DBAP/ DURHAM—What to make of a team that has been bad pretty much all season long and is only now, at the end of days, playing like a winner? The Bulls beat Norfolk Sunday evening, building a 4-0 lead through five innings and then sweating out a tense ninth inning to win, 4-3. Cesar Ramos started and threw six excellent shutout innings, rebounding from his poor start against Charlotte on Monday night. He was backed by home runs from Tim Beckham and Sean Rodriguez, the latter just optioned down from Tampa Bay and playing his second game as a Bull since some brief action late in the 2009 season, after the Rays acquired him from the Angels.

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?

On Friday night, the Bulls took their third straight game from Norfolk. Afterward, when I suggested to manager Charlie Montoyo that it must have been nice to see his team enjoying a late run of success after a disappointing year. he answered, “They’re showing that they’re professionals. Of course we’re pitching better, and that’s the key. We haven’t had that before, and that’s why we struggled. It’s not that we were not being professionals before. But they’re not giving up. Everybody’s having fun.”

That comment contains most of what you need to know. To take the second part first, yes, of course it’s the pitching. As you know if you’ve been following the Bulls all season, they have had the league’s highest ERA almost all year long. The Bulls preceded the current six-game winning streak, during which they have allowed 12 runs, with a five-game losing streak during which they allowed 43 (!). In one game alone, last Sunday’s loss to Gwinnett, they allowed 13 runs, i.e. more than they have in the last five nights combined. (And as a bonus symbol of improvement, last night’s three-run effort raised them up into a team-ERA tie with Louisville.)

You’ll hear from all walks of life in baseball that good pitching beats good hitting. That’s not entirely true, but mostly it is. Cesar Ramos made bad pitches on Monday, leaving the ball up, up, up in the zone, where they were hammered. Last night, almost everything was down, and his fastball, which sits at a modest 87-89 mph, had good arm-side run away from right-handed hitters. Contact was mostly weak, and he struck out a season-high six batters in six scoreless innings. (Ramos hasn’t been a starter since 2009, which is when he last fanned six men in a game.)

In the seventh inning, Josh Lueke made things interesting, as is lately his wont, by allowing an opposite-field, two-run homer to power-hitting first baseman Brandon Waring. Lueke did strike out the side, but that was small consolation for him. When the inning was over, he left the field talking angrily to himself and did not return for the eighth. Lueke throws lots and lots of strikes. Fifteen of his 18 pitches last night were strikes, and he has averaged 2/3 strikes for the season, which is a well above average rate. The simple problem is that too many of them are hard but flat 93-94 mph fastballs up in the zone. He has a decent breaking ball, and if memory serves it hasn’t yielded a hit on this home stand (he’s used it more in his last two appearances). Last night was emblematic, then: he either gave up a hit or got a strikeout.

Brandon Gomes worked an easy eighth, his fastball velocity up to 93 mph (it was around 88-90 early this year), but found trouble in the ninth. Ronny Paulino socked a one-out double (on a 92-mph fastball) down the left-field line and, one out later, scored on a Steve Tolleson single which should have been a double. Tolleson hit a looper down the right-field line that Jesus Feliciano didn’t pursue very hard (inexcusable given that he just come into the game as a ninth-inning replacement for starter Chris Gimenez), but didn’t appear even to think about trying for second base, which he could easily have had with effort.

Tolleson atoned by stealing the base—Gomes was barely holding him on—and so the tying run was in scoring position with two outs. Who should be at the plate but… Brandon Waring. Gomes ran the count full to Waring, and then threw a breaking ball. The pitch was very clearly high, but home plate umpire Chad Whitson stood there, thought it over for a moment, figured he still had time to grab dinner somewhere nice, and rang up Waring.

Well, as they say, to be a winner you have be lucky as well as good, and Gomes will take it. Lueke aside, which is where he’s put himself with his recent work (his ERA has climbed from 4.25 to 5.40 in his last five outings), this was another solid pitching performance in a winning streak full of them.

So that’s the pitching part of Montoyo’s comments, and it’s by way of pitching that the other part reveals itself. As we reporters were waiting to talk to Cesar Ramos, I found myself standing at Dane De La Rosa’s locker. I had wanted to ask him about the season he’s having (I wrote some about it the other day), and there he was. I wound up enjoying the conversation with him so much that I missed the Ramos interview. (I’ll supply some quotes on Ramos’ behalf: “I was able to keep the ball down better than last time out.” “I had good fastball command.” “It was nice to pitch with a lead.” “I’m not thinking about a callup. I’m just trying to do well here. I can’t control what they do.” It’ll be fun to see how close I am in the morning.)

De La Rosa was awful to start 2012, but he told me that in fact the bad April had its roots in March. He was trying very hard, naturally, to make the major-league squad out of spring training, and thought in retrospect that he probably overdid it a little in trying to make his case. He was assigned to Durham—which is in fact what he expected (“Guys know their roles,” he said)—but was determined to do well out of the gate in order to move to the front of the line of potential bullpen callups.

That, too, led to De La Rosa “trying to do too much,” as he put it, and getting into bad habits. He wasn’t himself, he said. There were no mechanical issues, no injuries—I don’t think De La Rosa has gone on the disabled list a single time in the last two or three seasons—it was all mental, De La Rosa said. (See this game story for a recent elaboration on the mental aspect of Triple-A.) He was in thrall to his desire to get back to the major leagues, and that’s putting the cart before the horse. You gotta pull the load first, and do it right, one hoof in front of the other.

De La Rosa didn’t. After four appearances with the Bulls to start the year, he had already allowed four runs in four innings, walked five batters and taken a loss. Nonetheless, the Rays needed help and called him up on April 14. He pitched one inning in the bigs, coming on in the eighth inning of a game against Boston at Fenway Park, with the Rays trailing 8-5.

When his inning was done, the Rays trailed 13-5.

Afterwards. De La Rosa tweeted a single four-letter word:

O U C H…..— Dan Della Rocco (@Daner13) April 15, 2012