For Bulls fans, the stars seemed suddenly to align late in Game Five of the World Series. First, young Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price, who made a whistle-stop in Durham before his call-up to the majors in September, dispatched the heart of the Philadelphia Phillies' order in the bottom of the eighth inning, blowing away slugger Ryan Howard with an exclamation-point strikeout.
Price's high-90s fastball and his biting slider are all the more impressive for his economy of motion—his mechanics are simple and bode well for a long career. Price will return to his accustomed role as a starter next year—and after his postseason performance, we're unlikely (alas) to see him in Durham again unless he struggles early in 2009—but the way the 23-year-old launched himself into the role of closer was invigorating to watch. His guillotining of Boston in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series was an October highlight.
The Rays trailed by a run going into the top of the ninth and faced their last three outs of the year—the Phillies were a win away from the championship. Another former Bull led off against Philadelphia closer Brad Lidge. Evan Longoria, like Price, wasn't in Durham long, and he will probably win the American League Rookie of the Year Award. But Longoria popped out to second base, which left him a dismal 1-20 with nine strikeouts in the World Series. It was a shocking and ruinous letdown after his great showing against Boston, in which he bashed four home runs to help lead the Rays to the pennant.
Then things got interesting. Light-hitting catcher Dioner Navarro hit a broken-bat single to right field. Rays manager Joe Maddon called on speedy former Bull Fernando Perez to pinch-run for Navarro. The job of Indy fave Perez (see "Summer sport") was to steal second and get himself into scoring position.
The brainy yet oddly hip Maddon, with his boxy glasses and mohawk, has been unafraid to make risky choices—like calling on the untested Price to close out Boston—and after so much heady maneuvering of his young squad throughout October, his managerial gumption was rewarded: Luck, as Brooklyn Dodgers impresario Branch Rickey once said, is the residue of design; the Rays' playoff roster was designed so that there was exactly one felicitously correct choice to make—speed, Perez—and Maddon made it.
But he wasn't done making unorthodox moves. Maddon sent Ben Zobrist to pinch-hit for Rocco Baldelli. Zobrist has played for Durham for parts of the last three seasons, and although we've seen plenty of him here, he's been lost amid the blue chips that have passed him on their way to the majors—including Rocco Baldelli.
The case of Baldelli is a strange one. He played briefly in Durham before finding instant success in Tampa. But after two strong years in the majors, he was struck by a large array of apparently unrelated injuries. He missed all of 2005 and 2007 and was said to be considering retirement. Just recently, though, Baldelli was found to have mitochondrial myopathy, a rare genetic disorder that causes muscle fatigue so severe that it breaks the body down.
Mystery solved and treatment in place, Baldelli has been able to return to action, but he can't last a full nine innings. His seventh-inning home run had briefly tied the game, so it's hard to believe that he was too tired to take one more quality at-bat. More likely, Maddon figured that Baldelli had used up that night's magic with his homer. Also, Baldelli hits right-handed, so Maddon substituted the switch-hitting Zobrist, who could face Lidge from the left side.
Zobrist had had only 10 at-bats in the postseason, with just a single to show for them. But he's a selective hitter and was unlikely to waste his chance with poor plate discipline. It was funny, though, to see him step into the batter's box: The Rays' survival now sat upon the shoulders of a guy most Durham fans have seen countless times but can barely remember—even though his statistics speak louder for him than our collective memory does.
Perez did his part, easily stealing second base. The stage was set for him to score and tie the game—and glancing ahead to Games Six and Seven in Tampa, it seemed the Rays would have the pitching edge—and, best of all, to make a hero out of Zobrist, the one ex-Bull no one would have fingered for the role.
Zobrist rifled Lidge's fourth pitch to right field. The low line drive looked like a sure base hit, and Perez crabbed toward third base. But the ball was strangely slow to sink, and it was caught for the second out. Perez retreated to second base, and the next batter, Eric Hinske, struck out to give Philadelphia its first World Series title since Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter.
The Rays' youth has been widely blamed for their World Series collapse, but baseball has a mysterious way of self-correcting, and sometimes you just run out: of luck, of energy, of favor, of control, of power. Tampa and its corral of former Bulls had a remarkable season, stampeding past New York and Boston to win baseball's toughest division, and then mounting a stunning postseason power display until their disastrous outage against Philadelphia. Their meteoric rise was swiftly grounded by a cold regression to the mean, but this year the Rays gave Durhamites a new reason to care about our Bulls. Which of them will join the Rays' core of excellent young players to make another charge in 2009?
That prospect brings to mind another slogan from the Brooklyn Dodgers: "Wait till next year." In the meantime, this holiday season you might buy the Bulls' fan in your household one of those adorable, just-patented, down-flapped caps the Rays sported to brave the nor'easters of Philadelphia.
The Durham Bulls' 2009 season begins with a home game against the Norfolk Tides Thursday, April 9, at 7:55 p.m.