A Zooperstar.
  • www.zooperstars.com
  • A “Zooperstar.”

HARBOR PARK/ NORFOLK—Yes, the dateline is correct. I’ve just caught up with the Durham Bulls at the tail end of what will have been a 10-game road trip to Buffalo, N.Y., Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Penna., and now Norfolk, Va. So far, it all feels pretty weird.

The Bulls charged into town last night—actually, at around 5:00 a.m. much, much earlier yesterday morning, after a seven-hour bus ride from Pennsylvania—as the proud owners of a season-high six-game winning streak. They had just improbably swept the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees; they had worked out their little bullpen kinks, which plagued them for the first two games of the trip up in Buffalo; and their closest division rivals, the Gwinnett Braves, had fallen off some, allowing the Bulls to build their South Division lead out to five games.

And then the Bulls lost 3-2 to Norfolk, the league’s second-worst team. Tides starter Rick Vandenhurk threw well and held Durham to two hits over six innings, and the Bulls weren’t quite able to break through against Norfolk’s bullpen. Andy Sonnanstine was the hard-luck loser, giving up three runs in six-plus innings but pitching better than his line showed.

This report is going to be on the short side (for me, anyway). When you cover a team only at home, as I normally do, road games are strange. Harbor Park drew its largest crowd of the season last night, over 11,000—so it was both eye-opening to witness and, at the same time, I was assured, quite unusual: even Tides employees seemed a little perplexed by the turnout. Some of the fans were really just there for a pregame concert by an Elvis Presley impersonator—he and his band, which was pretty good, set up their little stage right on home plate (Elvis died 34 years ago last week, is that why we saw this?)—and some others were apparently lured in by the between-innings antics of the Zooperstars (follow the link if you really must know). There is also a brand new metro rail system that stops at the ballpark—really brand new; its first ever day of service was the day before yesterday—and apparently it was free to ride all week. I repeat, Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill: a metro rail system.

So there was a lot of stuff going on, what with the unfamiliar setting; the huge crowd; the big oversized inflatable Zooperstars; the Elvis; the trip from the Press Box to the clubhouse that took reporters through what I believe were actual catacombs; etc. The game was very nearly an afterthought. Except that it wasn’t, and those before- and afterthoughts follow.

A number of the Bulls are growing out their mustaches, following the lead of Rob Delaney, whose been cultivating his for much of the year. Many of the others are working on beards. That can mean only one thing: playoffs. The facial hair collectivity is a baseball tradition this time of year, and in Durham especially: The Bulls are primed to win their fifth straight division title. Gwinnett lost last night, too, so the Bulls’ lead remains five games with 18 to play. There’s plenty of opportunity to lose it, but the Bulls are driving this train.

The hirsuteness was earned through the six-game road winning streak, one which was bound not make it through to the trip home—too many bus rides, too many poor nights’ sleep, too many minor-league vagaries. The Bulls didn’t get much going against Vandenhurk, who throws a tailing fastball and also a riding one that he can get up to 95 mph, plus a good breaking ball. Still, when Matt Carson hit a solo homer off of Vandenhurk in the second inning, on a mistake pitch, you figured maybe Vandenhurk would make a few more mistakes.

But if he did, the Bulls didn’t cash in on them, and they caught few breaks. Sonnanstine, on the other hand, paid for his mistakes. In the bottom of the second inning, right after Carson staked Sonnanstine to a 1-0 lead, the righty allowed singles to Jake Fox and Brandon Snyder.

He then got Robbie Widlansky to hit a chopper to first base. This could have been a double-play ball, although perhaps not an easy one. Still, Leslie Anderson played it poorly. He backpedaled, then reached down for a short-hop, and had the ball glance off of his glove into shallow right field. It was scored a hit, and I suppose it was a tough enough play to warrant that ruling, especially in the Tides’ park. Dan Johnson probably fields that ball, though.

Fox scored on the play and Snyder advanced to third. On the very next pitch, Tyler Henson smacked a grounder back to Sonnanstine, but it caromed off of Sonnanstine’s leg and Henson had an RBI single. Sonnanstine said later that it was one of those tricky balls that you can’t decide whether to catch forehand or backhand—and of course you have just a fraction of a second to decide. Snyder scored, and it was 2-1, Norfolk. Sonnanstine did well to avoid further damage, getting a fly out and a pair of strikeouts to end the inning.

Sonnanstine is a control pitcher, so naturally it was an uncharacteristic leadoff walk in the seventh that cost him a third run. He admitted after the game that he may have run out of gas in the seventh—I was a little surprised he wasn’t lifted after the sixth, when he had to work around a leadoff double by Ryan Adams and escaped with his 93rd pitch.

On the other hand, the Durham bullpen has been used a little heavily lately, with two starters having lasted only four innings in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre; and Sonnanstine can usually go over 100 pitches. Still, the leadoff walk in the seventh had that foreboding feel to it. Sure enough, Henson, who had drawn the walk, stole second and scored on a Brendan Harris single. 3-1, Norfolk.

Adam Russell relieved and walked two more batters to load the bases, but then got out of the inning. Meanwhile, the Bulls kept threatening but not quite rallying against the Norfolk bullpen. Russ Canzler poked a double the opposite way, down the right field line, to open the seventh, and Carson was hit by a pitch, but Leslie Anderson grounded into a double play.

In the eighth, J. J. Furmaniak drew a leadoff walk off of newish Norfolk reliever Wynn Pelzer. One out later, Brandon Guyer also walked, and Norfolk manager Gary Allenson went lefty-on-lefty, replacing the righty Pelzer with southpaw Zach Phillips to face Stephen Vogt.

On the seventh pitch of Vogt’s at-bat, he absolutely walloped a ball to left-center field, right at the 396-foot sign out there. Harbor Park is known as a pitcher’s park—the wind is always blowing in off of said harbor, and also across left-to-right(-ish), and so it was no surprise to see Vogt’s blast die out there and come down in the glove of Tides center fielder Matt Angle.

That was about as hard as Vogt can hit a ball. You know how I know? He told me so in the elevator of the hotel we’re all staying in, about 45 minutes after the game ended. This road-trip stuff, it’s something I’m just not used to.

Dan Johnson followed Vogt’s long out with a bloop single to shallow left field to score Furmaniak and make it 3-2, but it was as if the Bulls’ hopes had really died out there in deep left-center field with Vogt’s drive. Allenson brought in his righty closer, Mark Worrell, to face Russ Canzler, and the sidearming Worrell—who has a truly bizarre delivery, even for a sidearmer, threw Canzler his slider eight straight times until Canzler finally struck out. In the ninth, to cap off a forgettable night, Leslie Anderson grounded into his second straight double play and end an incipient threat after Carson’s leadoff single. So, okay, then. Winning streak over.


The Bulls wrap up this 10-game trip tonight starting at 6:15 p.m. This is the Bulls’ third road swing of 2011 of 10+ games, if you count the one that was sandwiched around the All-Star Break. It’s a cockamamie schedule, and it was designed by none other than Norfolk’s General Manager—I suppose the meet punishment is his miserable 49-78 team, which has been bad from the first game of the year, courtesy of parent-club Baltimore.

It will be the Bulls’ Matt Torra versus Norfolk’s Chris George. These two faced off about a month and a half ago, both having mixed results in a Durham win at the DBAP. Torra has been pitching much better lately, and so has George. So who knows what we’ll see? The Bulls looked understandably rather tired last night, and they have an off-day on Monday; they could just phone it in and get on the bus, or reach down for a little something extra before the dark Monday that precedes an eight-day, nine-game homestand, which begins at the DBAP on Tuesday.

Those nine, sportsfans, are the last regular-season games of the year at the DBAP. The beards the Bulls are sporting promise more after Labor Day, but you can’t count on them yet.

I’ll be back after Sunday’s getaway game with a recap, and, I hope, more detailed thoughts from Harbor Park. It’s fun to be here.