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DURHAM, N.C. -- The Richmond Braves were collecting scoring opportunities like found pennies Tuesday night, grabbing them up and shoving them into their collective pockets.
And just when it seemed like all those opportunities would slip away, they gathered them up and cashed them in, using the small-ball tactics that have benefited them so well this season.
After squandering four chances in six innings to break open a scoreless game, Richmond finally broke through in the seventh en route to a 4-2 victory over Durham in the opening game of the Governors' Cup Finals at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Bulls starter J.P. Howell (0-1) had danced in and out of trouble throughout the game, but ran out of wiggle room as Richmond scored three times in the seventh.
Mike Rozema's two-run double into the right-field corner came after Howell walked Iker Franco to load the bases and was the decisive blow. Gregor Blanco followed with a grounder to second that scored Franco and chased Howell, who was charged with three runs on 10 hits and a walk with six strikeouts in 6 2/3 frames.
The Bulls, meanwhile, showed none of the offense that got them to the Finals. Durham hit .349, scored 25 runs and slugged 10 homers in its sweep of Toledo and did have 10 hits Tuesday night. But six came in the final two innings during aborted comeback attempts against closer Joey Devine.
Durham managed only three hits against starter Jeff Bennett (2-0), who struck out six and walked two in six shutout frames. He got into trouble only once, when the Bulls loaded the bases in the fourth. And despite Devine providing some tenuous moments in the final two innings, the Braves are two wins away from a title and a date in The Bricktown Showdown.
While Bennett deserves much of the credit for keeping Durham's high-octane offense in check, what Rozema provided was just as special. He had played at three levels this season, spending the bulk of the season at Double-A Mississippi. This is the second of two brief stints with Richmond and at all his stops, he hasn't faced much left-handed pitching, getting only a combined 69 at-bats against them.
But he stared down the left-handed Howell and stroked the double that gave Richmond the lead. He also hit the Braves' first homer in the postseason to provide insurance.
"He went 2-0 on me and I was just hoping to get the ball in the air or hit it on the right side and beat out the double play," Rozema said. "I just hit the ball in the right place. As for the home run, every once in a while I run into one."
The Braves needed that "one" because Chris Richard collected an RBI single off Devine in the eighth. The Bulls added another in the ninth and had the tying runs on when Devine fanned Justin Ruggiano to end the game and record his fourth save.
"It seems like every night it's someone different for us," Richmond manager Dave Brundage said. "It was good team baseball and out of the nine hole for Rozema to do that, well ... "
The Braves threatened in each of the first three innings, getting the leadoff man on twice. But on each occasion, they ran themselves out of the frame.
Brent Lillibridge was on first with one out in the first when Brandon Jones singled into the left-field corner. Jon Weber flubbed the ball for a split-second but quickly recovered and fired to third, too late to get Lillibridge. Third baseman Evan Longoria got off a quick throw to first baseman Chris Richard, who tagged Jones after he made too wide a turn.
In the second, Richmond had runners on second and third with one out when Franco hit a dribbler between third and the mound. Carlos Mendez, who was on third, broke on contact and was thrown out in a rundown. Blanco also led off the third with a single but was thrown out attempting to steal by Michel Hernandez on a close call at second.
The Braves squandered another opportunity in the sixth after Blanco led off with an infield hit. Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo had said before the game how critical it was going to be to keep Blanco and Lillibridge off the bases -- the pair combined to steal 65 bases and score 182 runs this year at Double- and Triple-A. But Lillibridge followed Blanco's single by grounding into a double play. Jones delivered a single (but was stranded) in the next at-bat.
"I remember looking at the scoreboard in the fifth inning, seeing how many hits we had," Rozema said. "At that point, you have to look across the field and see that it was still 0-0. It didn't matter."
LOSING LEADERSHIP: The Bulls lost shortstop Jorge Velandia over the weekend when he was promoted to Tampa Bay, then were tapped again on Tuesday morning, learning that catcher Raul Casanova was also headed to the big leagues. The two might not have been the most important cogs in the Durham lineup, but their absence will be felt.
"I'm happy that guys get called up," Montoyo said. "But Velandia is probably the best shortstop in the league. Any routine ball that is hit to him is an out. He's a leader in our clubhouse, but he deserves a chance to go to the big leagues. It happens every year at this time. It just means that someone else has a chance to play."
First baseman Brent Butler will slide over to play shortstop, having seen action in eight games there this season, including back-to-back games on Sept. 1-2. He made one error and turned three double plays in 24 total chances. Butler was originally a shortstop when the Cardinals drafted him as a 1996 third-round pick. He's appeared in over 1,000 Minor League games, with 411 of those appearances coming at shortstop. Butler also appeared in 27 games at short for the Rockies from 2001-03.
Brooks Badeaux, who played in Durham from 2002-05, was also called up from Montgomery. The utility man appeared in 14 games at short this season for the Biscuits, committing five errors in 61 total chances, and 129 in an 11-year Minor League career.
"Butler didn't play there all that much this year, but now its time for him to step up," Montoyo said. "And Badeaux will probably play there next."
Hernandez got the start at catcher Tuesday, while Josh Johnson was recalled from Class A Advanced Vero Beach to replace Casanova on the roster. He was with Durham from early May through early August, but spent the final week of the regular season in the Florida State League. He hit .276 with three homers and eight RBIs in 98 at-bats with Durham.
NOTES: Durham was attempting to become only the sixth team to sweep its way to the Governors' Cup. The Bulls were the last team to go 6-0 en route to the title, topping Toledo and Buffalo in 2002. Other teams to sweep were Columbus in 1996 and 1987, Tidewater in 1982 and Newark in 1937. Newark went 8-0, defeating Baltimore and Syracuse in a pair of seven-game series. ... The International League flew the Governors' Cup to Durham for the first two games of the series. It will be on display on the main concourse of DBAP before being transported to Richmond. The original Cup was donated to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1988. The Cup on display this week is the replica that was fashioned to replace it. The Cup was placed on a table in the infield during pregame introduction ceremonies. ... Tampa Bay executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman was in attendance as was senior vice president of baseball operations Gerry Hunsicker and director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics ... Bennett's ERA in his last four starts is 0.77. ... Ruggiano struck out three times and has eight strikeouts in his last 10 at-bats.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.