A two-run home run by Ryan Howard staked the Gwinnett Braves (14-11) to a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the fourth inning, but the Durham Bulls (18-7) scored four unanswered runs and held on late to claim a 5-4 win on Wednesday night at Coolray Field.
Durham took a 1-0 lead in the top of the third inning as Kean Wong led off with a solo home run off the right field foul pole. Starter Lucas Sims then allowed a single to Granden Goetzman before retiring the next three batters to end the inning.
Gwinnett quickly responded in the bottom of the third. David Freitas smoked a one-out single to left and scored on a triple to right-center by Xavier Avery. Ozzie Albies followed with an RBI ground out scoring Avery to make it 2-1 G-Braves.
The G-Braves surged to a 4-1 lead in the fourth. Mel Rojas Jr. ripped a leadoff double off first baseman Casey Gillaspie's outstretched glove. The next batter, Howard, lifted a 388-foot opposite-field homer into the Gwinnett bullpen in left-center. Howard's blast, his first as a G-Brave, was also his first in the minors since July 3, 2012 with Triple-A Lehigh Valley vs. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
The Bulls cut the lead to 4-2 with a run off Sims in the top of the fifth. Wong singled, moved to second on a single by Mallex Smith and scored on a double by Willy Adames.
Sims exited after 5.0 innings with two runs on seven hits, no walks and seven strikeouts. He threw 96 pitches, 64 for strikes.
Jason Hursh (BS, 2, L, 2-1) entered in the sixth and surrendered three hits, including a double by Gillaspie and an RBI single by Curt Casali, to trim the lead to 4-3. In the seventh, Hursh yielded a two-out single to Michael McKenry and an opposite-field two-run homer to Gillaspie as Durham pulled ahead, 5-4.
Sam Freeman tossed a scoreless eighth inning and Akeel Morris added a scoreless ninth to keep it a one-run game.
Gwinnett made one last charge in the bottom of the ninth against Durham reliever Ryne Stanek. Johan Camargo led off with a single to left and moved to third on a single to left by Rojas, who took second base on a throw to third. The tying and winning runs stood in scoring position with none out, but Stanek (S, 2) recovered, striking out Howard, Matt Tuiasosopo and Rio Ruiz to end the game.
Durham starter Yonny Chirinos (W, 1-0) earned the win in his Triple-A debut, holding the G-Braves to four runs on five hits over 6.1 innings. Justin Marks (H, 2), Andrew Kittredge (H, 3) and Stanek combined on 2.2 scoreless innings in relief.
Offensively for the G-Braves, Rojas went 2-for-4 with a double and Howard went 1-for-4 with a homer and two RBIs.
Gillaspie fell a triple shy of the cycle for the Bulls, finishing 3-for-5 with a double, homer and two RBIs. Wong went 2-for-4 with a homer and an RBI, and Adames went 2-for-5 with two doubles and an RBI.
The G-Braves and Bulls complete the three-game series on Thursday morning at Coolray Field, first pitch is set for 10:35 a.m. Right-hander Aaron Blair (1-2, 8.82) is scheduled to start for Gwinnett, while Durham will counter with right-hander Jacob Faria (3-0, 3.16). Dave Lezotte has the play-by-play call on 97.7 FM The Other Side of the River beginning at 6:35 p.m.
Thursday is the first "Education Day" of the 2017 season as students from schools in Gwinnett County and beyond come to Coolray Field for a special 10:35 a.m. start time. It's also "Triple Play Thursday," when fans can purchase four (4) Infield Box tickets, four (4) hot dogs and four (4) sodas for just $40, courtesy of Coolray Heating & Cooling. For tickets, call 678-277-0340 or visit GwinnettBraves.com/tickets.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.