by Adam Sobsey
You can still watch a few highlights of the Bulls' dramatic championship-clinching win over Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre on the team Web site. Those clips drive home (so to speak) just how crazy the last inning really was. Justin Ruggiano's diving catch of Reegie Corona's sinking slice down the left-field line was not only great per se; it also saved the game, because the ball was ruled fair (but was it fair?) by the umpire. At the end of that play, though, second baseman Ray Olmedo made a poor relay throw to first base in an attempt to turn a game-ending double play, a throw he shouldn't have attempted at all under the circumstances. He was fortunate that after the ball sailed well to the left of first baseman Joe Dillon, it bounced straight off the railing where it was picked up by pitcher Julio DePaula, who was properly backing up the play and made a quick recovery of the ball in foul territory.
To top things off, DePaula himself nearly blew the game, catastrophically, on the very last play: Doug Bernier's bouncer back to the mound was easy enough for DePaula to field, and you could understand his excitement in running the ball all the way to first base himself rather than make an easy toss to Dillon. But DePaula decided to make a big puddle-jump onto the bag, and the hop-step he indulged in slowed him down so much that Bernier, hustling all the way, nearly beat DePaula to first base. As it was, DePaula won the race by about three quarters of a step, but it was a scarily close play. Had Bernier been safe due to DePaula's grasshopper insouciance, the game would have been tied. As it was, the Bulls are champions. (Champions! It's really extraordinary, when you think about it, after all that.)
A few more notes follow on the game, the season, and the final ballgame to come. If you're deplaning here, one thing to take away with you: Tyler's, the pub/eatery right by the DBAP, is hosting a viewing party (the game will be televised nationally on ESPN 2) of Tuesday night's Triple-A championship game between the Bulls and the Memphis Redbirds, an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals and winner of the Pacific Coast League. Game time is 7:00 p.m. and it will be a lot of fun to watch it right by the ballpark, surrounded by Bulls fans, in a place that serves something like 712 different beers. Come on out, and do drop by my table to say hello, to buy me a beer or to pour one over my head. I'll be the guy with black (going gray) hair, the black button-down shirt, the blue jeans, the bandanna, and Heather.
Durham pitchers walked 11 Yankees in Thursday's win. What saved them from the disaster portended by all of those bases on balls was that eight of them came with two outs. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre went 1/11 with runners in scoring position and stranded 15 baserunners altogether. ("This walk thing has become a little bit contagious," noted Bulls' broadcaster Neil Solondz late in the game, after a Durham pitcher issued yet another free pass.) Credit the Bulls' pitchers with making big pitches when they had to, but also lay some blame on the Yankees, who simply couldn't push across runs when the Bulls gave them opportunities to do so. Without home run leader Shelley Duncan anchoring the middle of the lineup---he was called up to the big leagues before the series---the Yanks were much less potent, especially against a left-handed starter like Durham's Jason Cromer, who was effective for six innings despite lacking his best stuff. Their big bats were lefties Juan Miranda (who was called up to New York right after the game) and John Rodriguez.
The latter's tentative play in left field probably cost his team the game. With two outs in the top of the eighth, Durham trailed 2-0 and looked totally punched out at the plate. The Bulls' Justin Ruggiano and Elliot Johnson managed a double steal to put runners and second and third for Desmond Jennings, who had been slumping throughout the playoffs. Jennings hit a medium-soft liner to left field that Rodriguez hesitated on (you can see the play in the highlight video on the Bulls' Web site). Had he charged right into it, he probably could have caught it. But his indecision ruined the chance for him, and he had to settle for an apologetic slide and trap of the ball. Ruggiano and Johnson scored to tie the game. It remained that way until the 12th inning.
A tip of the cap to Heath Rollins. The soft-spoken right-hander, just called up from Montgomery in late August, had looked only OK in his few appearances for the Bulls. Yet he was summoned to replace the veteran changeup specialist Joe Nelson after Nelson walked the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning. Rollins had to face the dangerous Kevin Russo, who finished third in the league with a .326 batting average. But Rollins got Russo to fly out to end the inning. And in the ninth, after he wild-pitched Austin Jackson to third base with two outs, he struck out the veteran Cody Ransom to end the threat.
From there, Calvin Medlock took over, and although he was by no means perfect, he did his job, holding the Yankees down until the Bulls could come up with a run to win. (Lost in all of the drama was that the Bulls were actually no-hit for the game's first four innings by Ivan Nova, whom they'd hit well twice earlier this year. Like Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, they scratched out only six hits for the whole game.) It was John Jaso's long double to the right-center field gap that did it, and the hit immediately called to mind Jaso's sanguine but bracing comment after the Bulls' final regular-season game a couple of weeks ago: "As long as we're here," he said, "we might as well win it all." Talk about putting your money where your mouth is---and about righting wrongs: Jaso had botched a sacrifice bunt attempt earlier in the game.
Some confusion has foamed up surrounding the Bulls' roster in 2009. Not long ago, I repeated something I'd read in the Bulls' media-guide game notes: that Julio DePaula was the only Bull on the active roster from Day One all the way through to the end of the season. After some wondering about that from the Bulls' fandom, I've done some poking around and discovered that Ray Olmedo also went wire-to-wire in 2009. He missed a few games in July with a mild calf strain, but didn't go on the disabled list. No other player besides Olmedo and DePaula was an uninterrupted Bull this season. One apparent candidate, Justin Ruggiano, was briefly on the Temporarily Inactive list when he went home to Texas for the birth of his first child. John Jaso spent a few idle days in Tampa with the big-league club. Everyone else passed ample time either with another club or on the disabled list.
The Triple-A Championship game is a young contest: this is just the fourth year for the former "Bricktown Showdown" (played in Oklahoma City, inexplicably---OKC has an entertainment district called Bricktown). So far, the Pacific Coast League is 3-0, so the Bulls are looking to snap the International League's winless opening streak. By virtue of the IL's win in the All-Star Game back in July, the Bulls are the home team. Jeremy Hellickson, the Rays' minor-league pitcher of the year, starts for the Bulls.
Hellickson will be opposed by left-hander Jaime Garcia, who was the St. Louis Cardinals' top left-handed pitching prospect (some say he was the Cards' top ace, period) before he underwent Tommy John elbow surgery in 2008. He returned to action in mid-season this year, and has logged just 37 2/3 innings at three different minor-league levels. He has made only four appearances for Memphis, with mixed results. The alarming stat is his five home runs allowed in just 21 Triple-A innings. But it isn't fair to draw conclusions from such scant data. Garcia throws pretty hard, and he's probably just getting his feel back after missing most of a year. He'll be a force on the mound.
As for the Redbirds' bats, watch out for righty slugger Allen Craig, who finished in the PCL's top ten in a slew of hitting categories, including homers and OPS; third baseman David Freese, who returned from an ankle injury and started whacking the ball immediately thereafter; shortstop Tyler Greene, a former Georgia Tech standout and first-round draft pick who had an .851 OPS and was 31/34 in stolen base attempts; and Jarrett Hoffpauir, a second baseman with pop. In fact, the entire Memphis infield is a bit scary.
No word on the blister that shelved Winston Abreu last week---I suspect it's healed---nor whether Hellickson's pitch count will be curtailed or, if so, whether we'll see Mitch Talbot get some work in. Although this is a winner-take-all faceoff, it's still a developmental opportunity for the organization. Trying to pick a winner would be an act of self-sabotage. Besides, I called the Bulls' Governor's Cup win in my preview of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre series, and I'm not quite foolish enough to try that stunt again.
The Triple-A Championship, new as it is, and played between teams from mutually exclusive leagues, feels more like a friendly than a fight, and it's in that spirit, I think, that the game should be watched. It's another chance, of course, to see Jeremy Hellickson in action, and to see this year's model of the Durham Bulls before the inevitable atomization takes place in the off-season. Tuesday's game is a celebration of all that both of these teams have accomplished in 2009. That accomplishment has to do with a kind of molecular impermeability: no matter how much cellular change they've undergone, these teams have persisted to the end and proved themselves, somehow, against the odds, as the best of their respective leagues. That's a credit to their managers and their major-league parent clubs. And although a single game like Tuesday's is insufficient to declare the winner a legitimate "champion," the contest at least provides a symbolic crown for the victor, something shiny and convincing to hang on the off-season rack until spring 2010 rolls around and the tilt-a-whirl starts spinning again.
See you at Tyler's!