After the Bulls lost on Saturday at Louisville to set up a two-men-enter-one-man-leave Game Five in their International League division playoff series, manager Charlie Montoyo was philosophical. “I don’t feel pressure because the worst thing that can happen is that I will see my family the next day,” Montoyo said. “I preached that to my players. We had the best division this year in the league and it took 83 wins to win the division. So just to get to this point and to be playing a fifth game against a good team like Louisville is just awesome. It’s awesome for my club.”
You could also read that assessment as a secret hope for a loss on Sunday, which would have ended the long, hard road that has been the Bulls’ 2009 season. Montoyo could hardly be blamed for harboring a desire to have done with it all: his family has had an unbelievably trying year, he misses them terribly, and his team has been thoroughly picked over by the Tampa Bay Rays’ front office, leaving him with a patchwork lineup, bullpen and (especially) rotation, which features just two bona fide starters. On Saturday, one of the replacements, just-up-from-Montgomery Rayner Oliveros, was bombed, lasting just one full inning in what ended up a 10-7 loss. (All 10 runs were allowed by three pitchers who came into the game with a grand total of six combined Triple-A appearances.)
On Sunday, Montoyo sent Paul Phillips to the mound. Phillips is yet another newbie, called up just over a week ago. He throws hard and throws strikes, and he did that again against Louisville for five innings yesterday, getting credit for an unlikely win as the Bulls survived the Bats, 5-3. It was the fourth time in the last 12 seasons that the Bulls have knocked the Bats out of the playoffs in the first round, and the third in the last seven. The Bats haven’t beaten Durham in the playoffs yet.
Say this for the Louisville Bats: they can field. They made some sparkling plays, especially in the infield, throughout the series, and kept themselves in a position to win with their gloves, particularly Yonder Alonso’s at first base.
But their skill, which had been abetted some good luck, was offset last night by a reversal of fortune. After they had something like 437 infield hits in the first part of the series, the Bats finally got a bit unlucky last night, losing a pair of potential and crucial runs to line drives hit to the wrong places—both by Alonso—in the sixth and ninth innings. (Alonso’s sixth-inning liner turned into an inning-ending double play—not the first time that Julio DePaula has gotten one of those from the first man he’s faced in an inning.) On balance, luck may have just about evened out in the series; these two teams, the league’s best by overall record, were just about perfectly matched. The Bulls barely outscored the Bats over five games, 26-25.
Last night, the Bulls got their runs mainly via station-to-station productivity rather than the long-ball bingo they have often played this year. Ten of their 12 hits were singles; they stole three bases and had three sacrifices. They scored single runs in three different innings and two in another. That isn’t really the taurine way, but it was enough last night, as the Bulls held off the Bats late, with Winston Abreu going 1 2/3 innings for the long-form save, his second extended rescue of the series.
And there were some bright spots in the lineup. A special shout-out is due Justin Ruggiano. Ruggiano had a difficult season. He struck out a lot, he never put together a sustained run of success, and he finished the regular season with a career-low batting average. He sometimes looked bored or self-involved on the field, and he was the only one of the nine outfielders on the Rays’ 40-man roster not to earn time in Tampa Bay this year.
So he could have succumbed to disappointment or resentment, and phoned it in for the playoffs: waited them out and then gone home to be with his wife and newborn son. But instead Ruggiano—the Roodge!—stepped up against Louisville, going 9/20 with a handful of RBIs and a couple of doubles. He is a major reason why the Bulls advanced.
Ruggiano’s new teammate, Sean Rodriguez, reached base in 11 of 21 plate appearances. Old hands Matt Joyce and Elliot Johnson were also solid contributors to the Bulls’ five-game series win, which extended their league-best road record to 44-31—against the league’s top home team, no less.
And if they’re going to win the Governor’s Cup, they’ll have to win at least one more road game. For the second year in a row, they’ll face the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees in the finals. Last year, the Yankees triumphed, three games to one. It would be nice for the Bulls to avenge that defeat, and to bring a championship to Durham in a year full of unthinkable roster tumult, plus personal upheaval for manager Charlie Montoyo, whose young son Alex underwent surgery in July for a rare heart defect called Ebstein’s anomaly. Montoyo left the team briefly in July to attend to his family.
If you had told me, or Montoyo, or probably just about anyone, that the Bulls would, with the current roster, make their way into the championship series for the right to play in the Triple-A championship later this month, the reply probably would have been one of amazement, plus the question, “How do you pronounce ‘Wlodarczyk’?”
I’ll try to check in with a preview before the series versus the Yankees (who haven’t changed too radically since we last saw them, about a month ago). My colleague Mike Potter will be covering the game on Tuesday, when Jeremy Hellickson starts for the Bulls. I’m expecting to be at the DBAP on Wednesday, and thrilled that there’s still baseball to be seen there this far into September. I assume you’ve already got your tickets for both games, and are seriously considering a drive to Scranton on Thursday.
Today’s an off day, so satisfy your Bulls craving with this.