by Adam Sobsey
On Labor Day, the season finale, the Bulls played a modified version of the single-bat game instead, with most (but not all) of the players using Justin Ruggiano's stylish black model. Didn't matter: the game went to extra innings, anyway, except that it was tied 5-5 instead of 0-0, and it began to take on the taut intensity of something very like a playoff game. The players started using their own bats somewhere along the way. They stopped hacking at pitches early in the count and started to care about winning after a je m'en fous early going. And when the Bulls loaded the bases with no outs in the 12th, the crowd of 8,835 got into it. Leslie Anderson, who had already had two singles to start emerging from a minor late-season slump, did not disappoint them: He hit the first pitch he saw from Mike Hinckley, laboring into his fourth inning of relief work, into right field for a game-winning, season-ending single. The Bulls won, 6-5, and finished the 2010 season with a visually pleasing, league-best 88-55 record.
This is going to be a short (for me) post. I will be back before the Bulls' Wednesday playoff opener at Louisville with a series preview that should have a decent amount of meat on it. If you are not planning on making the jump, what you need to know about yesterday's game can be summed up in two words: Paul Phillips. For the second straight year, the Michigander right-hander came to Durham from Double-A Montgomery just before the end of the regular season, and for the second straight year he paid immediate dividends. In relief of starter Bobby Livingston, who gave Montoyo a serviceable six-inning, three-run performance, Phillips threw six innings himself. He allowed two runs, and although those two runs tied the game, he then settled into a remarkably effective groove, retiring 13 in a row in a long stretch to conserve the tired relief corps—and, not incidentally, to collect the win. Third baseman Angel Chavez was up and throwing in the Durham bullpen for the third straight game; and for the third straight game, the Bulls' late-inning prowess made his emergency appearance unnecessary.
Based on this afternoon's performance, Paul Phillips earned a spot in Montoyo's post-season starting rotation. More about that, and other thoughts, after the jump.
Chris Richard entered Monday's game with a season hitting line that hovered around some excellent nice round numbers. He was batting .302 with 20 home runs, 39 doubles and 79 RBIs. In his first at-bat (as designated hitter), he smacked a grounder to shortstop, but it was an easy play for Blake Davis. In the second at-bat, he lashed a liner to left-centerfield, but his bid for a 40th double was caught on the fly by Matt Angle. Richard struck out in the fifth after taking a pitch early in the at-bat that he told me later was probably a ball, then looking at a curveball for strike three.
At that point, Richard was removed from the game by Charlie Montoyo (acting independently of Richard), because he was hitting exactly .300. So he doesn't get the 40th double or the 80th RBI; he still hits .300, the magic number, and belts 20 more homers to pad his all-time franchise record (it will be a long time before it's broken, I'll wager). Richard's .925 OPS leads the league among active players, and his 39 doubles are also tops. He is in the top ten in several other major categories. He said that he achieved a final-day .300 batting average the hard way once before, staying in the game and playing to the end in 2005 with Oklahoma City—he went 2-3 to finish at .301, the culmination of a season-ending hot streak that raised his average 14 points in the final five games. But he earned the rest today. Congrats to Richard on one of the best years of his career. UPDATE, TUESDAY, 10:00 a.m. As a capper, Richard was named International League Batter of the Week this morning. Make that a second season-ending hot streak to push his average over .300.
While Richard tried to maintain or add to big numbers today, Omar Luna registered a new one of his own: In the fourth inning, he hit a leadoff homer off of Tim Bascom that just cleared the Blue Monster for his first round-tripper of the year. It was his first one since June 3, 2008 (and that was his only homer of that season). Luna was grinning ear to ear as he trotted home from third base, and got lots of loving head slaps in the dugout from his teammates, who are reported to give him a good-natured hard time every day for his inability to go deep even in batting practice.
Joe Dillon also homered for Durham, blasting a two-run shot way up onto the Tobacco Road Cafe patio off of Bascom, who ended the season having allowed a whopping 17 homers in 84 2/3 innings.
Still, he left with the game in range: 5-3 Bulls in the sixth inning. Paul Phillips closed the gap quickly, probably feeling tired and out of his skin in his first inning of relief after yesterday's frenzied day of travel to Durham from Jacksonville, Fla., where the Montgomery Biscuits' season ended. Phillips allowed a single and a double to the first two batters he faced in the seventh inning, and a groundout scored a run to make it 5-4. An inning after that, the top of the eighth, Phillips made what he later identified as a bad pitch to Rhyne Hughes, the former Bull—"I know him," said Phillips, kicking himself for not knowing better—and Hughes hit a booming opposite-field homer to tie the game, 5-5. It stayed that way until Anderson's hit in the 12th. Meanwhile, the two teams battled each other, hard, and you would never have known that this was the meaningless ultimate game of a season whose outcome was long since decided. Give the Bulls credit for fighting to the end on a day when they could have been forgiven for merely wearing their costumes (which were, tellingly, their batting-practice uniforms) rather than giving a full-fledged performance. When Fernando Perez made a valiant slide into the Durham bullpen late in the game in an effort to catch a foul ball—he later sported a bright-red wound on his knee, exposed by ripped knickers—you knew the players still meant business.
Phillips wasn't throwing as hard today as he has in the past, sitting at 91-92 with his fastball until the latter part of his outing, when reached back and summoned a couple of 93-mph heaters to strike out Hughes in the 10th. He said that he wasn't consciously holding back on his velocity; it may have just been travel fatigue.
It is not, however, cumulative arm fatigue of the kind that has caught up to Brian Baker. Phillips said that his arm feels fine—he's bigger, stouter than Baker—and reminded me that he missed a month early this season with a leg injury, which allowed his arm to rest as he waited out the recovery period. There is every reason to think, after his six-inning, 78-pitch effort—the six-inning stint was the longest of Phillips' six-year professional career (!)—that he could be effective either starting or in very long relief in the playoffs. Given the thinness of Durham's starting rotation, Phillips may have earned a spot in it. His only fundamental weakness is that he throws just two pitches: a fastball and a curveball. His command of the curveball wasn't consistent today, but it will have to be if he is to repeat his success in the post-season against Louisville and beyond.
Charlie Montoyo said after the game that catcher Craig Albernaz is on his way from Double-A Montgomery, and that he expects other players, as well. (UPDATE, TUESDAY, 10:00 a.m.: A whopping six more have been added, although it isn't clear if they will all be active. The most intriguing name among them is right-handed starting pitcher Alex Cobb, who along with Alexander Torres was the ace of the Montgomery staff.) If that means the end for Kyle Holloway, then let us take this opportunity to praise the kid for handling his first taste of Class AAA baseball after his swift and radical promotion from Rookie Ball just days ago. Yes, he struck out eight times in 14 plate appearances, and he failed to drop a sacrifice bunt in a tight spot on Sunday. But he also hit two ringing doubles, had a sacrifice fly this afternoon, and made a really nice play at the plate, fielding a bad throw from starter Bobby Livingston and sweeping a tag onto the plate itself to complete a tense force play and preserve a Durham lead. Whatever happens to him next, or down the road, here's one sportswriter who won't forget him.
Justin Ruggiano, back in the lineup after missing a few days with a knee bruise, was 3-6 with a double that initiated the Bulls' 12th-inning, game-winning rally; and he made a fine running catch at the wall in deep center field to save a run in the top of that inning, when Phillips was tiring. If he, along with Dillon, who was 2-5 with that homer, and Anderson, who was also, like Ruggiano, 3-6 (with a lineout to third base), can get and stay hot in the playoffs, the Bulls' chances of winning will increase dramatically.
To complete their astonishing second-half turnaround from dogs to wolves (or something like that), the Louisville Bats won today. Paired with the Columbus Clippers' loss to Toledo, the victory gave the Bats the West Division title by half a game. As a result, the Bulls' bus ride tomorrow got two hours longer—Louisville is farther away than Columbus. This will be the third straight season that the Bulls play the Bats in the first round of the playoffs. The Bulls eliminated Louisville in 2008 and 2009; the rosters have turned over quite a bit each season and so the teams aren't the same (although the Bulls have several players who have been in Durham in all three seasons), but don't think for a moment that Montoyo—and Louisville manager Rick Sweet, whom Montoyo finally beat out for International League Manager of the Year this season—aren't aware of the recent, Bulls-dominated history. What did Montoyo, whose team leaves at 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday for an 11-hour bus ride, have to say about all of that?
He said, "Here we go again."
Back with more very soon. Meanwhile, congrats to the league-best Bulls, who have won four straight South Division titles, and who, with yesterday's crowd of 8,835, regained the season attendance mark of 500,000 that barely eluded them in 2009—and they did it despite losing a home date to rain. Overachievers. And if they're to win a second straight Governors Cup, they'll have to overachieve again.