Easy Breezy: Durham Bulls edge Gwinnett Braves again

examining nails

Photo by Leah Sobsey.

Sorry to make it about the weather, but my desk is pretty near a water cooler, so small talk is always a possibility.

Clouds suppressed yesterday’s temperature into the late afternoon, and then they drifted off to cool some other realms. They left behind a shockingly mild evening, almost chilly, with a gentle dry breeze. It’s July in North Carolina. It felt like April here, or like July in Vermont. Christmas in July in Vermont.

The light air probably helped the Bulls’ 3-2 victory over the Gwinnett Braves feel easier and breezier than it was. This time, Durham starter Merrill Kelly spotted the Braves two early runs. “I thought he wasn’t going to last three innings, the way he was pitching,” Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said after the game.

But he lasted six, and the Bulls wasted little time in getting the two runs back. They exploited a throwing error in the third inning for one, and in the fourth, Jason Bourgeois added a huge, game-deciding clutch hit: a two-strike, two-out, two-run single that gave the Bulls the 3-2 lead that would remain unchanged. The Braves had only three baserunners after the third inning.

Since the tremendously difficult and exhausting home series versus Pawtucket over the weekend, it has all gone right back to seeming easy for the Bulls. Last night’s game was as close as they get, yet at virtually no point did it seem like the home team was in danger of losing. That sense owed something to how bad the Gwinnett Braves are: they have the worst record in the league, and bad teams will sometimes do desperate things that make them worse. Twice in the early innings last night, Braves manager Randy Ready (also the team’s third base coach) risked sending runners home from third base when he shouldn’t have. Both times, balls were hit to the shallow outfield, not deep enough to justify the risk, but Ready was probably trying to jump-start his team and its moribund offense.

“Fortune favors the bold,” Rays manager Joe Maddon likes to say, so you could see where Ready was coming from. But there’s that other saying about the line between bravery and stupidity. Sometimes, the line is not really all that fine. Both times, the runners were thrown out easily, by several feet. They didn’t even bother to slide, just took their tag-out in literal stride and proceeded to get their glove and go play more defense.

Those two plays wound up the difference in the game, of course. Montoyo probably had them in mind when he said, after the game: “It seems like, against that club, the ball bounces our way more than it bounces their way.” Maybe, but to borrow another truism, you make your own luck, and what you make it out of is skill and design. The Bulls are a better team than Gwinnett in every way, and they did not attempt foolishness like trying to score from third when they shouldn’t have.

Yet disparity between teams does not always reflect in results. In 2010, the most recent year the Bulls were so dominant, they went 88-55 and threatened the all-time franchise record for wins in a season (89). Yet they were just 9-12 against Gwinnett, which finished 72-71. That was part of a longer trend. Over the last four years, Montoyo has often said that the Durham-Gwinnett rivalry is the most even and hard-fought of any for his team. The numbers agree: from 2009-12, the Bulls were a combined 41-44 against the Braves. (In that same period against the other teams in their division, they were 46-38 against Charlotte and 54-33 against Norfolk.)

In 2013, Durham is 10-2 against Gwinnett, a perfect 8-0 at home. They play the Braves nine more times this season. The narrative has changed. The ball bounces differently this year. Or perhaps it’s better to say that it doesn’t bounce at all. It simply lands, in shallow center field, in the first inning, with one out and a run already in and Durham starter Merrill Kelly looking extremely wobbly (three walks already); it lands in the glove of recently promoted Bulls outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who was Tampa Bay’s Minor League Defensive Player of the Year in 2012. Randy Ready doesn’t know about that trophy in Kiermaier’s den, apparently, and sends Tyler Pastornicky home from third base, bidding for a sacrifice fly. Kiermaier fires a chest-high strike to catcher Chris Gimenez. Pastornicky’s out, the inning’s over.

Two innings later, Kelly allows a double and a triple. The Braves’ second run scores, and with two outs and Alden Carrithers on second base, Stefan Gartrell singles to shallow left field. Jason Bourgeois charges the ball, Ready waves Carrithers home, Bourgeois fires another airborne strike to the plate, and Carrithers repeats Pastornicky’s quiet surrender at home plate. Ready goes back to his dugout with a big smile on his face, and it might as well be an egg.

The Braves don’t score again, getting just one runner to second base against Kelly over the next three innings. Kelly has faced the Braves in three of his last four starts. He has allowed two runs against them in nineteen innings.

There seems little to say lately. The night before last, when Montoyo came to the mound to replace Ramon Ramirez with closer Josh Lueke, he took the ball from Ramirez and then stood a few feet down the slope of the mound, at a slight remove from his infielders. No one said anything. They all just waited for Lueke to come in from the bullpen. After a few seconds, second baseman Ryan Roberts turned and trotted back over to his position, leaving the rest of the mute conference in progress. Lueke arrived, Montoyo handed him the ball without a word and went back to the dugout. Nothing needed to be said.

Last night, the quiet dominance was there again. The only mildly anxious moment for the Bulls, after the third inning, came in the top of the eighth. Left-hander C. J. Riefenhauser entered the game for the express purpose of retiring the first two hitters due up for Gwinnett: Tyler Pastornicky and Alden Carrithers. (The latter was the only left-handed hitter in the Braves’ lineup, so this was strictly a matchup move on Montoyo’s part.) Kirby Yates was warming up in the Durham bullpen, and Montoyo was planning to bring him in to face the third scheduled hitter, righty slugger Ernesto Mejia. Him again.

Riefenhauser walked Pastornicky on four pitches, and was fortunate that Carrithers followed with a poor sacrifice bunt attempt. Carrithers pushed it too hard toward the mound, Riefenhauser pounced on it and threw out Pastornicky at second base. The bunt caught me by surprise, because I had lost awareness that it had been a one-run game for the past four innings. That’s how easy it seemed for the Bulls.

After Carrithers’ bunt, Montoyo replaced Riefenhauser with Yates, and Yates struck out Mejia about fifty times more easily than Josh Lueke had the night before. Everything Yates does seems easy: low-effort, unprepossessing. This is my favorite picture of him. He’s the guy in the middle, between fellow Bulls All-Stars J. D. Martin and Vince Belnome. He’s about five-foot-nine.

After Yates fanned Mejia, he got Stefan Gartrell to ground into a ho-hum fielder’s choice on the very first pitch he threw him. In the ninth, he retired the Braves in order on just seven pitches, including a three-pitch strikeout of Joe Leonard, who looked mesmerized, or maybe just ready to get out of Durham. The final batter was Jose Yepez, who hit a first-pitch, check-swing groundout to second-base: a ball that did bounce the Bulls’ way. Pitch, tap, bounce-bounce-bounce, out, game over, yawn, win, beer. What time’s our flight tomorrow?

The Bulls are flying. Literally. As I write this, they’re airborne, Columbus, Ohio-bound. Actually, they fly to Atlanta first, as though taunting the Gwinnett Braves a little more before connecting and heading north. But you get the picture. Easy-breezy. Soaring. Cruising altitude. The Bulls improved on the best record in affiliated professional baseball. They’re now 67-39, a .632 winning percentage. If they play at that same level for the remainder of the season, they’ll finish 91-53, which would be the best record in the eighty-nine-year history of the Durham Bulls.

While we’re looking up at the Bulls in the air, it’s worth looking above them, too. The Tampa Bay Rays have been on a flight of their own for about the last month, having gone 22-5 since June 23 (just days after Wil Myers’ callup, in a shocking coincidence). The only reason they didn’t take over first place in the American League East last night, it seemed, was that they didn’t get to play: they were rained out in Boston. There I go, talking about the weather again. Easy breezy.

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