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Rays Minor League Baseball Road Trip: A guide to North Carolina — Games 5 and 6

Durham Bulls versus Memphis Redbirds at Durham Bulls Athletic Park August 5, 2021 and August 8, 2021

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My 2021 Tampa Bay Rays Minor League Baseball Road Trip that I have been highlighting on the DRaysBay Blog resumed on August 5th with another home game of the Durham Bull. That was the fifth North Carolina based game I attended in which the home team (Durham Bulls) or visiting team (Bowling Green Hot Rods or Charleston RiverDogs) was a Minor League affiliate of the Rays.

On Tuesday August 3rd, the Memphis Redbirds (MEM) arrived at Durham Athletic Park for a six game away series with the Bulls. That was the first regular season home series in which the Durham Bulls ever played the Redbirds. Memphis has been the AAA affiliate of the Saint Louis Cardinals since 1998, but was a member of the Pacific Coast League from that year through 2020. In the reorganization of Minor League Baseball prior to the start of the 2021 season, the Memphis Redbirds were relocated to the Triple-A East League, where they joined the Bulls in the Southeast Division.

When the teams played game three of the series on Thursday August 5th, the Durham Bulls were in first place in the Southeast Division with a 52W:27L record. On the other hand, the Redbirds were 39W:41L and ranked #5 in that division. Also, the Bulls had won the first two games of the series. I returned to Durham Bulls Athletic Park to attended game 6 of the series on Sunday August 8th. Durham Bull Athletic Park has a concourse that wraps around the entire ball field. The photo above shows a view of Durham Bulls players on the field during the Thursday game as seen from the concourse in center field.

Here I will review the highlights of both games and introduce the Durham Bulls player who’s play I felt stood out in each game.

Rays’ NC Road Trip Game 5 Highlights

The Durham Bull’s August 5th game versus the Memphis Redbirds could be classified as more a pitching duel. The Redbirds sent one of their St. Louis Cardinals MLB top 30 prospects to the mound as their starter. That was left hander Zack Thompson, who ranked #4 in the STL top 30. The Bull’s countered with righty Chris Ellis. Ellis made his Major League debut with the Kansas City Royals in 2019 and was signed as a free agent by the Rays during the 2020 offseason. In the game, he was making his twelfth start in fourteen pitching appearance for the Durham Bulls this season.

The Bull opened the scoring in the bottom of the first inning. With one down, number 2 hitter, shortstop Taylor Wall walked. That brought up one of the Bull’s offense leaders—#3 hitter Josh Lowe(RF). Lowe connected with Thompson’s 2 ball, 1 strike pitch and hit it to right-center for a double. On that play, Wall raced home. So, at the end of 1 inning of play, the Bulls were up 1 run to 0.

Memphis Redbirds second baseman Nolan Gorman.

Meanwhile, Bull’s starter Chris Ellis cruised through the first three innings. He pitched 1, 2, 3 first and second innings, but allowed one base runner on a single in the third. However, things changed in the top of the 4th. With one out, Memphis’ #3 hitter, second baseman Nolan Gorman came to the plate. Gorman is ranked as the MLB #2 prospect in the Cardinals Minor League organization. He hit Ellis’ 2 ball, 2 strike pitch over the right field wall to tie the score at 1-all. The photo shows Nolan Gorman’s swing at the pitch that he hit for a home run.

Then, Chris Ellis walked the next batter Juan Yepez (1B) to put the go ahead run on base. With two outs, Ellis got Redbirds catcher Ali Sanchez to hit a grounder to third, but on that play a throwing error was made and the ball traveled out onto the right field grass. On that play, Yepez raced around the bases; headed for the home; and narrowly escaped the tag when he slid into the plate. Memphis had scored an unearned run to take a 2-1 lead.

Chris Ellis delivering a pitch to a Memphis Redbirds batter.

Chris Ellis pitched five and two-third innings. He had quite a good outing and if not for the fourth inning error would have departed with the score tied 1-all. His overall pitching line for the day was 2 runs on 4 hits, but just one of those runs was an earned run. Also, he walked just two Memphis batters, while striking out nine. The photo above shows him delivering a pitch to a Memphis Redbirds batter.

Zack Thompson delivering a pitch to a Durham Bulls batter.

After the top of the first, Zack Thompson threw five shutout innings. Over that six inning stint, Thompson allowed just 1 run on 3 hits and 2 walks, while striking out five Bulls hitters. The photo above shows Zack Thompson delivering a pitch from the mound at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

The Bulls relievers who followed Chris Ellis, left hander Adam Conley and righty Calvin Faucher, kept Memphis’ offense in check until the top of the ninth. Faucher came into the game with two outs and a runner on first in the top of the eighth. He closed out that inning, but then in the top of the 9th gave up a solo run to the Redbirds, which extended their lead to 3-1.

On the other hand, the three Memphis relievers that followed Zack Thompson, Jesus Cruz, Junior Fernandez, and Grant Black, each pitched one shutout inning to close out the game for a 3-1 victory over the Durham Bulls. Along the way, the Durham Bull’s did attempt to launch a number of rallies.

For instance, in the bottom of the 8th they had the game tying and go ahead runs on third and second base with no outs against Junior Fernandez. Bull’s #2 hitter Taylor Walls led off and walked. Then, #3 batter Josh Lowe singled to right field and on that play Walls advance to third. Next, Lowe stole second base to put both runners in scoring positing. Junior Fernandez had to face Durham’s #4, #5, and #6 hitters, but struck each of them out to shut down the potential game tying rally. Cruz and Fernandez recorded a hold, Black got the save, and Thompson the win.

Durham Bulls Game Offense Leader

Durham Bull right fielder Josh Lowe.

The player that had the best day at the plate for the Durham Bulls in the August 5th game versus the Memphis Redbirds was number 3 hitter, right fielder Josh Lowe. Lowe currently ranks #8 among the Tampa Bay Rays MLB Top 30 Prospects. He had 3 hits in 4 at bats which included 2 singles and a double. Moreover, he drove in Durham’s only run and also stole a base.

Earlier in the post, I referred to Lowe as the leader of the Durham Bulls offense. As of the date of the writing of this article, he ranked number 1, 2, or 3 on the team in each of the twelve standard offense statistic categories listed on the Bulls official website. In fact, he ranked number 1 or tied for #1 in six of them: runs scored (tied with one other player), hits, home runs (tied with 1 other), runs batted in, slugging percentage, and on-base plus slugging percentage. But he also ranked number 2 in doubles, base on balls, stolen bases, and batting average. Finally, Lowe ranked #3 in triples and on-base percentage. The photo shows the swing on which Josh Lowe hit his earlier mentioned first inning RBI double.

Rays NC Road trip Game 6 Highlights

Brent Honeywell Jr. delivering a pitch to a Memphis Redbirds batter.

Game 6 of the series, which I attended on Sunday, August 8th, was quite similar to the earlier highlighted game 3. It too was primarily a pitching duel between the team’s starters and their relief corps. In this game, the Durham Bulls starter was a member of their roster who is the Tampa Bay Rays number 14 MLB Top 30 Prospect—right hander Brent Honeywell Jr..

Honeywell began his 2021 season in the majors with the Tampa Bay Rays. In fact, he made his Major League debut on April 11, 2021 as the Rays starter in an away game versus the New York Yankees. However, Honeywell was optioned to the Durham Bulls for the start of their season. With the Bulls, he has most frequently pitched in the relief role, but in this game made his fifth start of the season. The photo shows Honeywell on the mound at the DBAP delivering a pitch to a Redbirds batter.

The Memphis Redbirds starter was lefty Connor Thomas. Thomas opened the 2021 season playing at the AA class in the St. Louis Cardinals Minor League system—the Springfield Cardinals (Double-A Central League). He was promoted to Memphis on May 25th. Since joining the Redbirds, he has pitched both as a starter and reliever. This game versus the Durham Bulls was his seventh start for Memphis.

As in the Thursday game, the Durham Bulls got on the scoreboard first. Again they scored a solo run in the bottom of the first inning to take a 1 run to 0 lead. The Bulls leadoff batter Vidal Brujan doubled. That brought #2 hitter, shortstop Taylor Walls to the plate. He hit Thomas’ 0 ball, 1 strike pitch into right field for a single. On that play, Brujan raced home with Durham’s first run. On the throw to the plate, Walls advanced into scoring position on second; however, Thomas worked his way out of the jam without allowing another run.

The score remained unchanged until the top of the fourth inning. In that inning, Honeywell walked the first batter he faced—Redbirds number 2 hitter, designated hitter Kramer Robertson.

The next batter, number three hitter Nolan Gorman hit a single to right that advance Robertson to third base. On the throw to third, Gorman took second base. With no outs, the Redbirds had runners in scoring position at second and third and cleanup hitter Juan Yepez at the plate. However, he hit into a 6-4-3 double play, but on that play Robertson scored the game tying run. Then, Honeywell got the third out, but the game was now tied 1-all.

Brent Honeywell departed after the fifth inning with the game still tied 1-1. Honeywell had quite a good outing. His overall pitching stats for the day were R(1), H(4), BB(1), and SO(2).

Adam Conley, who replaced Honeywell, faced the top of the Memphis Redbirds batting order in the top of the sixth inning. He struggled quickly. After striking out the Redbirds leadoff hitter, he hit their number 2 batter Kramer Robertson with a pitch. As in their fourth inning rally, Memphis’ #3 batter Nolan Gorman got the key hit. He singled to put runners on first and third base. That again brought Juan Yepez to the plate. This time he hit a sacrifice fly to drive in Robertson with the go ahead run. Conley pitched out of the jam, but Memphis had taken a 2 run to 1 lead. Then, Bulls relievers Calvin Faucher and Brian Moran held the Redbirds scoreless in the 8th and 9th.

Connor Thomas delivering a pitch to a Durham Bulls batter.

On the other hand, Connor Thomas pitched 6 complete innings and when he departed the Memphis Redbirds were on top 2-1. Thomas had an excellent outing—1 run, 4 hits, 0 base on balls, and 7 strikeouts. The photo here shows Thomas delivering a pitch to a Durham Bulls batter in the game. He was replaced by righty reliever Seth Elledge, who threw a 1, 2, 3 seventh inning.

In the bottom of the 8th, left hand reliever Garrett Williams took over for the Redbirds. Williams retired the first two batters he faced, but then got into trouble. He walked Bull’s number 9 hitter Brett Sullivan. Then, with Durham’s leadoff hitter Vidal Brujan at the plate, Williams threw a wild pitch that enabled Sullivan to advance into scoring position at second base. Next, Brujan single to right to drive in Sullivan with the game tying run. Williams shut down Durham’s rally, but the Bulls had tied the game at 2 runs all.

New relievers took over for the Bulls and Redbirds in the ninth, Phoenix Sanders and Junior Fernandez, respectively. Both of them pitched a shutout 9th inning to send the game into extra innings. Sanders returned to pitch the top of the 10th for Durham. The MiLB extra innings rules called for the batter that made the last out in the prior inning (9th in this case) to be put on second base before the first batter came to the plate in the tenth inning.

To start the top of the 10th, Redbirds #6 hitter Evan Mendoza, who made the third out in the 9th, was put on second base. Mendoza advanced to third base on a 4 to 3 ground out by number 7 batter Alec Burleson. Then he crossed the plate with the go ahead run on an RBI single by Memphis’ #8 hitter Dennis Ortega. Sanders got the next batter to hit into a double play that ended the rally. But, the Memphis Redbirds had taken a 3 run to 2 lead and were three outs away from victory.

Durham Bulls celebrating their walk off win.

Junior Fernandez returned to the mound to pitch the bottom of the tenth inning for the Memphis Redbirds. The Bulls opened their half of the 10th with number 6 hitter Kevin Padlo on second base and #7 batter Miles Mastrobuoni at the plate. Fernandez got behind on Mastrobuoni by a 2 ball, 0 strike count and on the next pitch he singled up the middle to drive in Padlo with Durham’s game tying run 3. Then with one down, the Bull’s leadoff hitter Vidal Brujan came to the plate. He doubled to right field to drive in Mastrobuoni with the game winning run. The photo above shows the Durham Bull’s players out on the field congratulating Brujan for his game winning hit, Mastrobuoni for scoring the game winning run, and celebrating the teams 4-3 walk off win over Memphis.

Durham Bulls Game Offense Leader

Durham Bull right fielder Vidal Brujan.

In this Durham Bulls win, the player that was clearly the leader of their offense during the game was leadoff batter Vidal Brujan.

As mentioned in the highlights, Brujan played a key role in each of Durham’s run scoring rallies. In the first inning, he hit a leadoff double and scored their first run on an RBI single by #2 hitter Taylor Walls. Then, in the eighth inning, he singled to drive in Brett Sullivan with the game tying run. Finally, in the bottom of the 10th, Brujan again doubled and on that hit Miles Mastrobuoni crossed the plate with the game winning run. The photo shows the swing on which Vidal Brujan got that game winning hit.

Vidal Brujan was a member of Durham’s opening day roster and typically hits in the leadoff slot in their batting order. On the other hand, in the field he has played second base, third base, shortstop, and each of the three outfield positions. Brujan got called up to the majors on July 7, 2021 and made his debut in the Rays uniform that day. He appeared in ten Tampa Bay games before being optioned back to the Bulls on July 22nd.

Prior to departing for the majors, Vidal Brujan led the Durham Bulls offense in runs scored and stolen bases. However, since returning he has been quite hot with the bat and as of the writing of this DRaysBay post has expanded his number 1 rank on the team to five stat categories: R (tied with Josh Lowe), 2B, SB, AVE, and OBP. Brujan is currently ranked the MLB #1 prospect in Tampa’s Minor League organization.

Walter Triebel is the author of “Road-Tripping the South Atlantic League: A Guide to the Teams, Ballparks and Cities” published by McFarland. It is available for purchase on their website as well as Amazon. Walter previously spent 15 years as an adjunct faculty member at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and has led an extensive career as a textbook and reference book author. You can follow him on twitter here.