Rays Prospects

Durham Bulls Win the Triple-A National Championship

By David Egbert
PORT CHARLOTTE, FL - FEBRUARY 27: A Rays hat and glove sit at the end of the dugout during a Grapefruit League Spring Training Game between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays at Charlotte Sports Park on February 27, 2009 in Port Charlotte, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
PORT CHARLOTTE, FL - FEBRUARY 27: A Rays hat and glove sit at the end of the dugout during a Grapefruit League Spring Training Game between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays at Charlotte Sports Park on February 27, 2009 in Port Charlotte, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images) /
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The Rays Triple-A affiliate Durham Bulls captured their second Triple-A National Championship and first since 2009 when they defeated the Memphis Redbirds 5-3 on Tuesday night.

It would have been great if the Tampa Bay Rays had been playing another American League team in a one game playoff on Tuesday night for a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. Instead, it was the International League champion Durham Bulls playing the Pacific Coast League Memphis Redbirds in a winner take all elimination game for the AAA National Championship. The Bulls won 5-3 in a thriller.

The game was played at a neutral site in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the home of the New York Yankees AAA club, and the team the Bulls had beaten to get to the championship game. Roughly 9,000 fans were on hand including former major leaguers such as Reggie Jackson and Bucky Dent. Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Katt was the TV color announcer.

The Redbirds are a St. Louis Cardinal farm team and, as usual, they were stocked with talent. However, they were facing an equally well stocked Durham Bulls’ club. Seven of the Durham Bulls starting nine players were current or past top thirty Rays’ prospects. Only one, Shane Peterson, was a AAA lifer and even he hit .253 in 79 at-bats for the Rays this season.

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Ryan Yarbrough took the mound for the Bulls in the top of the first inning. Yarbrough had posted a solid record during the regular season and was one of the leaders in strikeouts in the International league. Sadly, he did not have his “A” game on Tuesday evening and departed in the second inning after giving up two runs and having no command of the plate.

Manager Jared Sandberg’s quick hook proved to be a game saver. Yarbrough was followed by a parade of relief pitchers that included Jeff Ames, Chih-Wei Hu, Xavier Cedeno, Brent Honeywell and Diego Castillo. Only Hu gave up a run. Honeywell pitch 2.2 innings of one hit ball and got the win. Castillo got the save.

On offense, Kean Wong was the star of the show for Durham. The younger brother of St. Louis Cardinal second baseman Kolten Wong, and his grand slam home run in the 4th inning put Durham in the lead and was the game winner. He also contributed two other hits.

Prospects Willy Adames, Jake Bauers, Patrick Leonard and Justin Williams also contributed hits with Bauer’s single driving in the Bulls’ first run. Daniel Robertson contributed three walks in four plate appearances. Williams, just up from AA Montgomery for the playoffs, looked particularly smooth at the plate.

Wong, playing second base, was also the star defensively. He made several excellent plays in the field including an over the shoulder NFL receiver type catch of a shallow fly ball in center field. He was also in the middle of a crisp double play that bailed out Hu in the top of the fourth inning.

We shouldn’t close this article without giving a heads up to Durham Bulls manager Jared Sandberg. The nephew of former major league infielder Ryne Sandberg, Jared has worked his way through the Rays system as a major and minor league player, coach and manager.

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Although Sandberg never reached the talent level of his uncle, he did hold down third base for the Devil Rays from 2001-2003. However, not being able to hit for average ended his major league career.

Following his retirement from the game in 2007, the Rays hired him as a hitting coach for their Single-A rookie team where he has advanced through the ranks since. His knowledge to the dugout has grown and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him in the Rays’ dugout in some capacity in the near future.

As I wrote in an earlier piece, this was a special Durham Bulls team. The Bulls were loaded with prospects and made even stronger when it could dip into the Montgomery roster for talent such as starting pitcher Yonny Chirinos and Justin Williams. It will be interesting to see which prospects the Rays feel are ready for the majors in 2018 and which need more seasoning.

Next: Rays Play Small Ball in Win Over Cubs, Snell Excels

In the long run, there appear to be at least fifteen of the 2017 Bulls that have some sort of future in the Major leagues and it is going to be exciting to watch them develop.

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