Fortunately for everyone involved, it didn't come to that.
Oh: guess how many hits the entire Knights team had? Seven.
Oh, also, before I forget---because, believe it or not, there is so much to report tonight that losing track isn't unthinkable---the Bulls clinched a playoff spot with a resounding 14-3 win over the
Bristol Sox Charlotte Knights.
And just like that, right after a pair of ugly losses at home to their division rivals, the Bulls got healthy last night against the desperately depleted Charlotte Knights, 9-0. I didn't recognize any of the last four names in the Knights' lineup; they were all callups and patches on a roster that has been gutted by the parent club and Team USA. Gone are Joshes Fields and Kroeger, Tyler Flowers, Ehren Wassermann and especially Carlos Torres. Goodbye, fields, goodbye flowers and towers. We shall run roughshod over your abandoned realm (or something like that).
Doubt and resentment recently set in over at WDBB about the Rays' lack of interest in supporting the Bulls; but the future for les taureaux is bullish compared to their cross-state rivals. The Bulls currently have six players who have been in the majors this season, including a seasoned catcher; they have not one but two closers; they have the franchise's all-time home run leader; and they have two of the hottest prospects in baseball---plus they're about to get a middle infielder who has 29 homers this season. There is no reason to panic, and probably also no excuse for the Bulls to lose even one of the three games down at Fort Mill. But on the other hand we'll be seeing Calvin Medlock and His Flying Bullpen Brothers on Thursday night, so why indulge in predictions?
Desmond Jennings, basking in the glow of his Southern League MVP award---you know you're having a good year when you can miss the final month of the season and still win the hardware---had the big stat night for the Bulls, with a homer, a triple, two walks, a hit-by-pitch (retaliation? I didn't hear the broadcast, can't say), and two stolen bases. His .898 OPS with the Bulls is actually higher than his Double-A mark of .881. It seems only a matter of time before he makes B. J. Upton expendable in Tampa.
Chris Richard, the aforementioned home run king of Durham, also had a nice night, belting his 24th homer and adding three singles, knocking in four runs. Justin Ruggiano had a pair of doubles. Jason Cromer tossed six scoreless innings to earn his seventh win and lower his ERA to a team-leading (among starters) 2.33. In his last 18 1/3 innings, he has allowed only three runs.
And Winston Abreu, trotted out in the ninth inning in order to stay sharp (I guess), struck out the side in order. Consider him sharpened. Abreu has not allowed a hit in his last 11 2/3 innings. He has 19 strikeouts and just two walks in that stretch. He's completely automatic right now, and so good that you wonder how it could be possible that he was knocked around in the majors with Cleveland before the Rays welcomed him back to the flock. Gwinnett closer Luis Valdez was named the International League's All-Star reliever, and I would love for someone to try to look me in the eye and tell me that Valdez deserves the award over Abreu. Because he has 26 saves? Even though he needed 36 save opps to get them? Please. Some stats are only indicators of context, not performance, and saves are one of them. People who looked at Valdez's saves total and gave him the award based on that one number are lazy and narrowminded.
Elsewhere, Syracuse won and Gwinnett lost. The Bulls lead the Braves by a game in the division race; their wild card lead held at 4.5 games over the Chiefs (Braves and Chiefs? what is this, Indian summer?). Durham's magic number for clinching a playoff spot is 2: any combination of Bulls victories and Chiefs losses sends them to the post-season. The Chiefs have played one game fewer than the Bulls, but they will make up their earlier rainout against Lehigh Valley. Even if the Bulls lose four of their final five games, Syracuse will still have to win all six of theirs. But why tempt fate? A couple more wins over Charlotte, which may have to consider changing its name from the Knights to the Russe, will begin a chorus of "Hell to the Chiefs."
DBAP/ DURHAM---First things first: the "mystery" fifth Bull promoted to Tampa was none other than last night's starter, Wade Davis, Charlie Montoyo said after the Durham Bulls' 10-2 loss to Gwinnett. You can finally get some sleep! You can also rest assured that Davis's promotion had nothing to do with his performance last night, probably his worst of the season. Davis had trouble finding the strike zone for the first three innings, throwing just half of his pitches for strikes. Then, when he did find it, his strikes got hit in the fourth inning, culminating in a disputed grand slam home run by Alvin Colina (more on the dispute later). Davis came out of the game one batter later, having reached a workload limit imposed by the Tampa Bay brass, who want him fresh for his first start as a Ray, which rumor has it will take place in a doubleheader scheduled for Labor Day in a place called [ruffles through papers] Yankee Stadium, which I understand is in one of the outer boroughs of New York City. Congrats to Davis: he's shown himself worthy of the callup; and with his reserved demeanor and his competitive edge, he seems ready for the challenge.
He wasn't last night, though---you'll find some of his thoughts after the jump---and neither were his teammates. The quality of baseball at the Class AAA level is generally pretty high. No surprise there: it's just one level down from the top, and most of the players have or will have played in the majors in their careers. But every now and then, you get reminded where you are.
And so we were last night. The Bulls' fumbling, stumbling loss dropped them back into a tie with the Braves for the IL South Division lead, with six games to play. The two teams split their final series, two games apiece, as well as the season series, 11-11 (although they could meet again in the playoffs). They have identical home records, too: 39-30. Oh, and they also have identical road records. Guess what it is? 39-30.
Suffice it to say that, at the moment, there's a rightness to all of this evenness, which also extends into the future: each team has three games remaining against Charlotte and three against Norfolk.
It wasn't only the Bulls who played like minor-leaguers last night: the Braves didn't exactly look like world-beaters, either. But it was actually two other parties, the umpires and the architects, who set the tone for Tuesday's richness of embarrassments. See how, and also more roster moves, below.
DBAP/ DURHAM---The weather changed abruptly yesterday. At game time Sunday we were still in the sweaty languor of late summer, but the heat and sun fell out of the sky overnight. The season that replaced them on Monday wasn't so much autumnal as alien---as if the primer-gray clouds, the unsettled breeze and the melancholy dampness had been imported from a British Isle, or Soviet-bloc Europe.
And the Bulls' meteorology changed, too, with the same suddenness. Not only did their seven-game winning-streak come to an ugly end in a sluggish, poorly-played (by both teams) 8-6 loss to Gwinnett, but the date, August 31, marked the beginning of Bull-poaching season. Five players---a full rundown of them below (well, almost full; you'll see)---left the DBAP for Tampa Bay after last night's loss. It was less meteorology that hit the Bulls' clubhouse than a meteor, which decimated the squad. Or, put another way, if September has come to take the sun and heat out of the sky, then its accompanying major-league roster expansion has swiped some of the stars, too.
And that's not all. Two more Bulls, Jason Childers and Jon Weber, are off to join Team USA for the Baseball World Cup, to be played in Europe later this month. (Why doesn't the IBAF schedule this tournament two weeks later? Then the minor-league season would be over, and none of the players on Team USA---all of whom are in Double-A and Triple-A---would have to miss the playoffs.) Childers and Weber have been near the front of the Bulls' charge to the brink of the post-season---the Bulls have a one-game lead in the IL South Division, and a 4.5 game lead in the wild card race with seven left to play---but they won't be here to help push the team across the threshold.
More's the pity, because both of those stalwarts had a chance to help the Bulls notch one more victory last night, and both came up short. How that happened, and what happens next to the Bulls, follows.
DBAP/ DURHAM---Yesterday I threatened to need an infinite number of words to describe Durham's surreal, 10-9, 14-inning win over Gwinnett. Today, I could do it in two: Jeremy Hellickson. The 22-year-old Iowan, who has been excellent since his callup from Double-A Montgomery in July, had his best start of the season and led the Bulls to a 4-0 win over the Braves, extending the Bulls' division lead to two games.
In eight sterling innings, Hellickson (pictured) allowed just one hit---a sixth-inning single by Brian Barton---walked Gregor Blanco twice, and struck out 12. On a night when the entire Durham bullpen was exhausted from its 14-inning slog on Saturday, Hellickson not only rested them but put his clamps on the game right from the get-go, serving notice by striking out the side in the first inning.
That was actually the easy part. You've probably seen countless highly touted young flamethrowers blow hitters away for a few innings and then melt down. Truly mature pitchers are steady, and as effective at the end of their night as at the outset. We've seen Hellickson break down a few times right at the end of his starts, allowing late homers just before departing. But last night, when Gwinnett got a two-out baserunner in the eighth inning, Hellickson's last, he marooned the man there. (Not a single Brave reached second base.) That was a sign of maturation from a kid who seems already well beyond his years. His equanimity, his poker-faced ease, and his quiet resolve are as much the reasons for his success as his raw material.
Details on the best pitching performance by a Bull this year follow.
DBAP/ DURHAM---You've probably heard of the Infinite Monkey Theorem, which "states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare."
If you apply the Infinite Monkey Theorem to baseball, you'll get something like the Durham Bulls' 10-9, 14-inning win over Gwinnett last night. It's unlikely that a monkey will type Hamlet, but it's also inevitable, in infinite time. And it's also unlikely that last night's game should ever happen, but last night's game did happen. You could look it up.
"No, I've never seen anything like it," was the first sentence out of Charlie Montoyo's mouth afterward, before anyone had even asked him a question.
It would take me an infinite number of words to describe everything noteworthy about the doings at the DBAP on Saturday night (and, in fact, a bit of Sunday morning; the five-hour game ended at about ten past midnight). Although I don't mind claiming that I am not a sportswriter who would ever, ever succumb to fatigue---I am a veritable dog with a bone, or better yet a monkey with an infinite number of bananas (and if you read that last clause carefully, you found the syntactical giveaway: I'm not a sportswriter)---as I say, although I don't mind claiming indefatigability, which is an eight-syllable word, the Bulls have another game fairly soon, and at some point between now and then I have to sleep, eat, exercise, and, uh, type. Like a monkey.
And in case you need more monkey stuff, consider that last night's ballgame featured mascot antics from something called Reggy the Purple Party Dude (he looks like a Sesame Street character who has somehow started growing french fries out of the top of his head). He monkeyed around in the first inning with a fake first-base coach, later with the umpire and Wool E. Bull, and then with "his inflatable nine-foot monkey," which was both exactly what it sounds like and also inhabited somewhere in its recesses by a person. During one mid-inning caper, a banana figured heavily, along with spray cans of that fake shaving cream stuff that is actually string; and although I know that this is a family Web site, the fact is that the whole Reggy act, including the "his inflatable monkey" scenes and (especially) the fake-first-base-coach antics, played uncomfortably like the preparatory scenes of very, very, very specialized pornography targeted at an extremely specific fetish market I would prefer not to know anything about.
And also, the game was full of monkey wrenches.
I'll give you all I've got if you click
DBAP/ DURHAM---Old-school friends of mine will sometimes show their age by betraying surprise at discovering that the Durham Bulls are no longer an affiliate of the Atlanta Braves. I can sort of forgive them that outdated conception; after all, the Bulls-Braves partnership lasted 18 years.
But this afternoon at the DBAP, right under the "Hit Bull Win Steak/Hit Grass Win Salad" Bull, a beaming General Manager Mike Birling announced that the Bulls and the Tampa Bay Rays have extended their working agreement, which was set to expire after 2010. The four-year extension will take them through 2014, for a 17-year total---the Rays will have been here almost as long as the Braves were.
With Birling were Chaim Bloom, who is the Rays' Assistant Director of Minor League Operations, Durham Bulls Vice President George Habel and Durham Athletic Park Manager for Minor League Baseball Jill Rusinko.
When asked what it was about the Durham Bulls that especially appealed to the Rays' front office, Bloom mentioned the fans and the community. But the first thing out of his mouth was "the playing surface." It's a credit to the DBAP grounds crew that they've maintained the field so well, despite the meteorological challenges of 2009.
The 2010 schedule was released. As usual, both the beginning and end of the season will pit the Bulls exclusively against the other three teams in the International League South Division. This clustering is done deliberately, and the weather is again a factor: April being the cruelest month, it's better to stay close to home. And the pennant drive in late summer forces the issue by matching up teams from the same division.
The 2010 home stretch, however, is an extreme version: From August 10 until the last day of the season, September 6, the Bulls play 28 games in a row against Charlotte, Gwinnett and Norfolk, without a single day off. That includes an 11-game road swing to all three cities from August 13-23. The Bulls also have an 11-game roadie June 14-24, when they visit Gwinnett, Louisville and Indianapolis. Their big stand at home runs from June 25-July 5, when they play 11 straight games at the DBAP versus Lehigh Valley, Louisville and Gwinnett. In July, the Bulls play 17 of 28 games at home.
Two red-letter days. On April 2 or 3 (exact date TBD), the Bulls will play an exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Rays. That's not only a chance to see major-league talent, but also to watch former Bulls who have gone on to stardom, like Carl Crawford (if he hasn't been traded) and Evan Longoria.
Then, on Monday, May 10, the Bulls will play a home game at another Durham ballyard: the old Durham Athletic Park, which officially reopened this year. The Bulls last played at the DAP in 1994. The game was scheduled for May 10 for a very deliberate reason, said Mike Birling: "When people think of the most famous minor-league teams, they think of the Durham Bulls, obviously because of [the film] Bull Durham, and they think of the Toledo Mud Hens, because of M*A*S*H*." (To our younger readers: M*A*S*H* was a television series that ran in the 1970s and 1980s. It was set during the Korean War, and one of the characters, a Toledan named Klinger, was trying to get his discharge from service by cross-dressing---oh, just read this.) Bulls versus Hens at the old farmyard!
It's easy to take the Bulls-Rays affiliation for granted. But it's important to appreciate how active and forward-thinking the Tampa brass is when it comes to their player development. We see that in the results. The Bulls are bidding to make the playoffs for the third straight year and the sixth of the last eight. Almost every season brings exciting, big-league-bound talent to the team. Look for more of it next year. And don't miss the Bulls' current charge, which resumes in just a few hours at the DBAP.
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="250" caption="Maybe we misspelled his name when we Googled him"][/caption]There's often not too much to say about 11-2 routs like last night's. The Bulls took an early lead and then systematically enlarged it, unimpeded by a 54-minute rain delay that ended starter Wade Davis's night early. One night after tying the Bulls' Triple-A franchise record for career homers, Chris Richard broke it. Matt Joyce and Elliot Johnson added round-trippers of their own (the Tides have been out-homered 39-6 in their last 30 games!), the Bulls racked up 16 hits off of five Norfolk pitchers, the last of whom was second baseman Brandon Pinckney, and your local news is coming up next, thank you for staying up with us.
It was the Bulls' fifth straight win, which kept them even with Gwinnett (who won at Charlotte) atop the International League South Division. Guess who comes to Durham for a four-game series on Saturday?
So the romp was a mere setup for the showdown we've all been waiting for, and as such was secondary to its surrounding weather, a complex and unpredictable collision of fast-approaching fronts and precipitations that will pass over the DBAP very soon. Details follow.