America’s Most Famous Minor League Team Is in the Heat of a Playoff Race

The Durham Bulls, America’s most famous minor league baseball team, is only a game back of a Wild Card spot. Will they be able to catch fire and make the playoffs once again?

Have you ever seen the movie “Bull Durham?” It is a movie about the Durham Bulls, a minor league baseball team based in Durham, North Carolina. As a result of this movie (and their successful play year-after-year), the Bulls have claimed the title as America’s most famous minor league baseball team.

The Durham Bulls started out as a Class D ball club way back in 1902, and have since worked their way all the way up to Triple-A. After being the longtime Triple-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, the Bulls switched to the affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, and have since become one of the most successful minor league teams in the 21st century, winning the International League South Division title fourteen times (four when affiliated with the Braves), the International League Title six times, and the Triple-A National Championship Game twice (2009, 2017).

This year, however, the Bulls’ postseason hopes look to be challenged, as they are not currently in a playoff spot. While the Norfolk Tides, the Baltimore Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate, were eliminated from postseason contention a long time ago, there is a race for first place (and the wild-card spot for that matter) between the Gwinnett Stripers (Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliate), Charlotte Knights (White Sox Triple-A Affiliate), and the Durham Bulls. Currently, the Stripers sit at the top of the IL South, as they are 2.5 games ahead of the Knights, and 3.5 games ahead of the Bulls.

There are 13 more games in the Bulls’ season, however, and they are only a game out of a wild-card spot (Charlotte has the wild-card spot for now). Unlike the MLB, Triple-A only has one wild-card spot, and if the playoffs were to begin today, the Bulls would be out.

That is why the Bulls’ current six-game homestead, particularly the series they are playing right now against the Charlotte Knights, is the most important set of games in the entire season. If the Bulls can win the next three games against the Knights, they would be two games ahead of them for the International League Wild Card spot. If the Bulls play well against the Knights, then their next series against Gwinnett could be for first place in the IL South.

Last night, the Bulls dropped a heartbreaker to Charlotte, a 13-11 slugfest which saw rehabbing major leaguer Yoan Moncada (Knights) and major league veteran Emilio Bonifacio (Bulls) hit home runs, contributing to the game total of five. It looked like the Knights would run away with this one, as they were up by ten runs at one point.

But then, the Bulls started to claw back, starting with one of prospect Kevin Padlo’s three RBI’s on the night, and ending with right fielder Nathan Lukes’ RBI single. Lukes, the Cleveland Indians’ seventh-round draft pick back in 2015, recorded his 30th RBI in the process. After a strong ninth inning from reliever Peter Fairbanks, the Bulls looked to build upon their five-run eighth inning.

Knights closer José Ruiz had different ideas, as he struck out two Bulls and retired another to record his fifth save of the season, lowering his ERA to an impressive 1.04 ERA in the process.

The Bulls can put last night’s game behind them, as they have a chance to share the Wild Card spot with the Knights if they can get a win tonight. The Bulls will send right-hander Sam McWilliams to the mound tonight, while the Knights counter with former Miami Marlins starting pitcher Justin Nicolino.

And if all goes well tonight, I will be seeing the Bulls play on Wednesday night with a chance to take sole possession of the Wild Card spot.

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