Durham Bulls

Tampa Bay Rays infielder Brad Miller homers in what should be final game with Durham Bulls

Brad Miller runs to second base during the Durham Bulls victory against the Charlotte Knights Wednesday, July 5, 2017, in Durham, NC.
Brad Miller runs to second base during the Durham Bulls victory against the Charlotte Knights Wednesday, July 5, 2017, in Durham, NC.

As Brad Miller attempted to make his way to his locker, he was constantly stopped. Durham players and staff gave Miller hugs, handshakes and fist bumps. In between conversations, players would briefly stop over, just for a second, to wish Miller luck or thank him for helping the Bulls pick up two wins during his brief stay.

Miller doesn’t know if this was the end, but it sure felt like it. Besides, in his mind he has done everything needed to make his return to the Tampa Bay Rays.

Miller has been on the disabled list since June thanks to a nagging groin injury that has limited him to just 42 games for the Rays this year. All signs point to the 27-year-old heading back to Florida. After the Bulls defeated Charlotte 8-4 Wednesday night, there was no official word yet, but the team was treating it like Miller’s farewell tour in Durham, a tour that only lasted two games.

Tuesday, in his first appearance with the the Bulls, Miller went 1-for-3 with a walk. This came after he hit three doubles in rehab games with High-A Charlotte. Wednesday, as the designated hitter, Miller went 2-for-4, including a home run in the seventh, a line drive that turned out to be his final at-bat of the evening. After a 45-minute rain delay, Miller was swapped out of the lineup, replaced by Cade Gotta. According to Durham manager Jared Sandberg, there was no need to risk it. Miller had played all nine innings on Tuesday and showed he had his timing back at the plate with the homer.

“What he’s done,” Sandberg said, “It wasn’t worth sending him back out there. I think he looks good.”

Miller feels good. After every rehab game, going back to the games at High-A Charlotte and the last two in Durham, Miller checks with the Rays and waits to hear what the next plan is. You get the feeling this time he won’t wait long. Not only did he collect two hits, he moved well, showing no effects of the groin when he raced to second on a wild pitch in the first inning. The last two games were about getting his timing and rhythm back. But he also wanted to check some things off of his own list before he made a return to the big leagues.

“It felt good to run out the box, to run some different game situations that come up,” Miller said. “I was happy with that. I got a lot of work in. Most important was being able to do all of those things.”

The home run was the first for Miller this season after hitting a career-high 30 last year in Tampa with a .243 batting average.

Miller said his time on the DL has been “mentally taxing.” He wanted to be helping Tampa Bay, contributing to the club. But the biggest thing was staying focused on each day. That got him through the whole ordeal. Priority No. 1 was taking care of himself physically. He knew once he got that out the way, he could put on a uniform and play again, even if it wasn’t a Rays’ uniform right away. Miller played five different rehab games, all needed, he explained, just because there are so many different plays in baseball. Diving back for the bag at first during a pickoff attempt was something he wanted to cross off his checklist. He got plenty of work at that during the first inning on Wednesday. Check.

“It was for my mind,” Miller said. “OK, I’ve done this before, so I can cross that off and move on to the next thing. I felt great. I’ve been making progress, so that’s good.”

If Wednesday was it for Miller, it couldn’t have gone any better.

“I don’t think there is really anyway to simulate the intensity of the big leagues, but it was basically a big league game,” Miller said. “There were a bunch of big league players and it was fun. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel as far as being healthy and it’s exciting.”

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001, @JEPopeIV