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The Undercards: Did the Rays Cost the Durham Bulls a Title?

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After holding a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five International League Championship series, the Durham Bulls lost the final two games to fall to the Pawtucket Red Sox. To some extent, it was the Tampa Bay Rays’ fault.

Triple-A International League Championship Series Game 5: Pawtucket Red Sox 4, Durham Bulls 1 (Red Sox win series 3-2)

When Nate Karns was called up by the Rays and proceeded to toss 7 electric innings to beat the Toronto Blue Jays, that was one of the most exciting moments in a season that has gotten increasingly sluggish. If Karns was still at Triple-A, however, the Bulls may have been celebrating a championship. With Karns called up, the Bulls were forced to use Mike Montgomery one game earlier than expected on Friday and then send Merrill Kelly to the hill in the deciding Game 5. Kelly had a nice season, but with a title on the line, the Bulls were really going to use a pitcher that had spent most of the second half in the bullpen? Evidently, they did not have a choice after Karns was called up.

Montgomery pitched well enough for the Bulls on Friday, allowing just 1 run on 6 innings, and the Bulls lost because Adam Liberatore blew the save. If Karns was on the mound, he could not have made a difference unless he had tossed a complete-game shutout (although that is not out of the question given how good his stuff was). Even if the Bulls still lost that game, however, at least Montgomery would have been on the hill for Game 5, and had he delivered the same outing, this game could have been a different story.

Merrill Kelly did take the mound and was mediocre, allowing 3 runs on 8 hits in 5 innings of work, striking out 7 while walking 2. After Enny Romero tossed 2 hitless relief innings, allowing just a walk while striking out 2, C.J. Riefenhauser became the second high-leverage lefty reliever to allow a run in as many days to make it a 4-0 game. Josh Lueke‘s perfect ninth with a strikeout was meaningless as the only run the Bulls could muster was a ninth inning home run by Jeremy Moore. The Bulls were held to just 3 hits in the loss, with the other 2 coming from Nick Franklin as part of a 2 for 3 day. Franklin will finish the postseason hitting .424 and is set to join the Rays on Monday, as first reported by Bob Sutton. Marc Topkin adds that he will be joined by Riefenhauser and Alex Colome, with Colome starting for the Rays on Monday.

Would keeping Karns at Triple-A have made a difference? At best, it is difficult to say. Karns very well could have made no difference on Friday, and even a good outing by Montgomery may not have been enough to overcome the strong effort of Pawtucket starter Keith Couch. For Rays fans, the question is not overly important, but for Durham Bulls supporters, it is heartbreaking that the Rays would do anything to jeopardize a Bulls championship. The move to call up Karns made perfect sense from a baseball standpoint–Drew Smyly was being shut down and the Rays wanted to see what Karns could do–but it has to be upsetting to the Bulls that the Rays would ignore the emotion involved and call up Karns with a title on the line in Durham.

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