The most important inning of a baseball game in which one team jumps out to a big early lead isn't the one when they score the runs. It's the one right after that.
A few weeks ago against Pawtucket, the Durham Bulls struck for six runs in the bottom of the first inning and the ballgame looked like it was over early. But in the top of the second, Bulls starter Wade Davis allowed a leadoff home run to the PawSox' Paul McAnulty. It certainly wasn't Davis's "fault" that the Bulls wound up losing that game---he led 6-3 when he left after six innings---but he gave Pawtucket a little glimmer of hope. They turned that glimmer into the Bulls' sixth straight defeat.
Cut to last night at Charlotte---which actually plays, don't forget, in Fort Mill, South Carolina. The Knights touched Davis for a run in the bottom of the third when rehabbing major-leaguer Carlos Quentin knocked a single up the middle to score Eider Torres. But in the top of the fourth, Justin Ruggiano quickly erased the deficit by lining an opposite-field home run off of Knights' starter Lucas Harrell. Did Ruggiano's homer rattle Harrell? He walked Chris Richard and Rhyne Hughes, and then Ray Sadler hit another home run, a startling tape-measure blast that gave the Bulls a sudden 4-1 lead. So far in the home-and-home series against Charlotte, the Bulls have scored 15 of their 18 runs via the long ball. They've hit 26 homers in their last 12 games and now lead the league again. Their record in those 12 games? 9-3. Take that, Small Ball.
What would Davis do with the lead his hitters gave him?
Bulls' broadcaster Neil Solondz prefaced the bottom of the fourth thus: "This is the shutdown inning." Davis got Wilson Betemit to ground out to first base to start it off, but then Brandon Allen lined a single to left. Was Davis going to let the Knights up off the mat?
Nope. He struck out Cole Armstrong, who had hit three homers in two days against the Bulls and five in his last six games overall---and worse, is from Canada---and then got Brent Lillibridge to ground into a forceout to end the inning. The Bulls went on to win, 5-1.
Davis didn't give a dominant performance last night. Against a lineup stacked with seven left-handed hitters, the big righty put at least one runner on base in each of his five innings, for which he needed an uneconomical 96 pitches. He threw a wild pitch, allowed a pair of stolen bases, and in his final inning of work walked two men. He got a high proportion of his outs in the air.
But Davis has a stubborn will on the mound, and he's good at pitching out of the trouble he makes for himself. (It's another story when his fielders make errors, which often seems to fluster him into allowing unearned runs.) He commands three or four pitches well, throws a fastball that reaches the mid-90s on occasion, and has a smooth windup and a big athletic body that promise a long, durable career; but it's possible that Davis's most major-league quality is his dogged competitiveness. He showed it last night, and it's why he won his eighth game. He's now tied for second in the International League in victories, and he's second also in innings pitched. He lowered his ERA to 2.84, cracking the top ten, where he also places in strikeouts.
Davis's successors were even better, indeed flawless: Jason Childers, Jorge Julio and Joe Bateman combined for four perfect innings of relief. Yes, not only did Jorge Julio throw a 1-2-3 inning, Joe Bateman didn't walk anyone. I know, right? The final 14 Charlotte hitters were retired in order.
The win was a convincing erasure of the previous night's ugly embarrassment, and itself another kind of shutdown: it prevented even a hint of an incipient losing streak, and it reset the momentum button for the Bulls. Second-place Norfolk has been playing a bit better lately, and Durham leads the South division by just a single game. The Bulls will have an opportunity to pad their lead this month, when they play the Tides seven times. But before the showdown, they have to take care of the business at hand against the two other teams in their division.
It's Carlos Hernandez's turn next, and he, too is trying to build on a sign of upward momentum: his most recent outing, in which he allowed two runs in six innings, came after a pair of poor ones following a bout of back spasms during the Bulls' recent slump. But his injury and the team's recession are already fading memories: it's a Bull market these days. We'll see if Hernandez can continue the charge on Monday.