Bulls survive September adversity for improbable title

For the second straight year, Durham wins the International League’s Governors’ Cup

The Durham Bulls won their second straight International League Governors’ Cup title by beating the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders 6-2 in the winner-take-all Game 5 on Saturday in Moosic, Pa. (Brenden M. Willsch / Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders)

On Labor Day, the Durham Bulls gave serious consideration to not using a designated hitter for their final game of the regular season. Two weeks later, they hoisted the Governors’ Cup for the second straight season.

The team’s run to the title may have been the most improbable of their six since 2002, given the condition that Durham was in as the playoffs were set to start.

The team that had been in first place in the International League South since May 28 found itself decimated by injuries and Major League call-ups. As it entered the final day of the season and looked at the prospect of starting the playoffs in two days time, the team had exactly nine position players available to play.

With parent club Tampa Bay looking to make a run at the wild card, several Bulls were called up as rosters expanded at the start of September, including starting pitcher Jake Faria, relievers Jamie Schultz and Andrew Kittredge, catcher Adam Moore and infielder Andrew Velazquez.

It was the latest in a long line of Bulls that have found their way to Tampa this year. In fact, the two teams helped set an organization record — nine Bulls players were called up to make their Major League debut at some point this season, the most in the 21 seasons that the two teams have been linked.

Then, when Tampa had a road series north of the border in Toronto to start the month, another problem cropped up. The newly promoted Moore couldn’t find his passport, leaving the team a catcher short in Canada. So the Rays called up Durham’s other catcher, Nick Ciuffo, to fill in for Moore for the week.

Of course, helping the big league club is why the Bulls are there. So it’s hard to fault Tampa for making use of the prospects that loaded Durham’s roster this season. The Bulls probably could have withstood the late call-ups, as they had all season, if not for some bad injury luck. 

In the final week of the season, third baseman Christian Arroyo hurt his hamstring running to first — an injury that ended his year.

Austin Meadows, acquired in the trade that sent Chris Archer to Pittsburgh, had provided a boost of power, hitting 10 home runs in 27 games with the team. He was hit by a pitch in the team’s division-clinching win over Charlotte and missed the rest of the regular season and start of the playoffs.

That left the Bulls with exactly nine position players. One, infielder Kean Wong, one of just two Bulls remaining from the 2017 Triple-A national champions, had been hit in the back by a pitch the day before. Any other time, he would have asked for a day off to recover, but he gutted out the game.

During that game, third baseman Brandon Snyder fouled a pitch off of his knee. He also defied common sense and remained in the game, limping around in the field.

Then the team headed off to Toledo for the playoffs. Normally, a team in Durham’s predicament could count on reinforcements arriving from the lower minor leagues, but Tampa’s Double-A affiliate and two of their three Class A teams also made the playoffs, making it tough to promote anyone to Durham.

The Bulls dropped the series opener in Toledo and appeared to be headed for a quick exit from the postseason. Instead, Durham won three straight, dispatching the Mud Hens thanks to the veterans who had made up the core of the roster as all the prospects took the shuttle to Tampa all year long.

The 31-year-old Snyder played through his sore knee, driving in a team-high three runs in the opening series. Jason Coats, a 28-year-old former Chicago White Sox player, hit .364 and scored four runs.

The team then headed to the Governors’ Cup final in a rematch against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and met even more adversity. With Hurricane Florence scheduled to arrive in North Carolina at the same time the series would move to Durham, the league made the decision to play the entire series in Scranton, meaning the team would have to win three games on the road to repeat as champions.

Led by another veteran, former Yankee Rob Refsnyder, who hit two home runs, drove in four and hit .350 against his old team, and a bullpen that recorded saves in five of Durham’s six postseason victories, the Bulls clinched the title in four games, earning their sixth Governors’ Cup since 2002.

Durham played for the Triple-A National Championship — its second in as many seasons — Tuesday, losing 14-4 to Memphis in Columbus, Ohio.