DURHAM — Before Wednesday night, the Durham Bulls had scored more than two runs in a game just once in six September contests, but they still won four of six, including three of four in the International League Playoffs.
Wednesday, the Bulls once again scored just two runs, but thanks to outstanding performances by starter J.D. Martin and the bullpen, they beat the Pawtucket Red Sox, 2-1, to even the best-of-5 Governors’ Cup Finals series at one game apiece.
“Should I say (it was) another nail biter?” Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said. “I’ve got to come up with something new. What a game.”
Martin has had a season to remember thus far for the Bulls. The 30-year-old won 16 games during the regular season – more than any other International League pitcher – on his was to the IL Pitcher of the Year award. He also won his first start of the playoffs against the Indianapolis Indians.
On Wednesday night, Martin gave up one run on four hits over six innings. Though he didn’t earn the win, Montoyo said consistency is what he’s come to expect from Martin.
“You’re always waiting for him to struggle,” Montoyo said. “It’s amazing, he was awesome again. He had no room for error at all. … And he did his job.”
Martin said despite a lack of run support, he felt comfortable on the mound.
“It is what it is,” Martin said. “If they don’t hit, we just have to pitch. You look at the guy they had tonight, a knuckleball pitcher. That’s hard to hit. ... I don’t know how the hitters approached it, but I was looking at it like, ‘I hope he’s not on tonight.’ And he was.”
That knuckleballer was Steven Wright, who had Durham scuffling at the plate. But when Martin came out of the game in the sixth inning, the Bulls found a way to help him avoid the loss.
In the bottom of the sixth, Jason Bourgeois singled to centerfield and Vince Belnome followed it up with a walk. Brandon Guyer came up with runners on first and second and, after a failed bunt attempt, grounded into a double play.
Just two pitches later, Wright’s knuckleball got away from from Pawtucket catcher Dan Butler, allowing Bourgeois to advance home to tie the game up at 1-all.
The Bulls followed that run up in a more conventional fashion in the seventh as Craig Albernaz scored on Kevin Kiermaier’s double before Kiermaier was thrown out trying to advance to third.
Following two shutout innings with no hits and four strikeouts from reliever C.J. Riefenhauser, who earned the win, Kirby Yates came in to close. Yates walked the first batter in the ninth, but shut the door with two strikeouts to earn his third save of the playoffs.
“Riefenhauser was huge tonight, that was his best outing of the year,” Montoyo said. “It was funny because we sent him for that inning and he was so good we had to send him back. And of course it’s never easy at the end. We have to walk the leadoff guy.”
The Bulls have Thursday off before heading to Pawtucket for the remainder of the series, beginning with Game 3 Friday at 7:05 p.m. Durham has never come back from a 0-1 deficit in the Governors’ Cup Finals, but Montoyo said there is room for optimism.
“That’s going to be a great bus ride,” he said. “A lot better than it could have been.”
Smith: 919-829-4841; @RCorySmith