Five times this season, first on June 2 and most recently on Wednesday, the Bulls have gone 16 games over .500. Each time, they lost the next the game, and never reached the 17-games-over mark.
There’s nothing particularly special about 17; it’s just a number; but for whatever reason, it came to represent the ceiling of the Bulls’ success in 2009. Try as they might, they just couldn’t get there. They seemed doomed to be a 16-games-over team. Given that it’s mathematically impossible to finish a 144-game season 17 games over .500—and kids, don’t look now but the season is, in terrifying fact, 92.36% finished—maybe there was something appropriately chimerical about the mark.
Last night, they finally broke through. Their fourth straight win, a 3-1 margin delivered by Chris Richard’s three-run, ninth-inning home run, pushed the Bulls’ record to 75-58, and pulled them dead even for the IL South Division lead with the Gwinnett Braves, who lost their fourth straight to Charlotte.
Given how long it took the Bulls to pass 16 and to reclaim a share of first place (where they haven’t been since August 10), the way they crested those humps last night was appropriate.
I don’t need to detail for you how the Bulls have often struggled this season with runners in scoring position; I’ve gnawed that bone plenty. Last night’s game was another of those can’t-quite-score Frustration Fests. The Bulls didn’t get a baserunner until the top of fourth, and he was quickly erased on a double play. But from the fifth through the eighth, trailing 1-0 the whole time, they left six men on base, four in scoring position. They went 1/9 with runners in scoring position in those four innings, and the constant postponements were aggravated by a 36-minute rain delay in the top of the sixth inning.
Some credit is due Norfolk. Joe Dillon hit a bloop double to lead off the fifth inning. One out later, Justin Ruggiano hit a grounder that Tides second baseman Melvin Dorta did a nice job of knocking down. Ruggiano had an infield single, but Dorta’s play forced Dillon to stop at third base. There was still only one out, but Richard popped out to shallow left and Shawn Riggans flied out to end the threat.
In the next inning, with Elliot Johnson on first base, Tides reliever Josh Perrault made a behind-the-back, spearing (and perhaps slightly lucky) catch of Desmond Jennings’s hot grounder up the middle, and forced Johnson out at second. Matt Joyce then walked. Had Jennings’s grounder gone through the infield, the bases would have been loaded with no one out. Jennings stole third, but—with one out now and men on the corners, just like the previous inning—Akinori Iwamura and Joe Dillon popped out.
Still 1-0, and still more: with two outs in the seventh, Richard doubled (he’d been robbed of another one earlier in the game). Riggans got good wood on a liner to center, but Joey Gathright ran it down to end the inning. The frustration was mounting, and it got worse when Jennings hit a one-out double in the eighth but the Bulls failed to drive him home as well.
All the time 1-0, 1-0, 1-0.
Bulls’ starter Jason Cromer (left) kept the game close, and Norfolk was even worse than Durham with RISP, going 1/10. That’s not much of a surprise, though: Cromer’s numbers improve dramatically as the pressure tightens. With RISP, the league is hitting .169 against him; with RISP and two outs, a painful .095. But he was doomed to yet another no-decision in a game in which he deserved a victory. By my count, he’s had five starts in which his hitters didn’t give him even minor support. (Maybe the Bulls are so stunned that Cromer, of all people, has been the team’s most consistent starter this year, they fail to score much when he pitches.)
Cromer also got some fielding help of his own. In the third, Joey Gathright singled, and Brandon Pinckney followed with a double to left field. Ruggiano fielded it and relayed to Elliot Johnson, who threw out Gathright trying to go all the way home from first. Jeff Fiorentino then doubled Pinckney home, but it was still only 1-0 rather than 2-0.
And in the eighth, reliever Joe Nelson got some more good glovework behind him (well, actually in front of him—you’ll see): He issued a leadoff walk—ugh—to Gathright. Double-ugh, because Gathright has great speed. He was sacrificed to second, so Nelson intentionally walked Fiorentino, not only to avoid the Tides’ best hitter but also to set up a double play.
Didn’t work: Gathright and Fiorentino foiled the tactic by pulling off a double steal. The infield crept in with Gathright now on third. Brandon Snyder hit a grounder to Joe Dillon at third base. Dillon threw home—low. But Riggans made a nice scoop of the ball and tagged out Gathright. Nelson retired Guillermo Rodriguez and escaped damage.
Which brings us to the ninth inning. Norfolk reliever Bob McCrory was beginning his second inning of work. The hard-throwing McCrory hasn’t pitched very well against Durham this year. He had made six prior appearances versus the Bulls and allowed runs in five of them. He’d given up a whopping 16 hits in 8 2/3 innings, including a home run on July 24 to Chris Richard. You see where this is going.
Joe Dillon led off with a single up the middle, and then the Tides gave the Bulls the little break they needed, the push up over the hump: Jon Weber hit a double-play ball to shortstop, but Blake Davis bobbled it momentarily and had to settle for a forceout at second. The speedy Fernando Perez came in to pinch-run for Weber. Justin Ruggiano followed with another single up the middle, and the Bulls were in business with men on first and second, one out, and Richard up.
McCrory got ahead of Richard (right), 0-2; and if there’s one recurrent weakness in Richard’s hitting approach, it’s that he often gets himself quickly in the hole. That’s a tendency of some power hitters, who go up to the plate looking for early fastballs. But down in the count, Richard fouled off a few pitches, took a ball, and with the count 1-2 Perez and Ruggiano returned Norfolk’s service with their own double steal. It was now 2-2, the tying run was at third, and all Richard needed was a fly ball to the medium-ish outfield in order to score Perez. Richard had failed to deliver in that situation back in the fifth.
This time, Richard got his fly ball. Only it was a three-run homer. It was as though he said, Enough with the frustrating, namby-pamby, station-to-station small-ball already. Enough with the double steal, as if I—I, Richard the Lionhearted, I who am one homer away from tying the Bulls’ Triple-A franchise record for career home runs—am only good for an unmanly single or a sacrifice fly. Tying run? Go-ahead run? Damn skippy, and whaddaya say we take out a little insurance, too? A little hump on top of the hump?
Not a bad way to get your 62nd career home run as a Durham Bull and tie the record. Another hump reached.
McCrory was so mad, he knocked Shawn Riggans down with his next pitch. That prompted words with the Bulls’ dugout, which may have gone:
Bulls Dugout: McCrory, you’re our [redacted]!
Bob McCrory: [woof!]
McCrory has now allowed 20 hits and nine runs to the Bulls in 10 2/3 innings this season, with four walks and only two strikeouts. Wow. And by wow, I mean, Wow, that’s horrible!
Winston Abreu shut the door on the Tides in the ninth. He struck out the side, but his final slider to Blake Davis had so much bite that, after Davis swung over it for strike three, it eluded Shawn Riggans and Davis scampered down to first on a wild pitch. Abreu’s bid for the rare four-strikeout inning (it’s happened 21 times in major-league history; wow, Chuck Finley! and by wow I do not mean wow, that’s horrible!) was foiled when Freddy Guzman lined out to right field to end the game and give Abreu his 14th save. But you’re not really going to complain about that, are you? Not when your team is finally 17 games over .500 and tied for first place again?
Speaking of getting over the hump, which you may have noticed is today’s (very flat) theme, two longtime minor-league Durham Bulls, Jason Childers and Jon Weber (both pictured, right, in backwards order), will get to play on a much bigger stage soon. It isn’t the majors, but they were both named to Team USA, which will compete in the Baseball World Cup in Europe in September. (This is not to be confused with another IBAF-sponsored event, the nascent World Baseball Classic, which uses major-leaguers and is played in March.) Congrats to both of them! The selfish bummer part, though, is that they will both be leaving the team on September 1 to join the squad at the training complex, which happens to be in nearby Cary. Bulls Evan Longoria and Justin Ruggiano were on Team USA in 2007’s World Cup, so Childers and and Weber are carrying on a tradition. The full roster comprises mostly Triple-A players—including former Bull Cedric Bowers—many of whom we’ve seen at the DBAP this season.
(By the way, on Wednesday I’ll have a story in the Indy’s print edition about Childers, who is Team USA’s eldest player.)
On Friday, the Bulls go for a sweep of Norfolk. It’s their first time holding a broom since late June, so we’ll see if they remember how to wield one. Wade Davis pitches for Durham. His opponent is Chris Lambert. Lambert is a former No. 1 draft pick of St. Louis. He was in the Tigers’ organization earlier this season and faced the Bulls twice while pitching for the Toledo Mud Hens. Lambert performed very well against Durham, limiting them to nine hits and three earned runs in 13 innings, with 16 strikeouts and only one walk. He was recently waived and then claimed by the Orioles, who assigned him to Norfolk. If you’re looking for a potential Richard/McCrory-type spoiler, Matt Joyce homered off of Lambert a couple of months ago.