It doesn’t matter how you win to claim a division title. It only matters that you do it.
International League South Division leaders since April, the Durham Bulls needed plenty of help Thursday night to get the win they needed to wrap up the championship.
The Bulls managed just one hit against second-place Gwinnett. But two Braves pitchers walked five and hit a batter in a three-run eighth inning where Durham scored all its runs to post a 3-2 win at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
That allowed the crowd of 10,447 to celebrate with the Bulls, who claimed their first division title since 2014 and their 13th in 20 seasons as a Triple-A team.
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“We brought the winning tradition back to Durham,” Bulls manager Jared Sandberg said. “It’s something I’m very proud of. The front office staff here in Durham, they do an incredible job. It’s a winning tradition. The fans come out and support us. So this was big for us as a ballclub but also for the city of Durham.”
In his third season, Sandberg had seen the Bulls miss the playoffs in his first two seasons as Durham’s manager. His predecessor, International League Hall of Famer Charlie Montoyo, led the Bulls to seven division titles and two league championships in eight seasons before becoming the Tampa Bay Rays third-base coach.
So Sandberg talked openly last April about bringing a division title back to Durham and making the playoffs. His team went out and took care of business, improving its record to 79-51 with Thursday’s night to become the first International League team to clinch a playoff berth this season.
Durham will open the International League playoffs at home against the West Division champions. The first two games of the best-of-five series will be played Sept. 6-7 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Getting the clincher Thursday night, though, was anything but easy.
The Bulls lone hit was a Willy Adames single in the fourth inning. In the top of the fourth inning, Bulls starting pitcher Michael Roth took a line drive off his left hand. With the index finger on his hand fractured, Roth had to leave the game.
Still, the teams were scoreless into the seventh inning when Hunter Wood, the third Bulls pitcher, issued a lead-off walk to Matt Tuiasosopo. After Micah Johnson was retired on a fly ball to centerfield, David Freitas hit a possible double-play ball toward shortstop. But Adames mishandled the ball for an error that put two on with one out.
After a flyout to centerfield, Kade Scivicque singled to centerfield giving Gwinnett a 1-0 lead on an unearned run.
Durham still trailed by a run in the eighth inning with the Braves gave away their lead.
Johnny Field and Kean Wong drew walks off Enrique Burgos, who then left the game with an illness.
Philip Pfeiffer took over and got Shane Peterson on a ground ball to first that moved the runners to second and third. Pfeiffer had a two-strike count on Justin O’Conner when he hit the Bulls catcher with a pitch to load the bases.
Pfeiffer then walked Mallex Smith to bring in the tying run.
After Adames struck out, Pfeiffer walked Jake Bauers and Patrick Leonard to bring in two more runs for a 3-1 Durham lead.
In the Braves ninth, Bulls relief pitcher Diego Castillo issued a lead-off walk and surrendered a two-out run when Scivicque doubled to cut Durham’s lead to 3-2.
But Castillo struck out Ronald Acuna to end the game and seal the division title for the Bulls.
“Kind of a crazy game to clinch it but we worked some at bats and had a solid pitching performance,” Sandberg said. “Roth came out early after getting hit with the line drive but the bullpen, which has been outstanding all season long, picked us up.”