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Rays Minor League Baseball Road Trip: A guide to North Carolina — Game 3

Game 3: Durham Bulls versus Gwinnett Stripers at Durham Bulls Athletic Park July 1, 2021

In my initial DRaysBay Blog post titled “Rays Minor League Baseball Road Trip: A guide to North Carolina,” I outlined a plan for Tampa Bay Rays and Durham Bulls fans to see a large number of the Rays’ MLB Top 30 Prospects in action on the field by attending a series of games in North Carolina.

I have been doing that road trip and documenting my baseball travel and the games with additional posts on DRaysBay.

In earlier posts on that blog, I introduced the Tampa Bay Rays top prospects, team offense leaders, and game highlights of the Rays High-A class affiliate, the Bowling Green Hot Rods, in an away game against the Hickory Crawdads (Texas Rangers) at L.P. Frans Stadium in Hickory, NC and an away game of their Low-A affiliate, the Charleston RiverDogs, versus the Kannapolis Cotton Ballers in Kannapolis, NC at Atrium Health Ballpark. My last stop planned for that trip was a Durham Bulls home game.

The Durham Bulls have been the triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays for each of the twenty-three seasons since 1999. Also, Durham, North Carolina is a legendary historic Minor League baseball destination and has been the home of a professional baseball team named the Durham Bulls during ninety-four of the one hundred twenty-two baseball season since 1900. Moreover, the Bulls stadium Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which is better known as the DBAP, is one of the top ranked Minor League ballparks in the country.

The photo above shows the view of the ball field from the seats behind home plate. Looking close at the top of the ballparks high Blue Monster left field wall, you will see one of the most unique attractions found at any Minor League stadium—the Durham Bull’s infamous snorting bull.

This Bull’s origin is from a prop that was added to the Bull’s old ballpark, Durham Athletic Park, for the filming of the movie Bull Durham. When a Bulls player hits a home run, this Bull’s large red eyes blink, tail wags, and puffs of smoke stream out from its nostrils. It also puts on that show after each Durham Bulls home victory.

On Tuesday June 29th, the Bulls started a six game home stand against the Atlanta Braves AAA affiliate, the Gwinnett Stripers. On that day the Durham Bull’s record was 31W:16L and they ranked number 1 among the seven teams in the SouthEast Division of the Triple-A East League.

On their other hand, that day, the Gwinnett Stripers, who are also a member of the SouthEast Division, were 22W:25L and ranked #4. I attended game three of that series on Thursday July 1st. With this post, I complete the review of my road trip travels with a Durham Bulls home game at the DBAP.

Durham Bulls—Tampa Bay Rays MLB Top 30 Prospects

Similar to my findings prior to attending the Bowling Green Hot Rods and Charleston RiverDogs away games, there had been a number of changes to the Tampa Bay Rays MLB Top 30 Prospects on the Durham Bulls roster.

In my original DRaysBay post, which outlined the Tampa Bay Rays North Carolina Minor League baseball road trip, I identified eight players, four pitchers and four field players, who were members of the Bulls roster and ranked among the Rays top 30.

The table above lists the top 30 ranked players on the Bulls roster on the date of the game I attended. That list has just seven players and includes four pitchers and three field players. The changes that took place were that right hand pitcher Shane Baz, (#5 prospect) was promoted to the Bulls from the Rays AA team in the Southern League, the Montgomery Biscuits, on June 15th and then Durham’s #1 prospect, shortstop Wander Franco was promoted to the majors on June 22nd.

Last, left hand pitcher Brendan McKay, who had been on the injured list, was recently assigned to the FCL Rays (Florida Complex League, Rk class) for a rehabilitation stint. Therefore, he could return to the Durham Bulls shortly, if there are no set backs in his recovery. I should also note a number of the remaining members of the list have moved up one notch in their rank: center fielder Josh Lowe to #10, right hand pitcher Joe Ryan to #11, RHP Brent Honeywell to #17, RHP Drew Strotman to #18, and third baseman Kevin Padlo to #21.

Note that the Bulls list includes three of the Rays top 10 prospects. However, now they are second bases/shortstop Vidal Brujan (#2 — and recently promoted), right hand pitcher Shane Baz (#5), and center fielder Josh Lowe (#10).

Three of those field players were in the Bulls starting lineup in the game that I attended: Vidal Brujan started at second base and batted leadoff, Josh Lowe played center field and hit third, Kevin Padlo played third and hit cleanup. However, #17 prospect, right hander Brent Honeywell also made a late innings relief pitching appearance. Finally, two of the current top 30 ranked players, Brent Honeywell and Kevin Padlo, had already made their Major League debut with the Tampa Bay Rays prior to my visit.

Drew Strotman is currently the leader of the Durham Bull’s starting rotation. Strotman pitched for Saint Mary’s College of California prior to entering the 2017 draft. He was selected in the fourth round of that draft by the Tampa Bay Ray; signed to a contract; and that year began his pro career at the short-season class with the Hudson Valley Renegades (New York-Penn League).

For the start of the 2021 season, he made the jump from advanced A class ball (Charlotte Stone Crabs, Florida State League) to the AAA class with the Bulls. At the start of the series with the Gwinnett Stripers, Strotman’s record was 5W:2L in eight starts and he led all members of Durham’s starting rotation in wins, innings pitched, and starts.

Durham Bulls—Team Offense Leaders

The table here lists the leader of the Durham Bulls offense in each of the twelve standard statistic categories listed on the team’s official website prior to the date of game one of their home series against the Gwinnett Stripers on Tuesday, June 29th.

Each of the three field players identified as a team leader in the table is a member of the Tampa Bay Rays MLB Top 30 Prospect, but only second baseman Vidal Brujan (#2 prospect) and center fielder Josh Lowe (#10) are currently members of the Bulls roster. Note from the table that as of the start of the series with the Stripers, Vidal Brujan and Josh Lowe ranked number 1 on the team in four and two stat categories, respectively and were tied for #1 in one of them—home runs. But, the earlier season leader of the Bulls offense was clearly the Tampa Bay Rays #1 prospect switch hitting shortstop Wander Franco.

Franco is an International player from the Dominican Republic that was signed as a free agent by the Tampa Bay Rays in July of 2017 at the age of sixteen. He came stateside in 2018 and made his professional baseball debut at the rookie class with the Princeton Rays in the Appalachian League. For the start of the 2018 season, Franco was promoted to the Rays’ full-season A class team in the Midwest League, the Bowling Green Hot Rods, but after the mid-season all-star break was promoted to their advance A class team in the Florida State League—the Charlotte Stone Crabs.

In 2021, Wander Franco made the jump to the AAA class. On opening day of the new season, he was the Durham Bulls starting shortstop and hit in the number 2 slot in their batting order. He continued to fill those roles for the Bulls until being called up by the Tampa Bay Rays on June 22nd.

When Franco departed, he had already made 177 plate appearances. That should secure him to qualify as a team/leader for AVE, OBP, SLG, or OPS through approximately game 57 of the Triple-A East League season.

In fact, the table shows that on June 29th Wander Franco ranked #1 on the team in seven of those twelve offense statistic categories: hits (51), triples (6), runs batted in (35), batting average (.315), on-base percentage (.367), slugging percentage (.586), and on-base plus slugging percentage (.954). The photo here shows Franco at the plate. On that swing in the inning 1 of a Bulls game versus the Charlotte Knights (Chicago White Sox) on May 18th, he doubled and later scored run 2 of a 4 run rally. The Durham Bulls won that game by a score of 7-2.

On July 22nd, Wander Franco made his Major League debut in the Tampa Bay Rays uniform. That day, in a Tampa home game at Tropicana Field versus the Boston Red Sox, he started at third base and batted second in the Rays lineup.

Meeting expectations, he had an excellent start at the Major League level. Franco had 2 hits in 4 official at bats and walked in a fifth trip to the plate. In fact, he walked in this first at bat and later in the first inning crossed the plate to score the Rays second run of the inning. Next, in his third trip to the plate he hit a three-run homer to tie the score at 5-all. Then, in his fourth at bat, Franco doubled. But the game remained tied 5-5; went to extra innings, and Tampa lost 9-5 in eleven innings.

On the bright side, in that game Wander Franco’s got his first home run, double, walk, run scored, and run batted in at the Major League level. The next day he moved to shortstop when Tampa’s regular starter at the position, Taylor Walls, went on the 10-day injured list.

Game 3 Highlights

As mentioned earlier, I attended game 3 of the Durham Bull’s six game series at the DBAP versus the Gwinnett Stripers on July 1st. In that game, the Bull’s sent left hander Dietrich Enns to the mounds as their starter. Enns had already made his Major League debut with the Minnesota Twins in 2017 and this year is pitching his first season in the Tampa Bay Rays Minor League organization with the Bulls. That game was his seventh start in ten pitching appearances and prior to that game his record was 2W:1L. Right hander Kyle Wright took the hill for the Stripers and entered the game with a 1W:2L record in eight starts. Wright had already played briefly in the majors for the Braves each season since 2017.

Brett Sullivan

The Durham Bulls got on the scoreboard first. In the bottom of the third innings, they rallied for 3 runs and then in the 4th added a solo run to take a 4-0 lead. With one out in the third, number 8 hitter, shortstop Tristan Gray walked and then moved up to second on a wild pitch.

With two down, the Bulls leadoff hitter, second baseman Vidal Brujan (Tampa’s #2 prospect) walked to put runners on first and second base. That brought Durham’s number 2 hitter, left fielder Brett Sullivan to the plate. He connected on the first pitch delivered by Wright and drove it over the left field wall for a three-run homer. The photo of above shows Sullivan’s swing on which he connected with that home run pitch.

Then, in the bottom of the 4th Durham’s number five batter, first baseman Mike Ford lead off and walked; moved to second base on a ground out, and crossed the plate with run 4 of the game on a two out double by Tristan Gray.

Dietrich Enns

Meanwhile, Dietrich Enns was having an outstanding start. He threw five complete innings of shutout ball. In fact, he pitched 1, 2, 3 first, second, and fifth inning. Overall he allowed just four base runners on three hits and one walk and no runner reached third base. Even more exceptional is that Enns recorded twelve of the fifteen outs over his five inning stretch via the strikeout. When he departed the Durham Bulls had a 4 runs to 0 lead over Gwinnett.

Durham added two insurance runs in the bottom of the 7th inning to extend their lead to 6-0. In that inning, the Bulls number seven hitter, DH Deivy Grullon led off and hit a solo home run over the center field wall. Then, with one down, #9 hitter, catcher Joseph Odom walked; moved to second on a groundout; and later scored run 2 of the inning on an RBI single to right field by #3 hitter, center fielder Josh Lowe (Rays #10 prospect).

Over the last four innings, three Durham Bull’s relievers continued to shut down the Gwinnett Stripers offence. Right hander Louis Head, who took over for Enns in the top of the 6th, threw two scoreless innings and allowed just one base runner, while striking out two Stripers batters. Then, righty reliever Phoenix Sanders threw a 1, 2, 3 eight.

Finally, Tampa Bay Rays #17 prospect Brent Honeywell Jr. came in to close out the game. However, the first batter he face Gwinnett’s #3 hitter Johan Carnargo hit his 3 ball, 2 strike pitch over the right center field wall for a home run. But, then Honeywell shut down the Stripers offense for a Durham Bulls 6-1 victory.

The Bulls star of the day was starting pitcher Dietrich Enns. As highlighted earlier, he threw five shutout innings. His overall pitching line for the day was IP(5), R(0), H(3), BB(1), and SO(12), Enns got the win to increase his record to 3W:1L.