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Durham Bulls — The 2021 Triple-A East League Champions

The Rays minor league roadtrip through North Carolina includes a Durham Bulls championship.

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In my prior DraysBay post, I highlighted the Durham Bulls end of season run to win the Southeast Division Championship title of the Triple-A East League. They accomplished that by winning the first game of their last six-game series of the 2021 regular season, which was played against the Charlotte Knights (Chicago White Sox) at their home ballpark Truist Field in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina. The photo above shows the view of Truist Field seen from the concourse behind home plate.

Achieving that success opened the door to another opportunity for the Durham Bulls—the 2021 Triple-A East League Championship. For the 2021 season, the Triple–A Leagues of Major League Baseball’s new Professional Development League did not have a traditional multi-game playoff series at the end of the regular season to determine the champion of the league. Instead, this year the champion of the Triple-East League would be the team in the league that had the highest win/loss percentage at the close of the regular season.

Similar to the other leagues of the PDL, the Triple-East League regular season, which consists of 120 games and ended on Sunday, September 19, 2021. On the date of the start of their final series versus Charlotte, Tuesday September 14th, the Bulls record was 72W:42L in 114 games, which corresponds to a .632 win/loss percentage. That W/L% was the highest in the league.

At that moment in the season, the runner up to the Bulls relative to overall league standing and win/loss percentage was the Northeast Division leader, the Buffalo Bisons (Toronto Blue Jays). They had a 68W:43L record in 111 games for a .613 W/L%. Both teams had just six games to play and entering that final series of the season the Durham Bulls had a 4 and ½ game lead over Buffalo in the overall Triple-A East League W:L standings and their W/L% was .019 high than that of the Bisons. Therefore, the Durham Bulls were also quite well positioned to be the 2021 Champion of Triple-A East League. The worst case scenario for the Bulls would be that the Buffalo Bisons won each of their last six games. If that happened, the Durham Bulls would need to win at least 5 of their last six games to win the league championship. On the other hand, if the Bison lost one of their early games, the Bulls would just need to win 3 games to clinch the 2021 season Triple-A East League title.

Both the Durham Bulls and Buffalo Bisons won the first two games of their season ending series. However, on Thursday, September 16th the Bisons played a day game and lost 5 runs to 3 to the Rochester Red Wings. Therefore, prior to the start of the Bulls evening game in Charlotte, the team knew that all they needed was a win that day to clinch the Triple-A East League Championship. They did win, but in a come from behind victory in which they scored the game winning runs in the top of the 9th innings. Therefore, the Durham Bulls are the first ever Champions of the PDF’s Triple-A East League.

The Durham Bulls won 2 of the remaining games to win the series with the Charlotte Knights 5 games to 1. That gave them a final end of season record of 77W:43L and a .642 win/loss percentage. On the other hand, the Buffalo Bisons closed out their series with the Red Wings with 3 wins and 3 losses, a 71W:46L end of season record, and .607 W/L%.

In this DraysBay post, I will briefly highlight the Durham Bulls wins over the Charlotte Knights in games 1, 2, and 3 of their series.

Game 1—Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Durham Bulls road to the 2021 Triple-A League Championship got off to a great start in game 1 of the series versus the Charlotte Knights at Truist Field in Charlotte, NC. The Bulls starter was twenty-two year old left hander Ian Seymour, Seymour, who was a second round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2020 draft, was pitching his first season of Minor League ball in 2021. He was just promoted to the Durham Bulls on September 9th and in this game was making his second start at the AAA class.

The Charlotte Knights sent a much more seasoned pitcher to the hill—28 year old right hander Alex McRae. McRae made his Major League debut on August 1, 2018 and had pitched briefly in the majors in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021.

The Durham Bulls quickly got on the scoreboard. They scored 1 run in the top of the first inning and then 2 more in the second to break out to a 3 run to 0 lead. In the first inning, Bulls number two hitter, left fielder Ryan Boldt singled; stole second base; and with two down crossed the plate with run 1 of the game on an RBI double by cleanup hitter Dalton Kelly(1B). Then, in the second inning, #6 batter, second baseman Esteban Quiroz walked; advanced to third on a single by the next batter Nathan Lukes(CF); and score run 1 when catcher Brett Sullivan hit into a 6-4 force out on which Lukes was out at second base. With two outs, Sullivan advanced into scoring position at second base on a wild pitch and then crossed the plate with run 2 on an RBI single by Bulls leadoff hitter Vidal Brujan(SS).

Meanwhile, Ian Seymour harnessed the Charlotte Knights offense. He threw five shutout innings. Over that stint, he allowed just six base runners, 3 on hits and 3 on walk, while striking out 3 Knights batters.

Bulls Catcher Bret Sullivan at the plate.

The Durham Bulls extended their lead to 6 runs to 0 with a two run rally in the top of the sixth inning and a single run in the ninth. The key hit in the 6th innings was a 2 run home run by number eight hitter, catcher Brett Sullivan That gave Sullivan, who is shown in the photo above, a team leading 3 runs batted in for the day. In the 9th, number 2 hitter Ryan Boldt (LF) and number 3 batter Josh Lowe (RF) hit back to back doubles. On Lowe’s hit, Boldt scored the Bulls sixth and final run of the game.

From the sixth inning through the eight, Bulls right hand relievers Colby White and lefty Brian Moran held the Charlotte Knight scoreless. Then, in the 9th one of the Bulls top regular season late innings reliever, Phoenix Sanders, came in for the close. However, Sanders gave up a single to the first Knight hitter he faced. Then, the next batter, cleanup hitter Jake Burger(3B) hit a 2-run homer. But, then Sanders struck out the next three Charlotte hitters he faced to secure a Bulls 6-2 victory. Ian Seymour got the win.

The Durham Bulls were off to a 1 game to 0 lead in the series. However, that win made their regular season record 73W:42L, which clinched the 2021 Southeastern Division Championship title for Durham and advanced them one step closer to winning the Triple-A East League Championship.

Game 2—Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Game 2 of the series was much more competitive. In fact, it was a pitching duel between the Bulls and Knights staffs. Durham sent 24 year old right hander Tommy Romero, who is ranked #18 among the Tampa Bay Rays MLB Top 30 Prospects, to the mound as their starter. He was promoted to Durham on July 30th; joined the Bulls starting rotation upon arrival; and made his 10th start at the AAA class in this game. Entering the game his record with the Bulls was 4W:2L.

Tommy Romero was faced off against another pretty seasoned pitcher. The Knights sent 28 yrs old left hander Kyle Kubat to the hill. In 2021, Kubat played his sixth season in the minors and it was his third during which he pitched at the AAA class with the Charlotte Knights.

Durham Bull number three hitter, center fielder Josh Lowe.

Again, the Durham Bulls opened the scoring.

In the top of the first innings, shortstop Vidal Brujan hit a leadoff single. Then, he stole second base, but an error on the throw to second let him advance to third. With one out, number 3 hitter, center fielder Josh Lowe, who is shown in the photo above, drove in Brujan with a single to center field. Then, cleanup hitter, first baseman Dalton Kelly doubled to put runners on second and third base. Finally, Josh Lowe crossed the plate when #5 batter, Rene Pinto(C) grounded out short to first. The Bulls were up 2 runs to 0 before the Charlotte Knights came to the plate.

In the bottom of the second, Charlotte got on the scoreboard. With two outs, Knights #6 hitter, left fielder Micker Adolfo connected with the first pitch delivered to him by Romero for a solo home run. But, Tommy Romero retired the next batter so after 2 innings of play the Durham Bulls led the Knights 2 runs to 1,

Then, both starters settled down and held the opposing team scoreless. Kyle Kubat departed first. He went 4 and 2/3 innings and his pitching line for the day was 2 runs on 4 hits, no base on balls, and 4 strikeouts. Tommy Romero had a quality start. He threw 6 and 2/3 innings and departed with 2 outs and no runners on base with the Bulls leading 2-1.

The relievers that followed each starter held the opposing teams scoreless for the remainder of the game. Lefty reliever Kenny Rosenberg, who recorded the third out in the 7th inning for the Bulls, threw 1 scoreless inning. Rosenberg was replaced by right hand reliever Josh Fleming with two outs and no runners on base in the bottom of the eighth. He struck out the first batter he faced to end that inning.

Josh Fleming returned in the ninth for the close. He gave up a single to the first batter he faced—Charlotte’s number 3 hitter, first baseman Yerman Mercedes. Then, he struck out the Knights cleanup hitter Jake Burger for out 1. That brought number 5 hitter Mikie Mahtook to the plate. Fleming got him to ground into a 6-4-3 game ending double play. The Durham Bulls had won game 2 of the series by a score of 2 runs to 1; Tommy Romero recorded his fifth win of the season; and Josh Fleming got a save.

Game 3—Thursday, September 16, 2021

In game three, the Durham Bulls starter was right hander Trevor Brigden. Brigden had also been recently promoted to the Bulls—September 9th. In fact, prior to his start in this game, he had made just one very brief relief appearance with Durham.

The Knights scored quickly against Brigden. In the bottom of the first inning, they loaded the bases on a single by leadoff hitter Danny Mendick(SS) and walks to their number 3 and number 5 batters Mikie Mahtook (CF) and Micker Adolfo (RF). That brought number six hitter, left fielder Blake Rutherford to the plate. Rutherford doubled on Brigden’s 0 ball, 1 strike pitch to drive in Mendick and Mahtook with runs 1 and 2 of the inning. Next, catcher Seby Zaval doubled home Adolfo and Rutherford with runs 3 and 4. At the end of one inning of play, the Charlotte Knight had taken a 4 run to 0 lead, but they were not yet done.

For the start of the bottom of the second inning, Trevor Brigden was replaced by another pitcher that had been promoted to the Durham Bulls on September 9th. That was right hand reliever Ezequiel Zabaleta. Knights leadoff hitter Danny Mendick again launched a rally. He hit a 1 out double and then came home on a two-run homer by cleanup hitter Mikie Mahtook. After just two inning of play, the Durham Bull were down 6 runs to 0. But, then Zabaleta settled down and threw shut out third and fourth innings.

On the other hand, the Knight starter, right hander Kade McClure, got off to an excellent start. Through the fourth inning, he allowed only two base runners, both on hits. But in the top of the fifth, the Durham Bulls began to launch a comeback. With one down, Bulls #6 hitter, third baseman Curtis Mead lined McClure’s 1 ball, two strike pitch over the left field wall for a solo home run.

Then, number 7 batter, catcher Brett Sullivan doubled; moved to third base on a single by the next hitter, left fielder Miles Mastrobuoni; and raced home with run 2 of the inning on a sacrifice fly by #8 batter Alika Williams (SS). Durham had bounced back, but still trailed 6 runs to 2. Kade McClure departed after the fifth inning. His overall pitching stats for the outing were 2 runs on 5 hits, 0 walks, and 4 strikeouts.

In the bottom of the fifth, the Bulls turned over the pitching duties to right hand reliever David Hess. Hess had made his Major League debut in 2018 and pitched in the majors during parts of the 2018 through 2021 seasons. Hess threw 2 and 2/3 no hit, no run innings.

Durham Bulls second baseman Esteban Quiroz.

While Hess was harnessing the Knights offense, the Durham Bulls again rallied. In the 7th they scored 4 runs off Charlotte reliever Kevin McCarthy to tie the game at 6-all. Again, the Bulls #6 hitter Curtis Mead (3B) ignited the rally. With one down, he singled. Next, number 7 and number 8 batters, Brett Sullivan (C) and Miles Mastrobuoni (LF) walked to load the bases. Then, Esteban Quiroz entered the game as a pinch hitter. Quiroz hit McCarthy’s 2 ball, 2 strike pitch over the right field wall for a grand slam home run. The photo above shows Esteban Quiroz at the plate in a Bulls game.

Durham Bulls infielder/outfielder Miles Mastrobuoni.

The game remained tied at 6-all until the top of the 9th inning. For the start of that inning, a Knights regular season reliever entered the game—right hander Will Carter. Brett Sullivan led off for Durham and singled; advanced to second on a wild pitch; and scored the go ahead run on an RBI single by the next hitter Miles Mastrobuoni. However, on that hit, Mastrobuoni advanced to second base on an E9.

Then, he moved to third on a infield ground out by Esteban Quiroz. Finally, with leadoff hitter Vidal Brujan at the plate Mastrobuoni crossed the plate with run 2 of the inning on a wild pitch. The Bulls had taken an 8 run to 6 lead. The photo of above shows Miles Mastrobuoni at bat in a Durham Bulls game.

Right hand reliever Joey Krehbiel, who had entered the game with two outs and runners on first and second base in the bottom of the eighth inning and shut down that potential Charlotte Knights rally, returned in the 9th to close out the game for Durham. Krehbiel gave up a 1 out single, but then retired the next two batters to lock in a Bulls 8-6 win.

Krehbiel got the win to make his recorded 3W:2L. As mentioned earlier, that was the Durham Bulls third consecutive win over the Charlotte Knights and with the victory they clinched the 2021 Triple-A East League Championship.

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.