Durham Bulls win seventh straight: Beginnings and big innings

scoreboard behind scenes

Photo by Leah Sobsey.

“It’s unreal being a pitcher on the Durham Bulls right now.”

That’s what Matt Buschmann, pitcher on the Durham Bulls, said after the Bulls drubbed the Gwinnett Braves, 8-1, for their seventh straight win. Durham maintained the best record in all of affiliated professional baseball, improving their record to 62-35.

“These guys just blow up at any given moment,” Buschmann continued. “You really can’t take a break in this lineup.”

Buschmann threw seven innings of four-hit, no-walk, one-run baseball last night. It was quite real, and had he not had to face longtime Bulls adversary Stefan Gartrell, he’d have thrown seven one-hit shutout innings: Gartrell had singles in the second and fifth innings (one an infield hit), and then hit a solo home run in the seventh to spoil the shutout bid.

My initial reaction to that comment of Buschmann’s, about the lineup’s ability to “blow up,” was a skeptical one. The Bulls lead the International League in runs scored, hits, batting average, on-base percentage — and in triples, too, that farthest-outlying of stats. They’re second in slugging percentage and doubles, and they have struck out the fewest times.

Here’s a curious stat, though: the Bulls are dead last in the league in home runs. They have hit just sixty-two, nearly a quarter of them (fourteen) by Wil Myers, who has been gone nearly a month now. The league average to date is eighty, and the leader, Buffalo, has hit ninety-eight home runs. In other words, the Bulls are not even close to a power-hitting team. I’ve written before that this will come back to haunt them, but I’ll be delighted if I’m wrong and the Bulls turn out to be a rare outlier: a team that scores lots of runs without hitting home runs, which are where runs tend to pile up.

An aside, and an incredible one: Cole Figueroa led off the bottom of the fifth inning on Friday night with a solo home run. The Bulls’ Numerical Information & Research Division (NIRD) reported that it was the first time all season that Durham had hit a leadoff homer. If it wasn’t Sunday afternoon as I write this, with the Bulls’ next game starting in five hours, I’d look to see how many solo, two-run, three-run, and four-run homers the team has hit. It may be that they’re making up in quality what they lack in home-run quantity: a disproportionate number of multi-run homers.

Anyway, when Buschmann talked about the Bulls’ ability to score lots of runs in a hurry (i.e., “blow up”), I thought surely the “unreal” thing he was referring to wasn’t about being a Bulls pitcher. On the contrary, the hard, heavy, huge reality of this team is its dominant starting pitching. I thought instead that the fiction was the bats’ “explosiveness.” And that thought, in turn, got me thinking about something we reporters were talking about with Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo the previous night: his pitching staff’s resistance to the “big inning,” which makes it so the team is generally never out of a game.

What is a “big inning,” though, exactly? To come up with an answer, I used inductive reasoning, and the Bulls’ NIRD. I asked for, and was supplied with, data on how many innings this year there have been in which the Bulls have allowed/scored three or more runs.

Bulls Opponents
3-run inning 24 21
4-run-inning 20 7
5-run inning 4 3
6-run inning 3 2
7-run inning 1 1
8-run inning 1 0
9-run inning 1 0
10-run inning 1 0

Everything is close except the four-run inning tally, and four runs feels, intuitively, like the minimum runs you need to qualify for a “big inning.” You’re ahead by a grand slam, which seems like a much bigger deal than a bloop, a walk, and blast.

I don’t have data for every team in the league (nor the research assistant to sic on the project of getting it), but I do note that, with the four-run inning as the baseline, the Bulls have had thirty-one big innings and allowed just thirteen. In games in which they have had a three-or-more-runs inning, which has happened in about half of their ninety-seven games, they have lost only four times. Last night, leading Gwinnett 2-0, they scored, yep, four runs in the fourth inning to put the game away.

Durham had twelve hits last night. Ten were singles, two were doubles. That’s how they’re going to beat you. They also drew seven walks, three by All-Star Vince Belnome, who was officially 1-1 last night and raised his league-leading on-base percentage to an unreal .448.

(And another aside, to report another unreal thing — Belnome pulled off something I had never seen until last night: a double-play sacrifice fly. With no outs and runner on the corners in the fourth, Tim Beckham broke from first base. Belnome flied out to center field, and Beckham was already at second base when the ball was caught. He was doubled off first easily, but Figueroa trotted home with the inning’s fourth run.)

Enough with the big innings, which are a major reason why the Bulls are so hard to beat. The other is beginnings. Durham is outscoring its opponents in the first inning this season by the combined total score of 80-42. They haven’t scored more than sixty-six runs in any other inning, but that inning happens to be the third. In the first three innings of this year’s games, the Bulls are beating their opponents 192-115; add the fourth inning to the pile, and it’s 251-153. By the time the game reaches its midsection, the Bulls have generally built a hearty lead. It’s hard to play from behind. When you play the Bulls, that’s usually, and quickly, where you find yourself.

First impressions are everything, they say. For the Bulls, it’s literally how they start — the starting pitchers, that is, and that huge first-inning disparity. But it’s also appropriate to admit it when first impressions are wrong. Buschmann was right to say that Durham’s lineup can blow up at any time. It’s the nature of the explosion that’s unexpected.

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