The Durham Bulls got off to a quick start on their way to a third straight International League Southern Division title, winning the first six games of the season. But they hit a rough patch in June, losing eight in a row.
"That's the one thing about Triple-A. You can't panic because it's such a long year," Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said. "People get hurt, people go up to the big leagues. You have to stay on an even keel. We did."
That attitude paid dividends Saturday when Durham clinched its three-peat with a 5-1 victory over the Norfolk Tides. The division titles just happen to coincide with Montoyo's tenure with the Tampa Bay Rays' top Minor League affiliate.
"The last two have been very special because our big league club is in the hunt for the playoffs," he said. "For us to win while they're winning makes it very special."
The Bulls recovered from that June swoon with a seven-game winning streak that carried into July. They also won seven straight at the end of August and Saturday's clincher gave them victories in 11 of their last 13 games.
Rayner Oliveros (1-0) struck out eight and allowed an unearned run on two hits and a walk over 5 2/3 innings in his first Triple-A start.
"When things go your way, things go your way," Montoyo said. "We needed (Oliveros) to go at least five innings and he pitched [almost] six. He was outstanding today."
Getting solid starting pitching is nothing new for Durham. Wade Davis was 10-8 with a 3.40 ERA before earning a promotion to Tampa Bay and Jeremy Hellickson is 6-1 with a 2.51 in nine starts since moving up from Double-A Montgomery.
"Hellickson's been lights-out, but (Andy) Sonnanstine has also been very good," Montoyo said. "But the one no one talks about is Jason Cromer. He's been as steady as anyone."
Offensively, the Bulls are a veteran bunch that leads the league with 134 homers and 677 runs. They lost a key contributor when outfielder Jon Weber joined Team USA for the upcoming World Cup tournament. But Montoyo got a reinforcement when the Rays acquired infielder Sean Rodriguez from Anaheim as the player to be named in the Scott Kazmir trade.
"(Rodriguez) seems like a good professional, too," Montoyo said. "We're adding a good person and a good player. And that's huge. But at the end of the day, it's going to be up to the pitching."
Durham will face West Division champion Louisville in the opening round of the Governors' Cup playoffs, beginning Wednesday.