The Tampa Bay Rays are double-digit games back in the American League East standings, so the organization decided to focus its Triple A Durham Bulls prospects on gaining postseason experience. Only two players were called up to the September expanded roster.
The remaining Bulls have responded to that pressure by advancing to the next round of the Governors’ Cup with a 4-2 win over Columbus on Saturday before 1,833 fans at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
The third straight victory clinched the best-of-five series after the Bulls dropped the opener in Columbus. Durham responded with wins of 4-3 in 10 innings Thursday and 3-2 Friday before the clincher.
“Everyone was relaxed today,” said starting pitcher Nathan Karnes, who snapped a month-long slump with 12 strikeouts in seven innings. “You couldn’t tell it was a clinching game for us. It was just like another day at the office.”
The Bulls, the International League’s South Division champions, are off Sunday, work out Monday and then open another best-of-five series for the Governors’ Cup finals Tuesday and Wednesday at Pawtucket, the wild-card entry from the North Division that eliminated North champion Syracuse in a three-game sweep. Durham is scheduled to host Games 3, 4 and 5 Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Karnes, 0-4 with a 6.92 ERA in his last five starts, departed the mound with a 2-1 lead on 3-hits and one walk. He struck out seven straight in the first (two), second (three) and third innings (two).
“My command was good overall,” said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound right-hander, a 25-year-old in his fourth pro season. “I was able to work both sides of the plate and make it difficult for hitters.”
Columbus, the West Division champion, tied the game off of reliever Merrill Kelly in the eighth with a Matt Carson double, a sacrifice bunt and tag up on a fly ball to deep center by Luke Carlin.
The Bulls came back in the bottom of the eight with two runs. Third baseman Cole Figueroa singled, stole second and came home on a game-winning RBI double by left fielder Jeremy Moore. First baseman Vince Belnome followed with an insurance-run double, although his poke to left field appeared to bounce off the Tobacco Road restaurant porch rather than railing as the umps ruled.
“I asked (the umpire), ‘Are you sure?’ ” said Durham manager Charlie Montoyo, who has guided the Bulls to the next round for the sixth time in his last seven post-season appearances.
Montoyo has a proven habit of pulling his team through a tight series. His teams have advanced from a 1-1 series tie five times.
Although Kelly gave up a tying run, Montoyo was relieved to get through the game without using relievers Adam Liberatore and Josh Lueke from his taxed bullpen.
“I was hoping (Karnes) would step up,” Montoyo said. “That was an outstanding start. That’s how he has to pitch in the big leagues.”