Q: What’s the only thing that can keep the Durham Bulls from winning?
Photo by Elizabeth Matheson.
A: A day off.
How about three of them in a row? The All-Star break begins today, and the Bulls head into it having won eight games in a row and twelve of their last fourteen. They are now 63-35, building on the best record in affiliated professional baseball with last night’s 2-1 win over Gwinnett. Paired with Norfolk’s loss to Charlotte, the win extended Durham’s International League South Division lead to eleven and a half games.
The All-Star break feels like the halfway point of the season, but in fact it’s always a good deal further in than that. The break is tied to the major-league schedule, which lasts 162 games and runs about a month longer than the full-season minor leagues’ 144-game slate; but even up in the big leagues, the break comes more than midway through the year. That pushes Triple-A even farther down the production line before the break arrives, and this season it’s even more belated than usual. The International League has already played ninety-eight games, which computes to sixty-eight percent of the schedule.
That means, in effect, that the Bulls have virtually guaranteed themselves a post-season berth. If over the last forty-six games of the season they play .500 baseball, which is much worse than their current .643 rate, they would finish 86-58. In order to overtake them, Norfolk would have to go 36-11 (the Tides have had one game postponed). That is a .766 winning percentage. They’d have to do even better, of course, if the Bulls outperform .500, which is likely.
Norfolk has recently added some good players, and they’ll probably improve on their current .526 clip for the rest of the year. But the odds of them catching Durham are so slim that Bulls fans might as well make playoff plans now. If the Tides happen to do the unthinkable and wash the Bulls out to sea, it will be worth losing four calendar days after Labor Day in order to appreciate that extraordinary feat.
But it won’t happen. All the Bulls have to do now is not collapse. Given the surprising prospective stability of their roster (see Friday’s post for more), they should hold together barring a lot of injuries.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Bull City Summer is not about baseball. Or, to put it another way, it’s about “the ballpark and beyond.” We’ll stay on that mission, but documentarians are ultimately charged with going where the stories are, tracking the interesting stuff. There’s plenty of fascinating non-baseball material surrounding the game, to be sure, but something of almost blatant fascination is happening on the diamond itself. I had expected to be called to other interests this season, and I do have a small pile of less time-sensitive ideas I’d like to pursue. The Durham Bulls, however, have imposed other, more pressing matters. What they’re doing, and how they’re doing it, is far more compelling than any auxiliary narratives or notions that might be fluttering in their slipstream.
That’s partially because baseball is so daily. You think you have the luxury of time to focus elsewhere, but then there’s another game today, tomorrow, the next day. The games snap you to attention, one by one, almost relentlessly. The final at-bat of last night’s game went on for five long, tense, arduous minutes. In those five minutes, pitch by hot-and-heavy pitch, with the tying runs in scoring position — one scored on a wild pitch, halving the Bulls’ lead to 2-1 — there was far more to attend to than there will be in the three straight days off that commence today.
Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo has said a few times that the thing you don’t want when you’re on a winning streak is a day off. It breaks the momentum. He actually has five in a row, not three, in a sense. Montoyo left the club on Saturday (hitting coach Dave Myers was interim Bulls manager) to participate in the Futures Game, an exhibition of promising minor leaguers that kicks off the All-Star festivities each year. (Bulls relief pitcher C. J. Riefenhauser was on the American roster and pitched a perfect inning.) Montoyo was the World Team’s bullpen coach, a walk in the park compared compared to managing a Triple-A baseball club. He deserved the respite, even if he didn’t want it to interrupt his presiding over the Bulls’ stampede toward the post-season.
All the players deserve it. They craved it, too. Yes, Durham has won eight games in a row, but to suppose that the team just wants to keep playing, playing, playing is to misunderstand how hard they’ve been working. It’s not easy to win all the time (it’s much easier to lose, in fact), even if the Bulls are making it look that way lately — Josh Lueke’s game-ending, five-minute duel versus Gwinnett slugger Ernesto Mejia was a salutary reminder of how hard winning actually is. We’ve reached the point in the season where fatigue begins to emerge, little nagging injuries become big obstacles to success, and guys having bad years start to press and fret. (The Bulls, happily, don’t really have any of those.)
All you had to do was check the players’ Twitter feeds to discover how ready they were for a break. One woke up forty-five minutes before his flight out of Durham was scheduled to depart, dashed to the airport, and somehow made the flight. You rarely see ballplayers move that fast when they’re not on the diamond. Another tweeted from a connecting airport just to announce his joy at being nearly home.
For the team’s three All Stars — Vince Belnome, J. D. Martin, and Kirby Yates — this isn’t much of a break. They got up early this morning to fly to Reno, Nevada. After they recover from that long haul, there is tomorrow’s rather draining minor-league pageantry, followed by the All-Star game itself on Wednesday. J. D. Martin started and won last night’s game, improving to 11-4, leading the league in wins and making that singular success look easy, too. It isn’t. He may also start the All-Star game, as well; so much for resting up. Martin had the line of the night after yesterday’s win, delivered with his trademark insouciant candor:
“I hope everybody grounds out and we can all go have some drinks.”
Just keep the ball down and the tab open, J. D.
Martin, Belnome, and Yates fly back to Durham on Thursday. They arrive at the airport a mere ninety minutes before first pitch against Pawtucket. Expect all three to sit out that night’s game.
In the “and beyond” category, this is no break for the people who make Bulls games possible every night, either. Scott Strickland still has to maintain the field and protect it from the further downpours we’re sure to get. Bryan Wilson has to attend to the inventory in the store, and clubhouse attendant Colin Saunders has to clean the bathrooms for the first time all season (just kidding, they’re clean!). And five of the Bulls’ front office folks have made the long trip to Reno in order to gather ideas for next year’s All-Star game, which will be played right here in Durham.
The Bulls resume play on Thursday at 7:05 p.m. versus Pawtucket. The Pawsox are leading the IL North Division, have four of Triple-A’s top prospects, and an impassioned (read: obnoxious) diaspora of fans who will descend on the DBAP for the weekend series. You’ll want to join them.