The Bulls’ Joe Bateman hit consecutive batters in the ninth inning last night in Syracuse, but it was the Bulls who felt the pain. The Chiefs’ Norris Hopper hit a two-out, game-

winning single to score one of the plunkees, handing the Bulls a 3-2 loss.

So it wasn’t walks that did the Bulls in, but a sort of fast-track walk, the hit batter. And where the Bulls’ clutch hitting tends to abet control problems in losses, last night the lineup didn’t even mount enough threats to set up clutch situations. The Bulls scored twice in the second inning (with help from a pair of, ahem, walks); after that, they had only four baserunners, and just one of those advanced to second base.

Wade Davis did a fine job on the mound for the Bulls, but a Reid Brignac error helped an unearned run score, and Davis gave up a solo homer to (I told you to watch out for) Brad Eldred. Davis’s counterpart, the Chiefs’ Marco Estrada—the same guy who opposed him a couple of weeks ago at the DBAP—was again excellent. He stifled the Bulls on August 8, allowing just a pair of unearned runs on two hits in seven innings; last night, he allowed two runs in six innings, overcoming his second-inning control problems and matching Davis’s results. Charlie Montoyo was reluctant to credit Estrada in the August 8 ballgame, choosing instead to blame his hitters’ approach at the plate. But after Estrada shut Durham down again last night, one has to concede that Estrada himself may have been the reason for his success.

Some curious bullpen management by Montoyo last night: Dale Thayer replaced Davis in the seventh and tossed a pair of scoreless innings, leaving he ninth for Bateman. Usually, it would be Thayer handling the late shift, with Bateman setting him up. There’s definitely a reason for the switch, perhaps Tampa-related, and Bateman has closed out games for Montoyo before; still, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher.

In the Bulls’ official game report, you’ll happen upon a typo: “The Bulls are 1.5 games behind Syracuse in the wild card race and four games in front of Toledo and Norfolk.” The Bulls are actually 1.5 games ahead of the Chiefs, but the mistake reflects some growing pessimism, even inside the organization, about the Bulls’ state of affairs. Although the team is still lined up for a playoff spot, lately they haven’t looked like they’re headed for the post-season. Good games are followed by bad ones, the club’s overall energy rises and falls, and their record over the last three weeks is just 10-12. The Bulls look middling, inconsistent, beatable.

Meanwhile, Gwinnett keeps on winning and now has a four-game lead over Durham in the International League South Division. And the wild-card race is thickening—in the quotation nestled in the paragraph above, careful readers will have spotted Toledo now entering the rear-view mirror (this is not a NASCAR post!), thanks to the Mud Hens’ eight-game winning streak. Make no mistake: if the Bulls coast all the way into Labor Day at a .500 pace, one of the three teams on their tail will overtake them. The law of averages virtually assures it.

A quick note about the roster. Chris Richard had a cortisone shot in his wrist (maybe he and Carlos Hernandez, who also had one recently, can compare notes), and he’s expected back perhaps as early as Monday. In the interest of giving Joe Dillon most of a night off on Sunday, Charlie Montoyo started Henry Mateo at first base, which is something I can’t even picture. Dillon entered the game late when Mateo moved to second to replace Akinori Iwamura, who played a scheduled seven innings. Elliot Johnson (strained quadriceps) is eligible to come off the disabled list, and he has been running and taking batting practice. Look for him to return to action very soon. He’ll give the team a boost. It needs one.

Andy Sonnanstine pitches for the Bulls on Monday night. If the Chiefs’ rotation is still in the same order, his opponent will be Ross Detwiler. Those two faced each other at the DBAP on August 9, and the Bulls shredded Detwiler on their way to giving Sonnanstine an easy 11-5 win.