by Adam Sobsey
Had you been listening to the Bulls radio broadcast via streaming internet audio right after the Bulls beat Toledo, 5-3, in 15 innings on Friday night, you would have heard a brief, muted conversation between Neil Solondz and his Capitol Broadcasting producer/ engineer, Beth Ellison. After Solondz and Ellison coordinated the postgame wrap plan, Solondz, who had sounded exhausted since I turned on the radio in the 13th inning, around 11:00 p.m., exhaled heavily and said, "Let's not do that again."
The first game of this series, which Toledo won, 11-10, went 13 innings, the night after the Bulls took an 11-hour bus ride to get to Toledo. The Bulls used seven pitchers (215 pitches) in that game, and they used six (246 pitches) on Friday. Four pitchers appeared in both games. In 27+ innings over the two games, they walked 17 men, hit three, and struck out 26. Julio DePaula, who got the win with three scoreless relief innings on Friday, threw 78 pitches combined in the two games.
Bulls hitters had 58 plate appearances in last night's game. They had 12 hits, including two home runs, and struck out 14 times. Manager Charlie Montoyo made no substitutions among his position players. The nine starters played all 15 innings and committed no errors (although they did fail to turn a double play in the 14th when Henry Mateo bobbled Reid Brignac's throw at second base). They were the beneficiaries of an extraordinarily rare Umpire's Interference call in the 10th inning, which saved the Bulls from losing, and they threw out another potentially game-ending run at the plate in the last of the 14th, when Jon Weber gunned down Scott Sizemore trying to score on Clete Thomas's hit---from right field, no less, where Weber rarely plays.
All in all, just another average day at the park for the heart-attack Durham Bulls.
Some highlights: Chris Richard homered in his first at-bat since coming off the disabled list after missing nearly three weeks with a hamstring injury. Ray Sadler hit his second home run of the series. Jason Cromer, taking James Houser's turn in the rotation (although Houser, according to Neil Solondz, is scheduled to start tomorrow at Columbus), was brilliant for six scoreless innings. The bullpen added eight more shutout frames. Justin Ruggiano knocked in the game-winning runs with a clutch two-out, two-run single to center field in the 15th.
And the lowlights: the homer was Richard's only hit, and he struck out three times. Ruggiano's single was his only hit, and he went 1-7 with a pair of Ks; he also made yet another S.B.G., getting hung up and thrown out between first and second after his game-winning hit. Solondz charitably speculated that Ruggiano was trying to create a long rundown in order to allow a third run to score. Before Ruggiano's game-winner, Reid Brignac impatiently and unwisely swung at the very first pitch from newly-inserted reliever Fu-Te Ni and popped out to first base. The Bulls were 2-10 with runners in scoring position. (Fortunately, the Mud Hens were worse with RISP: 1-14. They stranded 16 baserunners.)
Cromer's great six innings were effaced by the first two batters of the seventh: the second of them, Brent Dlugach, tagged Cromer for a game-tying, two-run homer. After Durham took the lead in the top of the 10th, Dale Thayer blew a save in the bottom of the inning when he hit a batter, gave up a double, walked two more (one intentionally), and needed that Umpire's Interference call to bail him out and keep him from not only blowing the save but losing the game. On that play, home plate umpire Arthur Thigpen ruled that he himself obstructed catcher John Jaso's throw to third as Jaso tried to catch Clete Thomas attempting to steal. Did he point at himself, reproachfully? Had he protested his own call, would he have thrown himself out of the game? Would it have been like Ed Norton beating himself up in Fight Club? In any case, interference or no, 23 of the last 26 base thieves have been successful against Jaso, who also had his third passed ball in less than two weeks on Friday, and went 0-4 with three strikeouts and a pair of walks.
The Bulls also needed a fair amount of help to win. Toledo hitters lead the universe in striking out---they have 108 more (!) than the second-place Bulls---and they did it often while failing to plate a single runner in scoring position with a hit: the one safety they got ended with Weber throwing out the lead runner at home. In the decisive top of the 15th inning, Mud Hens' left fielder Wilkin Ramirez slipped and fell in pursuit of Henry Mateo's fly ball, which turned into a double and moved Weber, who had led off with a walk, to third. Both men scored on Ruggiano's hit.
"This kind of game becomes one of mistakes," Neil Solondz said, almost as a warning, deep into extra innings. And at one point, after the Bulls failed to score the go-ahead run from second base, he moaned, "So close, yet so far from finding their way."
But the improbaBul---no, no, I promised myself I wouldn't succumb to that---found their way to a win, somehow, some way, and a split of the exhausting series, riding on nothing but fumes by the time it was all over: the four games took 44+ innings to complete. They made some tremendous clutch plays---Weber's outfield assist in the fourteenth has to be one of the Bulls' best moments of the season so far. They fought every inning, every pitch; Ruggiano's game-winning hit came on a 3-2 count after he had fallen behind 0-2. The Bulls ended the four-hour, 38-minute game in second place in the International League South division, still just a game behind Norfolk.
When the postgame wrap-up ended, Beth Ellison said to Solondz, "Good job, Neil. That was a marathon." Amen, sister. I'm exhausted from merely writing this post. But why do I get the feeling that the highwire-walking, mountain-climbing, indefatigable Durham Bulls wouldn't really mind if they had to run another marathon tomorrow? Here's a good theme song for it.
The Bulls will have to run for a while without manager Charlie Montoyo. Tomorrow, Montoyo takes a scheduled leave of absence to be with his family during his infant son Alex's open-heart surgery. Montoyo leaves on a high and hopeful note, after a big win. His quiet, airtight strength will surely stay with his resilient, iron-strong team while he's gone.