After the Bulls beat Scranton/Wilkes-Barre 8-4 last night, and Charlotte lost to Indianapolis 1-0, Durham now enters today tied for first place in the IL South with a 45-55 record. That’s right. Despite being 10 games under .500, the Bulls are tied for the top spot in their division. To celebrate, we’re going to take a look at some ‘fun’ facts regarding this ridiculous situation:
- The four teams in the IL South division hold the four worst records in the IL. Any team from any other division would be leading the IL South as of this morning.
- The IL South has had a complete turnaround from 2015, when the division became the first division in league history in which every team finished with a winning record. The Bulls and Knights tied for last in the division a season ago, finishing 74-70.
- 26 of Durham’s 44 remaining games come against the IL South. The Bulls are 26-22 against division foes this season, but just 6-11 against Norfolk, which holds the league’s worst record.
- The Bulls are hitting .232 as a team this season, which is 16 points lower than the team’s worst offensive season in its Triple-A history (.248 in 2014).
- Most importantly – NONE OF THIS MATTERS. The winner of the division will go to the Governors’ Cup playoffs regardless. So saddle up Bulls fans, the race to the playoffs has begun.
On July 16, 2016, Justin Marks threw the fourth no-hitter in Durham Bulls Triple-A history, and the first ever thrown by one player in the organization’s 19-year I.L. tenure. The southpaw sat down with Bulls’ broadcaster Patrick Kinas fewer than 24 hours after his historic evening.
Bulls right-hander Jaime Schultz sits near the top of the league in strikeouts, while he’s turning heads with his power fastball. Watch how the 25-year-old preps for a start, both on his off days and the day of.
“It’s just a minor setback for a major comeback.”
At least that’s what Durham Bulls infielder Jake Hager told himself.
Surgery on both patellar tendons in your knee and an entire season of rehab is no minor setback, but Hager is already making a major comeback.
Prior to the 2014 season, Hager looked to be on a fast track to the big leagues. Then he noticed a weird feeling in his knees.
“They started acting up, so I got a cortisone shot,” Hager explained. “That felt fine the first couple months in (Double-A) Montgomery, then it started bothering me again.”
Hager played through the injury, tying his career high in games played at 114. He hit .271 and set a career high with 27 doubles for the Montgomery Biscuits.
He had the surgeries before the 2015 season, putting him out for the entire year.
“It was called a Tenex surgery I did first on both of them, and that didn’t work,” Hager said. “So I ended up getting surgery on my right one, and they shot some stem cells into my left one. They both feel great.”
The former first-round pick spent the 2015 season recovering at the team’s facility in Port Charlotte, Florida. He had some company with a few other Rays minor leaguers like Neil Wagner, Johnny Venters and Grayson Garvin rehabbing in Port Charlotte, developing a rehab comradery and getting back to full strength together.
But mentally, surgery can be taxing on a baseball player. Hager would have given anything to be back on the field with his teammates, as was evidenced when he played through the injury in 2014. He developed a routine in rehab to keep his mind sharp and his sights on getting back on the field.
“Every day I went to Starbucks and I’d read,” he said. “I read positive books, mental books to keep me strong and motivated, and keep me going. I took that into physical therapy and rehab, and just got after it. I knew by the end of the process I was going to be back and healthy, and I came back to spring training stronger than I ever have been.”
Hager read books like Brendon Burchard’s “The Charge,” and Jim Afremow’s “The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive.” He would start his day early at the baseball field, doing as much rehab work as he was allowed to, then head to the coffee shop in the afternoon and read.
“I feel like a better baseball player mentally and physically,” he said.
Physically, he has already picked out some big differences.
“When I was going through that season in Montgomery, it hurt to swing, to load on my legs,” Hager said. “When I’d run, I couldn’t stop. I had to slowly gradually stop, but now I’m more explosive. I’m not thinking about it. I can stop hard, it feels great.”
In the infield, that ability to stop and change directions quickly can be the difference between a hit and an out. And in a minor league system like the Rays have, you have to have those defensive skills to be versatile.
“We have a stacked infield, and it’s awesome,” Hager said. “It’s fun to play together. We all know a little different things, we all pick our brains, we have a great time together.”
Hager got to know fellow shortstop Daniel Robertson when Robertson was rehabbing from a wrist injury last season. He got close with Willy Adames, another top prospect who plays shortstop in the Rays system, when the duo played together in Montgomery at the beginning of this season.
Having those three, plus many more great defensive infielders, they each have had to learn new positions.
“I haven’t played any position other than shortstop my whole career,” Hager said. “This whole spring training I played shortstop, then first day in Montgomery, (manager Brady Williams) calls me in the office and says, ‘Hey, you’re playing third today.’ So that’s when I did what I could every day to get comfortable over there, and comfortable over at second base.”
Getting bumped off of his natural position didn’t discourage Hager, though.
“I’m getting comfortable at each position, and when they need me up there, I’ll know how to play,” he said. “It’s only helping me out.”
And being able to see the success moves like this have had in players like Ben Zobrist, and more recently Taylor Motter, Hager knows this is a good thing.
Coming back from his season of rehab, Hager had a strong first two months with Montgomery, batting .240 with 17 RBIs and 10 doubles for the Biscuits. The Rays made a flurry of moves early in June, calling up a couple of infielders and creating a spot Hager could have potentially filled.
He saw he wasn’t in the Montgomery lineup and had been dealing with a bit of a slump, so he wasn’t sure he was being called up. Then he heard a rumor he had been scratched from the initial lineup, but forgot about it cheering on his teammates during the game. After the game, Williams walked into the locker room and let the whole team know Hager was getting called up to Triple-A.
“I was shocked and it was awesome,” Hager said. “It’s been my dream to make it to the big leagues, and I’m one step closer. I’m a phone call away. I worked this whole spring training, this whole offseason, to get up to here. My goal was to be here.”
That recovery and resurgence after his injury has continued in Durham, where he has a .315 batting average with seven of his first 14 games being multi-hit games. He has certainly nailed the “major comeback.”
Managers enjoy getting to tell players they’re heading to the big leagues, especially when that player is going up for the first time. On July 6, Bulls skipper Jared Sandberg got the chance to send Dylan Floro to Tampa Bay in a special way. The relief pitcher was working the Durham Bulls Kids Camp that morning, and the manager halted camp to bring all the campers together, and surprise Floro with the news.
J.P. Arencibia is back in the Bull City, and you can already tell that it’s making a difference.
Fans will notice the difference when Arencibia is on the base paths, as he talks with nearby opposing players when he is on-base. He’ll talk with fans between innings on his off days when he stands in the first base coach’s box. Sometimes he’ll even chat with opposing batters when he is playing catcher.
The good-natured chatter has given games a more laid-back feel, and helps take down the wall between opposing teams, as well as between the players and the fans. But the other noticeable difference is how having him back has changed the rest of the Bulls team.
“I think having [Arencibia] here has definitely brought a leadership aspect,” Blake Snell said. “He’s a huge leader, a good teammate, holds everyone accountable, and holds himself accountable as well.”
Last season was Arencibia’s first season starting in the minor leagues since 2010. He took the assignment in stride, becoming the leading veteran presence in the Bulls’ clubhouse.
When Snell came to the Bulls during his breakout 2015 season, he was a fish out of water at the minor league’s highest level. Arencibia made sure he got settled in and took him under his wing.
“I didn’t really know anyone here at the Triple-A level,” Snell recalled. “I knew a couple of the guys, but I didn’t know a bunch of people and he helped me get used to the clubhouse and how things go.”
For Arencibia, last season had a lot of positives.
“[Last year] was great, it was my first year in the minor leagues in a long time and the city is phenomenal,” he said. “There are a lot of things to do outside of baseball. I think the weather is great, the atmosphere is good. That’s the biggest thing, is when you come to the field and you’re excited to play.”
During the offseason, Arencibia joined the Philadelphia Phillies organization as he strived to find a major-league role. He was assigned to the Lehigh Valley IronPigs to begin 2016, but was granted his release in May. It wasn’t long before he had rejoined the Rays organization and was back with the Bulls, where he was happy to be.
“It’s great to be back,” he said. “I love the city, I love the organization. I enjoyed my time here. For a minor league city, it’s one of the better ones I ever played in.”
Arencibia set a new tone in the Bulls clubhouse just by walking in.
“He came back and it all just started clicking again,” Snell noticed. “The team is more uppity-up, more happy to be here, not just because of one guy, but he does have a huge impact on the way everyone interacts with each other. Everyone is always happy, and I feel like he has a huge part in that. He can talk to anyone.”
He has a big impact on the field, too. On June 12, at Lehigh Valley, he had a first-inning grand slam for Durham against his former team to help propel the Bulls to a 10-3 win.
And as a catcher, it’s the more subtle things he does on the field that have helped set the tone, too.
“I think he brings the bulldog out of me more,” Snell said. “When I pitch to him, I’m more aggressive. It’s the same with Luke [Maile], too. They say the same things, and they know how to say it. [Arencibia] knows what to say in the moment and it really helps me be that much better on the field.”
Arencibia was the 2015 Goodmon Award winner for Community Service, recognized for his energetic and frequent interactions with fans at the DBAP. He and his wife, Kimberly, have also donated numerous autographed and personal items for auction in his time with Durham.
He has also been a resource for the younger players, using his experience to offer advice on and off the field. He formed a close bond with Snell in particular last season.
“He helped me a lot this year when he wasn’t here,” Snell said. “I was calling him, talking to him about a bunch of things I was thinking about too much, and he really helped me get my mind off of it and remember that I’m playing baseball and this is where I need to be. He’s helped me a lot in my career the little amount of time that I’ve known him.”
Arencibia has assumed his same role as last season, for the most part. He has done more catching this season than he did in 2015, when he played first base and designated hitter more than he had in previous years.
That transition back to catching was natural, he said, because it wasn’t a re-learning process. He just got back into his natural position on the field.
He ended 2015 with the Rays, hitting .310 with six home runs in just 24 games. He clubbed 22 home runs prior to that call-up, the most in the International League last season.
“For starting back in the minor leagues, to get back up to the big leagues and have success, that was huge,” Arencibia said. “And to get knocked down and be back up, I’m better because of it.”
With numbers like that, there is certainly a chance Arencibia plays his way back to the majors again this season. But he’s already had a lasting impact on his teammates.
“He’s been to the big leagues, he’s down here and he’ll probably get back up, he’s good enough to,” Snell said. “But he’s definitely a guy who everyone really enjoys having around.”
The path to success is rarely easy. Regardless of how ‘success’ is defined, it’s more than likely there will be setbacks, bumps in the road, and perhaps even moments of doubt along the way. It’s what an individual does in those moments of doubt that can define a person, and make the difference between becoming ‘successful,’ regardless of how it’s measured.
In the case of Blake Snell, there were definitely moments of doubt. Selected by the Tampa Bay Rays as the 52nd overall pick in 2011, the expectations were always high. Tall, hard-throwing left-handed starters are always at a premium, and as a high draft pick much was expected out of the Washington native.
The young southpaw didn’t disappoint in his early years, putting up good numbers in the Gulf Coast League the year he was drafted, and earning Appalachian League Pitcher of the Year honors in 2012. The 2013 season saw the highly-touted prospect take a step back though, as he went just 4-9 with a 4.27 ERA for Single-A Bowling Green.
“There were points when I stopped caring for a little while,” Snell said. “I thought I lost that drive – I was more just doing it to do it.”
It was around the same time of the 2011 draft that Gabriel Eng-Goetz, born and raised in Durham, kicked off his clothing company, RUNAWAY. The clothing line’s founder and creative director, Eng-Goetz was experiencing trials and tribulations on his path to success like Snell, albeit in an entirely different way.
“There have been several points where I was very close to giving it up, but that was mostly because I was younger and I was frustrated I wasn’t getting straight to the top,” he said. “But now I realize after five years that everything else takes time.”
The 2004 graduate of Jordan High School has seen the last five years as a learning experience, constantly absorbing new information about design, business, and everything else that comes with launching a business.
While Eng-Goetz was learning the ins-and-outs of getting a company off the ground, Snell was aiming to re-focus, and embark on a straight line to the major leagues.
“After that year (2013), when I thought that I lost that drive I just sat there and talked with my family,” Snell said. “And that’s when I dug deep and thought, ‘I’m a lot better than this.’ I had a major opportunity and chance in front of me, and now I’m here.”
“Here” is referring to his status as one of the game’s top prospects, the 12th-best prospect in Minor League Baseball according to Baseball America. The consensus top prospect in the Rays’ system was named both Baseball America’s and USA Today’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2015 after he went 15-4 with a 1.41 ERA across three levels, meeting the high expectations of the 2011 draft.
Coming off a prolific season, the 23-year-old opened the season in Durham, but was promoted to the Rays for a start at the end of April, where he would join his new teammates in New York City to take on the Yankees.
“I only pitched one game – I was with the team for one day, so it almost doesn’t feel like I was up there,” Snell said. “But pitching in New York, on a Saturday with 40-something thousand people watching and it was on national TV – that was fun.”
It was only fitting Snell’s big league debut came just shy of five years after he was drafted, as he took the mound at Yankee Stadium less than a month after Eng-Goetz saw a long-time goal become reality. RUNAWAY opened its storefront on Main St. in Downtown Durham in late-March, giving people a chance to see the brand in-person in a store of its own for the very first time.
It was in that very store that the two finally met in early-June, as Snell picked Eng-Goetz’s brain about his journey from nothing to a storefront on Main St., and Eng-Goetz asked about the journey from high school prospect to big league pitcher. It was also in that store where the two got a glimpse of the Bulls’ DURM Night jerseys, which the team will wear on Thursday, June 9.
In addition to the opening of the RUNAWAY store, Eng-Goetz and his team had another thing up their sleeve that had been in the works since the winter – a collaborative jersey design with the Durham Bulls.
What started as an innocuous tweet from RUNAWAY friend @ProfessorToon – suggesting the Bulls wear a uniform designed by the clothing line – was seen by the team’s social media department, and a plan was put in to place.
“When the Bulls reached out for that first meeting, I wasn’t exactly sure what they wanted to do,” Eng-Goetz said. “My goal was to design something that the Bulls would wear on field, even though I never said that explicitly. But as soon as the Bulls came in and sat down in that meeting, it was crazy to me because we were that much on the same page for the whole project.”
As the Bulls met with Eng-Goetz and RUNAWAY’s Communications and Media Director Justin Laidlaw (another Durham native), the two sides brainstormed how they could take their different and unique businesses and brands, and combine them for an unforgettable event.
“I was looking forward to making a jersey that carries this new flag for Durham, which is this hip/tech area, but also keeping in mind all those old Durham memories,” Eng-Goetz said. “The Bulls are a very old team, and for me it was a nostalgic thing to think about working with the Bulls.”
The end result was a uniform that ties together the Bulls, RUNAWAY and the City of Durham. The most striking characteristic of the uniform are its colors, as royal blue, gold and red are seen throughout to pay homage to Durham’s flag.
Highlighting the uniform is the jersey’s chest, where DURM is emblazoned across the front, beginning with the Bulls’ iconic ‘D’ logo. DURM is a term coined by RUNAWAY as an ode to the city’s hard-nosed history, and just above the letters on the chest are the seven stars of Durham, seen on the city’s flag.
The hat the players will wear is a variation of the Bulls’ existing hat, as the team’s block ‘D’ will be in red and trimmed in gold, while the seven stars of Durham will burst through the letter, instead of the team’s iconic snorting bulls. The uniforms final touch comes from the bottom, as the team will don blue, gold, and red socks as a final tribute to the city.
“As lifelong fans this is a dream opportunity,” Eng-Goetz said. “What better stage to showcase pride for our hometown than under the bright lights of Durham Bulls Athletic Park?”
Fans can buy tickets to DURM Night here. Game-worn jerseys will be auctioned off online, with all proceeds benefiting Durham Bulls Youth Athletic League.
After a whirlwind few months of fall ball, being traded, and trying to get to know his new teammates and coaches, Daniel Robertson finally got a chance to take a step back and process everything that had happened.
Unfortunately, that opportunity to clear his head didn’t come under the best circumstances.
Robertson came to the Tampa Bay Rays organization from the Oakland Athletics in a blockbuster five-player trade that centered around Ben Zobrist in January 2015. But the way that Robertson found out about the trade was unorthodox.
“I had been on vacation and got home a day before the trade,” he said. “I had lost my phone on vacation, so I had my iPad, that was the only thing that was working, and I found out through Twitter. My agent, everybody was trying to get ahold of me, and they had no way to know my phone had been lost.”
Robertson, Boog Powell and John Jaso came over to the Rays for Zobrist and Yunel Escobar, and while he was perhaps the biggest name coming back over to the Rays, Robertson didn’t feel any extra pressure.
“I was honored and humbled to be in that trade with the great Ben Zobrist, who everyone speaks highly of over here,” Robertson said. “I don’t think there was any pressure. Maybe early on it was just a change of scenery and getting to know new people. But now I’m settled in and familiar with everything, familiar with my teammates and what this organization does. I’ve settled in nicely. I can just relate this time last year to now, I’m totally more relaxed and having fun playing the game than I was.”
The 22-year-old infielder has proven himself so far in Triple-A in 2016, his first year at the highest minor league level. Robertson is hitting .267, the best batting average of any Bulls player who hadn’t played in Triple-A before, and has raised his batting average 53 points since May 1st.
He was batting similarly well in May of 2015, his first taste of Double-A, but had endured some cold streaks early on.
Then, in early June 2015, his first season in the Rays’ system was put on ice.
“It was definitely something I did not see happening,” he said. “It was a fluky thing, I fouled a pitch off and felt something go wrong.”
Robertson broke his hamate bone in his wrist, knocking him out for almost two months of play, which can be devastating to a young player who needs every at-bat to learn and develop.
“It wasn’t what I envisioned happening, but it’s all part of baseball,” Robertson said. “It was kind of a blessing in disguise to sit back, relax and take a deep breath, because I was trying to do too many things at once my first year in the organization. It gave me a chance to restart and regroup, and it’s been good ever since.”
With that revitalization, Robertson came back with 10 hits in his first 10 games back in August 2015 with Montgomery. Then he exploded for eight hits in three days.
That fall, he returned to the Arizona Fall League for a second stint in as many seasons, focused on getting in the at-bats he had lost due to injury. But he also picked up some extra reps at second base, a position he hadn’t played with any frequency in years.
“It was cool, I was out there with [Montgomery Manager] Dan DeMent, we were working every day at second base,” Robertson said. “It just kind of made me a little more valuable, a little more versatile. It actually helped me out this year because I’ve been playing a lot of third and second, and now with Motter in the big leagues I’m getting a little more time at short. I like moving around, if something happens and they need a guy somewhere, I’m comfortable playing all three spots.”
Now that he is settled in with the Rays, Robertson has returned to his baseball roots, in a way. Growing up, he played all over the field, but settled into third and shortstop in high school. He played the majority of his games at shortstop between High-A and Double-A, but played almost as much at third and second base in the early part of this season.
“It wasn’t until my High-A year I only played shortstop alongside [current Chicago Cubs shortstop] Addison Russell,” Robertson said, “I mean, I love playing short, and I can see myself playing there. I’ve put a lot of hard work in with the guys over here and when I was with Oakland to try to stay there, but like I said, I’m happy to be on the field, wherever gets me in the lineup.”
Robertson also got to know some of the other players in the Rays’ system when he was invited to big league spring training for the second time. He had played in a few games of major league spring training with Oakland, but didn’t get his first invite until he was with Tampa Bay.
Last season, that invite helped him meet some of the coaches who would be deciding his future, and the players he might end up alongside one day. This season, he got to know some of the guys who are in the majors a little better.
“You never know with a call-up or anything I won’t be a fish out of water, I’ll know some guys and be pretty comfortable,” Robertson said. “[Steven] Souza had us over at his house a couple times, he was very welcoming, [Logan] Forsythe was awesome, and obviously I talked a lot to [Evan] Longoria and stuff like that. They’re all very approachable, and even Brad Miller, in his first year over here, I met him the first day and he knew my whole history like he had known me forever. That’s just cool to see guys like that with big league experience and being able to talk to them like someone you played with for 10 years.”
Aside from learning and re-learning positions, Robertson has focused this season on being more consistent at the plate. He’s always been known for his solid batting average, but Robertson thinks he can do more.
“I’m just trying to simplify everything. I’ve been streaky a little bit,” he noted. “I don’t want to be hot for a week and then totally go MIA. I want to be that consistent player everyday who shows up.”
Now that he is settled in with the organization and at the Triple-A level, Robertson is already laying the foundation so he can quickly settle in and be ready for a big league call-up.
Watch how Durham Bulls’ infielder/outfielder Richie Shaffer prepares for a game, including putting in time in the weight room, the batting cage and more.