The champagne bottles sat ready and plastic covered the Durham Bulls lockers in anticipation of a celebration Wednesday night
Gwinnett threw a wrench in those plans, though, with a stirring rally to stay alive in the International League South Division race.
Needing one win to claim the division crown, Durham squandered leads in the eighth and ninth innings to suffer a 6-5 setback to the second-place Braves before a crowd of 5,669 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Following a solid outing from Tampa Bay Rays rehabbing righthander Matt Andriese, Durham (78-51) took a 4-1 lead in the third inning and maintained it into the eighth inning. But the Braves (65-63) scored three runs on four hits in the eighth against Bulls relievers Adam Kolarek and Chaz Roe.
Fired up to win the division and earn a playoff berth for the first time since 2014, the Bulls showed grit in their eighth. With the score tied at 4, Jake Bauers lined a lead-off double and celebrated as he reached second base. He scored one out later on a Shane Peterson’s sacrifice fly to left field giving the Bulls a 5-4 lead.
“We continue to fight and battle,” Bulls manager Jared Sandberg said. “I think tonight with the excitement, the anxiousness of winning the game and being in a game like that and competing it’s good experience going forward.”
Roe returned to the mound for the ninth but was unable to close out the win.
Kade Scivicque lined a lead-off single and pinch-runner Sean Kazmar took second on a Roe wild pitch. After a groundout, Ronald Acuna singled to put runners at first and third. Acuna stole second putting the lead run in scoring position with one out.
Xavier Avery’s single brought in the tying run and left runners at first and third with one out. With Avery stealing on the pitch, Rio Ruiz hit a ground ball to the left of the mound. Roe fielded it and, unable to throw to second to get Avery, retired the batter with a throw to first. But Acuna scored giving the Braves a 6-5 lead.
The Bulls put their first two runners on in the ninth when Johnny Field doubled and Jake Hager was hit by a pitch. After a groundout left runners at first and third, Willy Adames was called out on strikes and Jake Bauers hit a fly ball that was caught at the left-field wall to end the game.
So Durham’s magic number to clinch the division crown remains at 2 as the Bulls will carry a 12.5-game lead into Thursday’s series finale with Gwinnett at 7:05 p.m.