Durham Bulls fall to Norfolk Tides, nine-game winning streak ends: Back on the bus

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DBAP/ DURHAM—Ahh, these two-game homestands: Just as you start to settle into the rhythms and narrative elaborations of a weeklong set, you go down into the clubhouse 27 hours after the Bulls return home from an 11-day road trip only to find the room mined with duffel bags and players dressing and packing expeditiously for another tour of duty in the South Division battlefields. Having hastily identified all of the new faces on the team, back on the bus they go.

This end-of-season schedule, courtesy of the International League, has been a preposterous parody of planning. By the time the Bulls return to the DBAP on Monday, they will have played 16 of their last 18 games on the road, all against the same three teams, including a seven-game "home-and-home" (I guess you can call it that) dance-a-thon versus the Norfolk Tides. And when they do return to the DBAP again, on Monday, they stay here for a season-ending, eight-game series against—you guessed it—our good friends enemies Charlotte (three games), Gwinnett (two) and Norfolk again (three). That means that the Bulls will have finished the 2010 regular season by playing the Tides in 10 of their final 19 games. And rumor has it that the schedule is made by none other than Norfolk's General Manager.

If familiarity breeds contempt, and if losing breeds even more, it's a wonder no punches have been thrown between Durham and Norfolk, given the frustration the Tides must have been feeling after losing the first six of seven straight games against Durham. And when Chris Richard blasted a two-run homer off of Norfolk starter Zach Britton in the first inning of last night's game, we started talking about a seven-game sweep, which would have extended the Bulls' winning streak to 10 games.

But not so fast. In the top of the second inning, Bulls starter Ramon Ortiz, who had sailed through the first with just six pitches, gave up singles to the first three Tides he faced. That brought up Blake Davis, just activated from the disabled list after a month out of action. Davis worked the count full and then launched a grand slam over the right field wall. 4-2, Tides. Even Bulls' manager Charlie Montoyo had to concede that "that's why we like this game. You just never know." Davis added some good glovework at third base, Britton settled down and kept the Bulls from converting their scoring chances—Durham went 1-8 with runners in scoring position—and the Tides' relievers kept the roof from blowing off. Norfolk won, 6-2, and gained a consolatory getaway-day win to avert a seven-game skunking. Davis's welcome-back grand slam was the difference.

Win-streak over, and records hold for another day. The Bulls will have to get back on the bus and work a little harder to break the team's Triple-A single-season win mark (they're tied with the 1999 club at 83 wins), and to eclipse the all-time benchmark, 89 wins, set back in 1962. They need to win seven of their last 12 games to do it. Otherwise, the only suspense that remains has to do with which Bulls will get on the bus plane to Tampa when rosters expand on Wednesday.

Oh—and Elliot Johnson attempts to steal home (!) after the jump.

Jeremy Hellickson was victimized by a steal of home a month ago, when Syracuse's Boomer Whiting pulled off the rare feat. It takes guts, timing and canniness to try it. Perhaps inspired by Whiting's daring, Elliot Johnson tried it himself last night, with Justin Ruggiano across the diamond from him on first base. There was one out, the Bulls trailed by three runs, and the tying run was at the plate in the person of Chris Richard, who had homered in his first at-bat against Zach Britton.

Not an ideal moment to attempt the steal, as Richard had the opportunity to do major damage. But Charlie Montoyo told us after the game that Johnson had been reading Britton's delivery habits. "He said he could see when [Britton] was going to [throw to] first," Montoyo said. "But he didn't wait long enough." Johnson, perhaps a little overexcited by the tell he had spotted in Britton's motion with a runner on first base, broke for home while Britton was still set and before he had actually committed to his pickoff move—although "the guy was going over," Montoyo confirmed, had Johnson not run. Johnson's split second of prematurity allowed Britton to heed his teammates shouting at him to throw home. (He had only their eyes and voices to help him, because a lefty is facing away from third base when he pitches from the stretch.) Britton is pretty agile—he made some good plays in the field last night—and he turned and threw home just in time to get Johnson, whose sheer speed almost made up for his misjudgment in timing; he was out by just a little. Still, it was exciting to watch the play unfold. Attempts to steal home are rare and have the feel of something almost illicit; it's kind of like watching someone screw up the courage to hold up a bank. It takes a moment before your brain accepts, Wow, he's really doing that! (Note: Please do not attempt to hold up a bank, even if you spot something in the teller's delivery.)

Richard struck out anyway after Johnson's foiled larceny attempt, and there followed for the rest of the evening another of those naggingly frequent 2010 middle-inning stretches in which the Bulls kept putting runners on base and kept failing to score any of them. Tides pitchers had only one 1-2-3 inning all night, but Britton commanded the lower half of the strike zone well, and his three henchmen, Kam Mickolio, Alberto Castillo and Frank Mata, worked around baserunners of their own in closing out the win for him. The Tides' parent club, the Baltimore Orioles, is terrible this year, and has suffered through 15 years of unconscionable mismanagement under Peter Angelos and his front office; but there's reason to think that the young talent up there, once it is bolstered by some of the good young arms in Norfolk, has a shot at respectability in the next couple of years—if, that is, they can stomach new manager Buck Showalter and his unsmiling drill-sergeant demeanor.

Enough of that, though. It's the Bulls we're concerned with here, not the Tides, but concern seems to have the wrong secondary meaning in this discussion. Sure, Durham scored only three runs in two games at the DBAP (which is why the 1-1 split with the Tides was actually a good result), but in the two before that at Norfolk they scored 17. Since they left on their big road trip, they have scored 63 runs over 14 games. That's 4.5 per game, noticeably below their usual rate (for the season, they average 5.3/game), but it isn't a disastrous decline. The question is, again, how they will fare if they lose hitters to Tampa next week. And don't forget that the Rays can shuttle players up and down all during September—what happens around the first of the month is by no means final.

So, the big wind-down has commenced. It was nice to see that the Bulls weren't just up there hacking at the first pitch they saw all night Wednesday. They're still out there battling: for September callups, for a leg up heading into next season, for pride. (Some of them are probably even fighting for that regular-season win mark, although that is, understandably, a secondary concern.) Recall that catcher John Jaso, who failed to live up to expectations last season as a Bull, rallied at the tail end of 2009, going 10-29 over the season's final week and then adding good work in the playoffs. Who knows but that he somehow carried that success into 2010? Called up to Tampa for emergency duty just a couple of weeks into this season, he took advantage of the opportunity and has stuck there, leading the Rays in on-base percentage and improving his catching skills as part of a platoon. This is a good time for current Bulls to start a season-ending upswing.

***

A few quick notes as the Bulls' team bus rumbles back down I-85 toward Lawrenceville, Ga., where tonight Brian Baker, fresh off seven innings of one-hit ball in Norfolk will square off against the Braves' Jose Ortegano, who pitched decently against Durham on August 15 after getting lit up by the Bulls in two prior starts against them this season:

* Heath Phillips strained the flexor tendon in his throwing arm right near the end of his start at home versus Indianapolis on August 7. He took the ball again for his next turn in the rotation, but couldn't throw a fastball more than 80 miles an hour and left after one inning. He then went on the disabled list. He told me last night that he feels much better and threw a bullpen session before Wednesday's game. He'll take a few more days, go through a couple of recovery routines, and hopes to return in the middle of next week. It will be nice to have him back, but it's not actually a desperate matter, as it seemed it might be a week or so ago. The Bulls have five other healthy starters right now in Baker, Oritz, Richard De Los Santos, Bobby Livingston and Aneury Rodriguez.

* Speaking of Baby A-Rod, he was placed on the Temporarily Inactive list yesterday. The TI designation is generally reserved for short stints away from the team for personal business like births and weddings (Elliot Johnson was on it recently, and J. J. Furmaniak and R. J. Swindle earlier this season.) Still, I had assumed that Rodriguez's placement on the list was simply an administrative procedure executed in order to make room for Joe Dillon, who returned from the disabled list and played first base last night (he doubled in his first at-bat). But Charlie Montoyo told us that Rodriguez, in fact, asked for time off and will indeed leave the team, although he said he didn't know what the reason was. He assured reporters that Rodriguez would return for his next scheduled start on Saturday at Charlotte.

* Mike Ekstrom looked quite rusty in his first inning of relief work last night. Ekstrom had just returned to Durham from his second stint of the season with Tampa (he pitched well there this time), and had not pitched in a week. He put the first three batters he faced on base via a walk and two singles, allowed a run on another single (by Lou Montanez) after a strikeout, but then settled down and retired five straight. Who knows what will happen to the Durham bullpen with roster expansion, but if Ekstrom isn't called back up to Tampa it would be great to see him perform well for the Bulls in the playoffs. At his best, Ekstrom's stuff is very hard to hit.

***

Happy birthday to David Price, who turns 25 today and is vying for the Cy Young Award in his second full season as a big-league pitcher. Even though Price wasn't exactly great as a Bull in his brief time here in the spring of 2009—I'm just now recalling that his first start of last season was against Norfolk, and he gave up a long home run to current Tide Nolan Reimold (who hit .394 in Triple-A to begin 2009 and was called up to the majors, but didn't, unlike Price, stick)—although Price struggled at times with his command, you could tell that he was a big-leaguer waiting to arrive at his potential. He was working hard, learning, improving, bearing down, rising up. This is the time of year when, having seen the Bulls play nearly a full season, you can't help asking yourself which of the current group of players really have what it takes to stick in the majors. Hard work matters, character matters, health matters, and some good fortune matters, too; but in the end it's about nothing more or less than what you've got, how thoroughly you exploit what you've got, and whether it's better than what the other guys have. Elliot Johnson started out on a 1-25 plummet and then began a season-long breakout year; Justin Ruggiano was phenomenal out of the gate and has since regressed (he's now sixth in the league in strikeouts). Richard De Los Santos and Brian Baker have made the Rays pay attention to them. To echo earlier thoughts about Jaso's late-season surge in 2009, people have a way of remembering the last thing you did, not the first. Everyone on the team has a chance to go out soaring. Has Fernando Perez's shoulder healed up enough for him to put together a string of hits? Can Dale Thayer command the lower half of the strike zone? Now's their last chance to do it.

I'll see you back at the DBAP on Monday night. Only eight home games remain in the regular season. How'd that happen so fast?

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