DBAP/DURHAM The Durham Bulls are finally home for the first time this year, and have high hopes for yet another big season under Charlie Montoyo (pictured).


Under the Puerto Rican former infielder’s tutelage the Bulls are the defending Triple-A National Champions, and have played in the Governors’ Cup Final each of the past three years.

They’re off to a great start, coming off a 5-2 road trip ending in a three-game sweep of the Gwinnett Braves.

It’s a night for celebration, as they’re saluting Duke’s NCAA men’s basketball title as well as the Bulls’ championship.

Blue Devils Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek throw the ceremonial “first pitches” — each proving he made a wise decision to play basketball — before Montoyo gets his Minor League manager of the year award from Baseball America.

Wool E. Bull arrives in a helicopter, the Duke pep band and cheerleaders are in the house, and the Bulls arrive at home plate in a parade of new cars.

Now we can play ball. The opponent is the Norfolk Tides, which have former Bulls coach Richie Hebner as their hitting coach along with former Bull Joey Gathright in center field and former Bull Rhyne Hughes as the designated hitter.

Jeff Bennett will be on the mound for Durham, with Alfredo Simon going for the visitors in front of a crowd of 9,080. Unfortunately for the Bulls, they have a rough first inning and can never make it up in a 6-4 loss.

Bennett starts the game by throwing eight straight balls, and on comes Brian Baker. And the first inning doesn’t go well. Lou Montanez smacks an RBI double off the Blue Monster wall in left, followed by Scott Moore’s RBI single to left. After a passed ball scores Montanez, Hughes singles to left to make it 4-0.

The home team finally gets on the board in the third. Elliot Johnson leads off with an infield hit to first, eventually scoring on Hank Blalock’s two-out ground single to right.

Dan Johnson cuts it to 4-2 in the fourth when he blasts the first pitch of the inning into the Diamond View seats in right.

Norfolk adds two more in the sixth off Richard De Los Santos. Brandon Snyder leads off with a single to right, then scores on a triple to right from Robert Andino who in turn scores on Adam Donachie’s single.

And then the Bulls put together a noisy rally in the ninth. Chris Richard starts it by reaching on an error to second baseman Jonathan Tucker. Then with two out, Elliot Johnson singles to left followed by a walk to Rashad Eldridge to load the bases. Justin Ruggiano follows with an RBI single between second and short to chase Alberto Castillo and bring on Frank Mata. Blalock then singles to left to score Elliot Johnson, but Joe Dillon hits a fly to the warning track in left to end the game.

Here’s what they said …
Bulls skipper Charlie Montoyo: “The reason we came out 5-2 on the road trip was our pitching. Bennett didn’t have it, so we took him out because we don’t want to get somebody hurt in April. They already had two men on base and that put us in a hole. I’m just glad we battled back. I want to give credit to Baker and De Los Santos for keeping us in the game.”

Dan Johnson: “We definitely didn’t give up. There are a lot of pros on this team and we’re not in the business of giving up. Simon’s got a great out pitch, a split. And his fastball has as little movement. You have to kind of see him and react. I was lucky enough to see him and react right once.”

Dillon: “Obviously with Bennett not being right the bullpen came in and did a great job and gave us a chance to win. We’re never going to quit. I kind of felt we were going to give them a shot at the end before everything happened. I put a good swing on that last one. I got the pitch I wanted and just missed it.”

What does it all mean?
That the teams are pretty evenly matched, and that the Bulls, who dropped into a first-place tie with Charlotte, don’t seem to quit.

Stars of the game
1. Simon, for a solid six-inning start.
2. Hughes, with two hits and an RBI.
3. Blalock, with two singles for two RBI.

Play of the game
Andino’s triple in the sixth that gives the Tides some much-needed insurance.

Season series
Norfolk leads 3-2.

Durham: Lost 1.
Norfolk: Won 2.

Durham: none.
Norfolk: P Kam Mickolio recalled to Baltimore. P Dennis Sarfate to disabled list. P Armando Gabino recalled from Bowie. P Jim Miller recalled from Aberdeen.

On deck
Norfolk at Bulls, Friday, 7:05 p.m.

Troy Patton (L, 0-1, 3.38) vs. Virgil Vasquez (R, 1-0, 1.59)