Bulls manager Jared Sandberg twice went to his bullpen in the ninth inning. He was trying desperately to avoid a Gwinnett Braves go-ahead run in a 5-5 game that would spoil a Bulls’ comeback bid, and knock them out of sole possession of first place in the International League South.
But the pitching changes were futile, and the Gwinnett Braves won their sixth straight game, 7-5, sweeping the Bulls in the last game of a home stand. Durham has now lost three in a row, and share first place with the Braves.
“What is this, game 10? I’m not worried about it. It’s way early,” Sandberg said of the loss. He was more interested in talking about some amazing feats that went right for his young squad.
“We battled. We put ourselves in a chance to win. The young kid came up from A-ball and definitely gave us a chance,” Sandberg said. The youngster was right-handed reliever Yoel Espinal, who was called up from the Port Charlotte Stone Crabs in Florida State League, and made his debut Triple-A appearance.
“We’re short in the bullpen. To have Espinal come up from A-ball, and provide us the length that he did to keep us in the ballgame was outstanding,” Sandberg said. “He went out there and showed tremendous stuff, tremendous poise, kept us in the ballgame.”
Espinal came on in relief to start the seventh inning, throwing 2 1/3 innings, fanning three batters, and giving up one run on two hits before being replaced with one out in the ninth and the bases empty.
Sandberg was equally impressed with a two-run homer that left fielder Jake Bauers crushed to right field in the first inning.
“I only recall one other home run that I’ve ever seen go up there on the concourse. That was an absolute bomb. He does have power,” Sandberg said. “We’re trying to work on more of a line-drive stroke, and allow him to get on top of the baseball more.”
Bauers was mighty excited himself about turning on a 1-1 changeup by Braves starter Aaron Blair that hung over the plate.
“It was one of those where I definitely knew it was gone. It felt great to get that monkey off my back, get that first Triple-A home run,” he said.
“It feels good also to battle back the way we did, but unfortunately we couldn’t pull off the win,” Bauers said. “We took three at their place last time, they took three here. It doesn’t feel good to get swept, but at the end of the day we battled back, and we’ll see them plenty more times.”
The Braves jumped out to a 2-0 lead off Bulls starter Jake Faria in the first inning.
Shortstop Sean Kazmar roped a single down the left field line. He advanced to third on an infield single by left fielder Mel Rojas Jr., and a throwing error to first by Bulls catcher Mike Marjama. Matt Tuiasosopo ripped an RBI single to center to score Kazmar. Rojas scored from second on a broken-bat single by designated hitter Kyle Kubitza.
The Bulls tied the game in the bottom of the inning on Bauers’ blast. Shortstop Willy Adames walked, and Bauers lit up a rocket that hurtled well above the seats in right field and bounced way back on the concourse.
It was Bauers’ first homer of the season, and league-leading 14th for Durham. The Bulls have now homered in eight straight games, and in 10 of their last 11.
The Braves regained the lead, 3-2, in the top of the second.
Faria walked center fielder Xavier Avery, who stole second and advanced to third on Marjama’s second throwing error of the game on the putout attempt. Second baseman Ozzie Albies rifled a triple to center to plate Avery.
Right fielder Lane Adams smashed a thigh-high pitch over the middle of the plate for his league-tying fourth home run leading off the fourth inning, extending the Braves’ lead to 4-2.
The Braves got an insurance run in the seventh inning when Avery ripped a one-out triple to the right field corner, and was pushed home on a sacrifice fly by Albies to make it 5-2.
Caleb Dirks came on in relief in the bottom of the inning for Gwinnett, and the Bulls pounced on him to tie the game 5-5.
Third baseman Patrick Leonard singled to right, and designated hitter Curt Casali lifted a pop single to center that fell between three Braves players. Marjama knocked an RBI single to center, plating Leonard to close the gap to 5-3. Casali moved to third on a flyout by right fielder Cade Gotta, and second baseman Kean Wong walked to load the bases with one out.
Center fielder Granden Goetzman lashed a single to center to score Casali and Marjama, tying the game.
But in the ninth Sandberg lifted Espinal for lefty Adam Kolarek to face a pair of left-hitting Braves. Catcher Blake Lalli greeted Kolarek with a line drive single to left, and Avery followed with a single to center. Sandberg brought Ryne Stanek in from the bullpen, and he walked Albies to load the bases. Then Rojas laced a single into right, scoring Lalli and Avery with the winning runs.
Sam Freeman (1-1) got the win for Gwinnett. Kolarek (1-1) was tagged with the loss.