No team in professional baseball has won more this season than the Durham Bulls.
The St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates have battled for the best record in the major leagues, but it’s the 63-35 Class AAA Bulls who have the best record in pro baseball.
The Bulls headed into the all-star break on an season-high eight-game winning streak. Here are five key reasons as they start the second half Thursday night:
The Bulls are 11.5 games ahead of Norfolk in the International League South division thanks in part to early contributions from current Tampa Bay Rays Wil Myers and Chris Archer.
Myers hasn’t played for the Bulls since June 16, but his 14 home runs and 57 RBIs still stand as team highs.
Archer won three of his first four starts and was 5-3 with a 3.96 ERA before getting the call to Tampa Bay on June 1.
Next man up
Despite losing prospects like Myers and Archer to call-ups, Vince Belnome, Matt Buschmann and Merrill Kelly have more than picked up the slack.
Belnome, a second baseman, has been the best all-around player offensively much of this season and earned a spot in the Triple-A All-Star Game. He has put together a career year with a slash line of .338/.443/.513 with 55 RBIs and 60 walks.
The bad news for Belnome, 25, is he is behind Rays All-Star Ben Zobrist and Kelly Johnson in the pecking order at his position, but that means good news for Durham as he will likely be sticking around pending a trade.
Buschmann and Kelly have combined to offset the loss of Archer. Through eight starts, Buschmann is 5-0 with a 2.36 ERA and has 51 strikeouts. Kelly is 4-0 with a 1.70 ERA in six appearances since being promoted from Class AA Montgomery.
After Josh Lueke recorded a team-leading 12 saves before being called up to the majors for a short stint, All-Star Kirby Yates took over the role and has 10 saves with a 3-1 record and a 1.03 ERA. Yates boasts a 0.89 WHIP and has 70 strikeouts with just 16 walks.
With Lueke returning to the team before the break, his 0.66 ERA in 402/3 innings should make for a tough duo coming out of the bullpen from the seventh inning on.
Starting one-two punch
Starting pitchers Jake Odorizzi and J.D. Martin have combined to win 18 games already.
Odorizzi earned a brief promotion to Tampa Bay, and Martin made the Triple A All-Star Game.
Odorizzi has been more than just the “other player” in the trade that sent Myers to the Rays system. The right-hander has seven wins with a 3.20 ERA and leads the Bulls with 83 strikeouts, despite missing three starts because of a call-up to Tampa Bay.
Martin has a team-high 11 wins and 81 strikeouts. The righty actually got better over his past 10 starts, going 6-2 with a 2.63 ERA.
The Bulls haven’t had a losing month, going 18-8 in April, 18-12 in May, 16-12 in June and 12-3 in July.
Since May 10, Durham has won or tied every series and has yet to be swept in a series all season. The Bulls’ eight-game win streak is their longest, but they’ve also reeled off a five-game streak and three four-game streaks. They will try to extend that trend during a four-game home series against Pawtucket.