Marilyn Payne

Bulls home opener is appropriate intro to 2017 team

Posted April 10
Updated April 11

The 2017 Durham Bulls roster is missing some of the names that became fan favorites in the past season or two, but the home opener proved that this new, young Durham Bulls team has new stars plus a few returners with renewed promise to watch.

Gone are Richie Schaffer, Mikie Mahtook and 2015 MVP Taylor Motter, who were DBAP bats to watch over a couple of seasons when they weren't spending time in the show wit the Rays. Those guys aren't even in the organization anymore. Blake Snell's threatening presence is an as-expected fixture for the Rays now, and veteran JP Arencibia announced his retirement after last season. Austin Pruitt and Daniel Robertson both made the Tampa opening roster after being the teams respective best pitcher (and MVP) and best hitter.

But if a 7-4 victory against the Charlotte Knights (4-1) wasn't convincing enough, perhaps the three homeruns and ability to work out of a late-inning jam show just how different this season can be than last year's 64-80 season was.

Rays top prospect Willy Adames and Jake Bauer, who earned the nickname "Rake," Bauer for his hitting power at spring training, headline the lineup. Neither lit up the DBAP on opening night, though, so there are certainly more than just two names to know.

Shane Peterson sent the first pitch he faced out of the park in the second inning, sending Pat Leonard home too. Peterson is brand new to the organization this season, but he's proven his value followed him from the Brewers organization when he came. An arm injury limited the left-handed hitter to just 15 games in 2016, but he played 93 games for Milwaukee, batting .259 before that. His second homer of the season as part of a 2-for-4 night with two RBI earned him player of the game honors in his DBAP debut.

"He's got a track record that he can hit and he's done that since he got here," manager Jared Sandberg said.

The third-year manaeger believes much of the difference in the hitting power throughout the lineup early on in the season comes from in-game adjustments. Sandberg sees better attention to detail and more in-at-bat adjustments from the hitters already in this early season.

"You're talking about some top prospects," he said. "The younger kids, they're 21-, 22-years-old. They're patient, both offensively and defensively. For them to come and have success early at the Triple-A level, there's going to be some bumps and we understand that but, for them to get off to the start they're off to, I'm proud of the young guys and the team as well."

The Bulls scored a total of 36 runs through their first five games this season, it's an improvement from last year's 28 runs through five games. Leonard got the first hit of the night, then scored Jake Bauer for the team's third run of the game. His 2-for-3 mark was the best hitting percentage of the night in his return to Durham.

Leonard started the 2016 season with the team, but was sent back down to Double-A Montgomery after 47 games with the Bulls. Now, he's in a better defensive spot at third base and is comfortable with Triple-A ball.

"I'm way more comfortable at third," he said. "(In) double-A I kind of got my bearings back, coming back here, I feel like I've got that month or two under my belt from last year. The pitching is a lot more guys who know how to pitch, not just guys who are up there throwing and have really good stuff.

"You've got to be more patient because these pitchers are really good."

Durham's staff is an example of that too.

There's Monday's starter Chase Whitley, who threw for the New York Yankees in 2014 and 2015 before ending that season with Tommy John surgery. He threw in five games for the Rays at the end of last season after starting the year on the disabled list. Whitley was a late-in-spring-training send down with inning limitations this season who threw on a pitch count Monday. But, what he threw, he threw well.

In three complete innings, 22 of his 37 pitches were strikes, including striking out his first two batters of the game (as part of three total).

Whitley, Justin Marks, Andrew Kittredge, Adam Kolarek, and Ryan Garton combined to hold the top offense in the International League, which averaged 15 hits per game, to just four hits on the night in its first loss.

Garton is another familiar name. The closer threw in 22 Bulls games last year and 37 Rays games, too.

Jake Hager, who scored Peterson after he singled to start the sixth inning; Johnny Field; Dayron Varona, who bounced a two-run bomb off the overhang of Tobacco Road in the fourth; and Casey Gillaspie, whose solo shot gave the Bulls their final run of the night, are all Bulls returners who are proving their ability to contribute early this season.

"We've got a lot of guys who are feeling good at the plate that are confident in themselves and we're putting some good at bats together," Leonard said. "It's a good start to the season so far."

"Guys are always going up and down the shuttle of triple-A and the major leagues, but this was a perfect example of how our team's going to be," Peterson said. "We're going to hit well, we're going to hit well. As generic as that sounds, it's true.

"This is by far the best team I've played on in triple-A, being in my fifth year. The fact that so many guys are young, you don't see that very often."

Sure, it's unusual. Often, the successful teams at this level are veteran rosters with "salty," major-league experienced guys, Peterson says.

"But I think it's going to continue to be this way," he said. "Because we're so young, I think guys are going to be staying here a little bit longer and fans are going to have a chance to watch some good baseball.

"I know we can play that."

If the opening night was any indicator, indeed (in more ways than one) the Bulls are back.

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