Bulls battle Omaha for Triple-A crown
The Durham Bulls dominated the International League this season, becoming the first team in 26 years to lead the IL in both batting average and ERA and finishing 87-57, seven games better than anyone else in the league.
The Omaha Storm Chasers went 70-74, the 10th best record in the 16-team Pacific Coast League but slid into the playoffs by winning the four-team American North division by one game.
Despite taking completely different paths into the playoffs, both teams went 6-1 in the postseason, and one of them will be crowned the Triple-A national champions tonight in Allentown, Pa.
The IL champion Bulls and PCL champion Storm Chasers will meet at 7:05 p.m. at Coca Cola Park, the home of the IL’s Lehigh Valley IronPigs, in a game that will be televised nationally by NBCSN.
Durham is starting Jake Odorizzi, who was the ace of the Omaha staff a year ago before a trade sent him from the Kansas City Royals to the Tampa Bay Rays, the Bulls’ parent organization.
After going 8-5 with a 3.73 ERA in the regular season, and ranking third in the IL in strikeouts with 124, Odorizzi has pitched 14 shutout innings in the playoffs. Durham manager Charlie Montoyo said that the key for the 22-year-old righty has been his control.
“He’s a 91 to 92 (mph) guy, but the 92 looks like 95 because he locates it well and it explodes in the zone,” Montoyo said. “He’s been fun to watch.”
Odorizzi was picked to start over IL Pitcher of the Year J.D. Martin, who set a Bulls Triple-A franchise record with 16 wins. But Montoyo said that Martin will pitch at least one inning out of the bullpen. The manager also will use IL All-Star closer Kirby Yates, even if the Bulls are losing.
“I’m going to treat the game almost like an all-star game,” Montoyo said. “They deserve to be in the national spotlight.”
Durham will face lefty Chris Dwyer, a Clemson product who was selected by the Royals in the fourth round of the 2009 draft. Dwyer went 10-11 in the regular season but was sixth in the PCL in ERA (3.55) and third in batting average against.
Both teams have recent experience in the Triple-A championship game. Durham won its first title in 2009, while Omaha lost in 2011.
Odorizzi, who led the Omaha starters in ERA and won the team’s playoff opener in 2012, was one of three Storm Chasers who were sent to Durham after the Rays dealt pitcher James Shields to the Royals.
Also included in the deal were Bulls starter Mike Montgomery, who led Omaha in strikeouts in 2011, and Wil Myers, who led the Storm Chasers in home runs in 2012 and tied for the team lead in homers with Durham this season despite being called up in mid-June.
Without Myers, the Bulls lost a lot of their power — the team finished last in the league with 77 home runs — but still managed to lead the league in runs by consistently getting on base. Durham led the league in on-base percentage and had the fewest strikeouts.
Still, pitching has carried the team through the postseason. The Bulls scored no more than two runs in five of their seven playoff games and won four of those. The Bulls are riding a 29-inning shutout streak, including their first back-to-back postseason shutouts since moving up to Triple-A in 1998.
“By May, I knew it was a special group,” Montoyo said. “I told the guys just have fun (today). They deserve it.”
NOTES — The Bulls will be the home team. ... The IL is 3-4 all-time against the PCL. ... Durham outfielder Shelley Duncan is the only Bulls player to appear in the Triple-A National Championship game. He went 0-for-3 with a walk as the cleanup hitter for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2008.