The Durham Bulls have won championships in many different ways over the last 25 years. Since moving to Triple-A and affiliating with the Tampa Bay Rays, the Bulls have won 16 divisional titles, eight International League titles and four national championships.
They’ve won them with dominant pitching. Future American League Cy Young Award winners David Price and Blake Snell were both on national championship teams; Price made eight starts for the 2009 champs and Snell seven, going 5-0, in 2017.
They’ve won with dominant hitting. Future Rookie of the Year Wil Myers was part of the Governors’ Cup champions in 2013. Wander Franco won a national title with the 2021 Bulls.
This year, the Durham Bulls tried something new. Oh, they still filled the trophy case, winning the International League East Division by three games, then beating Nashville in Las Vegas for the International League crown and adding their second straight national title the next day by beating Reno. But this time, the Bulls did it with an ensemble cast, winning by jigsaw puzzle rather than buzz saw.
A thousand pieces were assembled just so to create a mosaic of excellence and win the Bulls yet one more piece of hardware — the North State Journal’s 2022 Pro Team of the Year award.
It didn’t look like another special season in Durham when the Bulls opened the season 8-16. They didn’t reach the .500 mark until May 25, in game 44. They went 64-22 the rest of the way to pull away from the pack.
There were no real dominant pitchers, just a lot of them. Durham sent 57 different pitchers to the mound in 2022, shattering the team record by eight. Thirty-one different hurlers started a game and 28 finished one, both also setting new team records.
Taj Bradley was the most promising arm on the staff, arriving on the Bulls from the lower minors at midyear and making 12 starts, going 4-3 as he found his footing at the next step up the minor league ladder. He might eventually be an MLB star, but this year he was struggling to learn the ropes at Triple-A, at times showing flashes of the promise that earned him the opportunity and at others looking like a first-timer.
The ace of the staff, if there was one, was Kevin Herget, who symbolized the grind-it-out squad in Durham. He played at Division III Kean University and was drafted 1,175th overall. Of the three players drafted right before him and the three taken just after, only two even signed with the team that chose them, and only one other one has played a professional game since the pandemic.
In the nine years since, Herget pitched for eight minor league teams in three different MLB organizations, three winter league teams and two independent league teams, never getting promoted to the big leagues. He went 8-1 for the Bulls this year and, on Aug. 20, at age 31, finally got the call he’d been waiting for. Tampa Bay brought him up for a weekend series. The first thing he did was buy plane tickets so his parents could see him in person.
After three days in Tampa, the Rays sent him back down without ever appearing in a game.
Herget eventually did make his big-league debut for the Rays, three weeks later.
The Bulls also cobbled together a lineup, using 34 different position players, another team record. The offense was paced by minor league lifers, including Jonathan Aranda, a member of the Rays organization since 2016 who just reached Triple-A this season for the first time. He was among the International League leaders in average, hits and home runs before getting called up for 32 games in Tampa.
Vidal Brujan, a member of the Rays since 2015 who has bounced between Durham and Tampa the last two years, filling in where needed, was the star of the International League title game, going 4 for 5 with three runs and two RBIs. Miles Mastrobuoni and Tristan Gray also led the team all season, with Mastrobuoni finally making his MLB debut after the minor league season was complete.
The symbol of the team on offense was Bligh Madris, who drove in four runs with four hits to win MVP honors in the national championship game … three weeks after he was cut loose by the Pittsburgh Pirates and claimed by the Rays. He played a total of 10 games for the Bulls, but he was in the right place at the right time. The piece that fit just right.