With a cameo from 2009 World Series MVP Hideki Matsui as well as appearances by Red Sox standouts Kevin Youkilis and Daisuke Matsuzaka all happening within a span of three days, the third week in May felt like a walk of fame at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Matsui met the hype in the Triangle with a disappointing 0-for-4 performance in his first game, but bounced back and went 2-for-4 with a double, 2 RBI, plus reaching on catcher interference in his second outing with the Bulls.
"Physically, I feel fine right now," said Matsui on his progress back towards the big leagues. "I think the topic of concern right now is getting used to higher-level pitching and being able to hit against them."
The man they call Godzilla also noticeably contributed to the ballpark atmosphere as the fans in Durham gave him passionate applause before every at-bat. When his first hit with the team dropped in to play, a ball to the opposite-field that ricocheted off the Blue Monster, it inspired the crowd to start doing the wave, or more appropriately, the tsunami.
Not tallying the rallies
The Bulls have not won a game when trailing after the fifth inning, going 0-20 in those situations this season. Bullpen stats don't exactly explain this phenomenon, earning nine saves in 15 opportunities and only allowing 26 percent of inherited runners to score, reflected in solid performances by righty Dane De La Rosa (5 SV, 14 K/9).
However, the mixture of a 5.23 bullpen ERA and the fact that the team is 6-21 in games where more than one run is scored has left Durham in the dark when talking about comebacks. Manager Charlie Montoyo attributes this lack of a late-game spark not to any mental block, but simply "a lot of guys struggling at the plate," adding "they have to turn it around sometime, but it is May 16th, let's go!"
Giving up walks and getting stranded: "the story of the whole season"
The Bulls pitching staff is second only to Toledo for the most walks given up in the International League this season, and the base runners have scored a bottom-of-the-barrel 142 runs despite having an on-pace on-base-percentage of .322. This combination of factors is a cause for great frustration by Montoyo.
"[Wednesday] was a prime example of why we are where we are. Leading the league in walks, you can't do that—against good teams, it gives you no chance," said the skipper. "And leaving guys left on base, that's a good mix for losing games. No excuses, it's just tough to watch when you keep walking people. This game was the story of the whole season: leaving people on base, and walking people."
There is reason for hope however, as the Bulls staff can dumbfound opposing hitters, possessing the most total strikeouts in the International League (334). This accomplishment can be credited greatly to the combo of righties Alex Cobb (1-4, 4.14 ERA, 44 K's) and Chris Archer (3-4, 4.71 ERA, 40 K's). Also, outfielder Leslie Anderson has the second best batting average in the league (.346) and with the probable run production that Matsui will bring, Durham can feel confident that the trend of a large run deficit will end.
Durham will finish off this four-game home series with Pawtucket (27-14) through Friday, and then the Bulls are scheduled to follow up with another four-game series at DBAP with the Charlotte Knights (20-19) May 19th-22nd. The team will then round out their home stand against the Norfolk Tides (16-22) with two games May 24th and 25th.
Ben Christoph is the Durham beat writer for Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @btchristoph
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