by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---Fans who came out to see the last home game of the Durham Bulls' 2009 season---2,480 of you, officially---got a bit of a bonus. Last night's 4-1 Durham win was basically two separate games: first, a three-inning tune-up for a pair of recuperating starting pitchers, followed by the real deal, when the two teams' tenured players faced off for six taut innings of playoff baseball. With the win, the Bulls put themselves on the brink of a championship they haven't won since 2003.
The entire game was played in a steady mizzle, and it seemed appropriate that the last game of the year saw the same sort of weather that has hung over the Triangle all season long: gray, moist, heavy, moody. Not a fun evening for a pair of rehabilitating starters to get their work in, but that's what they did. The Bulls have to be grateful that Scranton/Wilkes-Barre starter Ian Kennedy was on a low pitch limit. He faced nine batters and retired them all, striking out six of them. Kennedy, who is coming back from an aneurysm in his pitching arm, threw 43 pitches, 28 for strikes, and had the Bulls totally mastered from the get-go. He struck out the side swinging in the first, making Joe Dillon look stupid on a changeup for the last strike of the inning. He got Sean Rodriguez looking in the second inning, on a fastball that was more or less right down the middle. He had Justin Ruggiano chasing sliders after that.
The story was different for the Bulls' starter, Mitch Talbot.
Talbot threw first-pitch balls to four of the first five hitters he faced, walked one of them, and then allowed a single to right-center field by Colin Curtis with one away in the second inning. Eric Duncan reached on an error by Ray Olmedo at third base, and light-hitting shortstop Doug Bernier looked at ball one before singling to center for the game's first (and only unearned) run. It looked as though things might get out of hand quickly for Talbot, who has great stuff but seems susceptible to sudden, long stocking-runs. The next batter, catcher Chris Stewart, chopped a grounder up the middle. Elliot Johnson snagged it behind second-base and made a schoolyard play, glove-flipping the ball behind his back to Sean Rodriguez covering second---it was one of those oooh!/aaah! plays that's only justifiable if it works (it usually doesn't)---and Rodriguez relayed to first to catch the slow-footed Stewart for an inning-ending double play. After the Harlem Globetrotters play was replayed on the big screen, the crowd applauded again.
Two innings later, Talbot walked two of the first three men he faced, thanks in part to the narrow strike zone of home plate umpire Brian Riley. Charlie Montoyo replaced Talbot, who had neared his pitch limit, with Joe Bateman. Bateman went to a full count on Bernier, and then Bernier hit a grounder to first. Joe Dillon scooped it and fired to Elliot Johnson for an out at second base. Johnson was rolled there by hard-sliding Eric Duncan, and his relay back to Dillon was off the mark, bouncing to the railing and apparently scoring another unearned run. But second base ump Rob Healey ruled that Duncan had interfered with Johnson's throw---probably by sliding well out of the baseline---and Bernier was called out on a rare runner's interference ruling. Duncan and Yankees' manager Dave Miley protested the call, but it stood.
The score still stood at 1-0, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. In the last of the fourth, Kei Igawa came on in relief of Kennedy (that's K.I. for I.K., if you're scoring at home), and the real game began: no more rehabbing pitchers, no more bizarre double plays. And the real game took no time to get interesting. The Bulls, released from the corral that was Ian Kennedy's three innings, started swinging aggressively and confidently at Igawa's pitches: they offered at 17 of his first 20 tosses and didn't miss a single one, hitting foul after foul (the other three were balls). Desmond Jennings singled to lead off, and Rashad Eldridge, who hadn't played on Tuesday, laced an 0-2 pitch down the left field line to score Jennings.
Two batters, 1-1, just like that. There. Now let's play ball.
Bateman cruised, giving one of his best performances of the season on a night when Charlie Montoyo really needed it. He threw 46 pitches over 3 2/3 innings, 31 for strikes, allowed only one hit, and walked no one. By the time he left, it was the top of the eighth inning and the Bulls had taken a 2-1 lead on a solo homer by Eldridge, a no-doubt-about-it-drive over the Blue Monster. Eldridge, a switch-hitter, is naturally right-handed---he told me after the game that he started going ambidextrous in the ninth grade---and the homer evened him out: his other one as a Bull was a lefty shot against Norfolk about a week and a half ago.
A couple of items of good luck for the Bulls in the late innings: Chris Stewart ended the seventh, and Bateman's night, with a line shot right at Ray Olmedo, who gloved it for the third out; and with one out in the eighth, after Reegie Corona singled (an infield job off of Julio DePaula's glove), Austin Jackson ripped another liner right to Olmedo, who fired across the diamond to double off Corona---he had strayed too far toward second.
But to say that the Bulls owed last night's win to luck would be wrong. They played a better, sharper, more aggressive game than their opponent. Although they went into the last of the eighth still clinging to a 2-1 lead, someone remarked that they had seemed in control of the game since Kennedy's exit. The Yankees, by contrast, looked slumped, soaked, gray---like the weather. And so it was no surprise that the Bulls tacked on a pair of insurance runs off of Igawa and reliever Amaury Sanit in the bottom of the eighth. Eldridge's second double of the game drove in the first one, and a two-out single by Sean Rodriguez knocked in the second, right after the Yankees had intentionally walked Matt Joyce. (Take that! Rodriguez seemed to be saying.)
From there, it was the Winston Abreu show. He struck out the side in the ninth for his fourth save of the postseason, working around a broken-bat single by John Rodriguez. Abreu has finished all five Bulls' wins in the playoffs, and he has not allowed a run in 5 2/3 postseason innings, striking out eight of the 17 batters he has faced. It's his first postseason action since 1999, when he was in Class A. You simply can't say enough about what he means to the team right now, especially when you contrast his presence against the absence of a dominant late-inning reliever on the Yankees' roster. Having used Zach Kroenke in Tuesday's Game One loss, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre manager Dave Miley had to resort on Wednesday to a guy (Amaury Sanit) who was his seventh-best reliever two weeks ago.
Abreu's not alone in the Durham bullpen. Julio DePaula, who took care of the eighth inning last night and the night before, has also had a good postseason. His line: 6 2/3 innings, three hits, one run (a solo homer by Louisville's Juan Francisco), one walk and a pair of strikeouts. Nearly all of his work has been in important situations, and he has met the demands put on him. DePaula is "a guy nobody talks about," Montoyo said after the game---and he is the only player to have been an active roster member all season long (for which, as far as I'm concerned, he should get some kind of award, perhaps a flak jacket). He has better raw stuff than his performance has sometimes evinced, but in the end he has done most of the work Montoyo has asked of him this season. He has made two starts, saved three games, and bridged a lot of late innings for Winston Abreu and Dale Thayer. If he can command the strike zone better in 2010---he issued 40 walks in 79 regular-season innings, way too many---he will probably force the Tampa front office to give him serious consideration for the majors (especially with the Rays' ongoing bullpen problems late this season). He's still only 26 years old.
Unlike DePaula, Rashad Eldridge, whose explosion at the plate led the Bulls to victory, is probably a long shot for the big leagues. He's 27 years old and has insufficient power for a corner outfield position. But it was nice to see him have a big night in a big game. He isn't the guy you would have predicted to find the spotlight---I was actually a bit surprised to see him in the lineup at all, what with Henry Mateo's excellent postseason---but as Eldridge himself put it, "You just never know in this game." (He said that two or three times, as if he himself was surprised by his performance.) Hallelujah for that. Eldridge had seen Igawa just once before, in Game Three of last year's Governor's Cup series (he went 0-1 with a walk and a sacrifice against Igawa in that game); last night, he was 2-2 with a double and a homer off of Igawa. Charlie Montoyo, as he often has this postseason, played the right card.
And that wasn't so much a situational stratagem as it was a reflection of Montoyo's overall philosophy. He plays everyone he has. Don't be surprised if Montoyo gives a start on Thursday night to Chris Nowak. Nowak, who saw time with the Bulls earlier this year during the injury-plagued late spring, was recently called back up from Double-A Montgomery as a reinforcement. The big corner infielder is the only Bull not to see action in the playoffs yet. The Montoyo way is to set that right.
Jason Cromer takes the mound for the Bulls against Ivan Nova. Cromer wasn't as bad as his line suggests when he faced the Yankees at the DBAP in mid-August, and he sounded upbeat and confident after last night's game. He was the starting pitcher for the Montgomery Biscuits in their Southern League championship-clinching game in 2006, so he isn't at all hesitant to take the ball. Cromer has had the best season of his career in 2009, and has been the Bulls' most reliable starting pitcher. He deserves the chance to lead them over the finish line tonight---and you can bet that Julio DePaula and Winston Abreu will be glad to come on late for a third straight night, despite having thrown 72 pitches between them this week at the DBAP: for authentic competitors, arm fatigue simply doesn't exist in the playoffs. The Bulls have hit Nova well this season, and they'd do well to take care of business tonight. After Cromer, they're looking at a significant dropoff in experience and quality among the candidates to start Games Four and Five (Montoyo wouldn't even speculate on who might start those games, if they become necessary). The Bulls look confident, happy, sharp. Tonight in Scranton, they can seize what they've earned with one more win.