by Adam Sobsey
The Syracuse Chiefs took a 2-0 lead over the Durham Bulls early in last night's game, and Bulls broadcaster Neil Solondz noted that the Bulls had done the same in Sunday's game before the Chiefs rallied to win, 3-2. You got the sense that he was hoping the Bulls might reverse the stream and visit the same comeback on Syracuse. Sure enough, the Bulls tied the game with two runs in the sixth, then won it in the eighth, by that same 3-2 score, on Michel Hernandez's second sacrifice fly of the night.
This was a big win for the Bulls. They dropped Syracuse 2.5 games behind them in the wild-card chase; elsewhere, both Norfolk and Toledo lost and each team fell five games back; and Gwinnett lost both games of a doubleheader at home to Charlotte. That pulled the Bulls to within 2.5 games of the Braves for the South Division lead. Plenty can happen between now and Saturday, when the Braves visit the DBAP for four games, but if the Bulls can stay close, it'll be a critical series. If nothing else, the Bulls can add another important game to their wild-card lead on Tuesday if they can beat Syracuse again. They can also earn their first series win in their last six.
Game details and notes follow.
Last night's win was a weird one. Andy Sonnanstine, who has looked a little lost on the mound recently, has been watching lots of game film, and he apparently made some adjustments. Sonnanstine wasn't exactly dominant in beating the Chiefs at the DBAP a few weeks ago, but he was fairly close to that last night. He limited Syracuse to five hits and a walk in 7 1/3 innings, retiring 13 in a row at one point. The two runs he allowed were abetted by a pair of infield hits, one of them an attempted sacrifice bunt that caught Shawn Riggans out of position at first base. Riggans was making his debut as a first baseman on a night when Chris Richard and Henry Mateo were unavailable, which pushed Ray Olmedo to second base and Joe Dillon to third. (Richard entered the game late as a defensive substitution.)
Riggans offset that play by driving in a run in the Bulls' two-run sixth. Meanwhile, the guy playing Riggans's usual position, catcher, Michel Hernandez, had a good night for himself. Hernandez knocked in the Bulls' two other runs with a pair of sacrifice flies, and gunned down two attempted base-stealers. That helped restrict the Chiefs to just three at-bats with runners in scoring position.
The eighth inning featured a pair of big plays for the Bulls. Tied 2-2 in the top of the frame, the Bulls put men on first and second. Riggans, who probably is asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt once every presidential administration, had trouble doing so, bunting foul twice. With two strikes, he bunted again anyway, but pitcher Josh Wilkie fielded it and threw out the lead runner at third. One out now, and Hernandez at the plate. Justin Ruggiano then stole third base---a gutsy and daring thing to attempt, which put him in position to score on Hernandez's flyout to right.
In the bottom of the inning, Sonnanstine allowed a one-out triple to Ian Desmond. Winston Abreu came on to replace him, and he did precisely what Charlie Montoyo needed him to do. Abreu struck out Jhonatan Solano, and then got Norris Hopper to fly out to (naturally) Justin Ruggiano. He followed that clutch performance with a perfect ninth inning, fanning Kory Casto and Brad Eldred to end the game. It was Abreu's 12th save. In his last four appearances, Abreu has thrown 6 2/3 hitless innings, with 11 strikeouts and one walk. He now has 65 Ks in 43 2/3 innings as a Bull this season. He seems to have found his groove again.
Abreu and Sonnanstine (who got the win) helped mask the Bulls' hitting struggles. For the second straight night, the Durham lineup didn't do much. Their eight hits were all singles, and they went 1/5 with RISP while leaving nine men on base. Sometimes you can get away with it, and Monday was one of those nights.
* Fernando Perez, who led off and played center field last night, is still seeking his hitting stroke. He struck out three times, which gave him eight in 20 plate appearances since he returned to action with the Bulls. Who knows what the Rays have in mind for him as the season winds down, but they could do worse than let him play for the Bulls as long as he can (the limit on rehab assignments is 20 days for position players) until he gets his timing back. It would be nice to have his extraordinary speed off the bench in September, of course, but in terms of Perez's rehabilitation, to use him merely as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement would be a waste.
* Jeremy Hellickson goes for Durham on Tuesday night. Hellickson didn't pitch against Syracuse when the Chiefs visited the DBAP. That probably works in his favor, especially given that the Chiefs strike out a lot---they're third in the league, right behind the Bulls, and Hellickson's averaging more than a strikeout per inning since his promotion to Class AAA. His opponent will be Horacio Ramirez, who had some good years with the Atlanta Braves early in his career and is trying to stick on the Nationals' major-league roster.