Looking ahead at IL competition

The Buffalo Bisons head into the holiday weekend in the midst of an 8-game homestand. Following the series with Toledo, Thruway Cup Series rivals lock up in a 4-game set at Coca-Cola Field when Syracuse visits. Buffalo travels to face IL Southern Division opponents, starting June 4 against the Tides prior to battling Durham to wrap the roadtrip. Below are a few notables on each club.

SYRACUSE CHIEFS (May 31 – June 3)
YANKEES TO FACE STRASBURG: Scranton/Wilkes-Barre faced the minors’ top left-handed pitching prospect earlier in the season at PNC Field when they squared off against Louisville’s Aroldis Chapman on April 28th. Saturday night in Syracuse, the Yankees will face the top right-handed pitching prospect and top pitching prospect overall in Steven Strasburg in the opening game of a two-game series at Alliance Bank Stadium.

TWO TIMERS: After their second scheduled off day of the season, the Chiefs will take on the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees for a pair of seven-inning games tonight. Syracuse and SWB were rained out on April 23. It’s the second doubleheader of the season for the Chiefs, but the first pair of seven-inning games. The Chiefs swept a split doubleheader at Rochester on May 19.

THREE FOR ALL: With Carlos Maldonado’s ascent to the big leagues, Jamie Burke started his first game with the Chiefs Tuesday night. At this point, at least three players have started at each fielding position for Syracuse.

EARLY DECISION: As play begins today, the Chiefs lead SWB by a half game and Buffalo by a game for the lead in the North Division. Syracuse plays nine straight games starting this evening against the Yankees and Bisons. After that stretch, the Chiefs step outside the division for 22 straight games against interdivision competition.

NORFOLK TIDES (at Norfolk, V.A., June 4-7)
MAKING THEIR PITCH: Starting pitchers Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta have been outstanding through the first two months of the season. The pair are tied for the organizational lead with five wins, while Arrieta leads O’s minor leaguers with 55 strikeouts and a 1.86 ERA and Tillman is second with 47 strikeouts and a 3.12 ERA. Arrieta’s 1.86 ERA leads the IL, and the 24-year-old also ranks among IL leaders in innings pitched (1st, 63.0) and batting average against (.181).

FIGUERING IT OUT QUICKLY: Tides outfielder Danny Figueroa was promoted to Norfolk from Double-A Bowie Tuesday and wasted no time in getting himself acclimated to International League pitching. In his second at-bat, Figueroa clubbed an opposite field two-run homer, his first hit and RBI at the Triple-A level. The home run was all the offense Norfolk needed in their 2-1 win over Rochester. Danny is the twin brother of Paco Figueroa, who is also on Norfolk’s roster. Making the moment all the better was that the home run came against the Rochester Red Wings – top affiliate of the Twins.

HOMECOMING OF SORTS: The Tides travel to Pawtucket Thursday for the start of a four-game series with the Red Sox, and Norfolk’s coaching staff will be quite familiar with the area. Tides manager Gary Allenson won the 1978 International League MVP while playing for Pawtucket in 1978, while pitching coach Mike Griffin served as the PawSox pitching coach from 2003-2007. In addition to the PawSox connection, Norfolk hitting coach Richie Hebner is originally from Boston and served as the Red Sox hitting coach from 1989-1991.

DURHAM BULLS (Durham, N.C., June 8-11)
NO NO-NO: Jeremy Hellickson made a strong bid this week for Durham’s second no-hitter since the Bulls went to Triple-A in 1998. On Monday Hellickson pitched six perfect innings before a leadoff walk in the seventh. He then surrendered a leadoff single to start the eighth to Aaron Bates. It was the only hit Pawtucket got off Hellickson and Winston Abreu in a 1-0 Bulls win. Current Colorado Rockie-Jason Hammel and Juan Salas combined for the only Bulls Triple-A no-hitter against Columbus on July 16, 2006 at the DBAP.

DAN DOING IT: Dan Johnson has been one of the top hitters in the International League over the first six weeks. He is now tied for the IL lead in homers with 14 after three in the last series against Pawtucket. He is in the top three in the IL in homers, RBI, total bases, slugging and on-base percentage. Johnson tied a Bulls Triple-A record in a suspended game against Pawtucket played Saturday and Sunday. He hit two homers and had eight RBI in an 18-1 win. Only Chris Richard, with a pair of grand slams a year ago, had driven in eight runs at the DBAP in a single game. Durham’s overall Triple-A mark occurred when Scott McClain drove in nine runs in a game at Indianapolis in 1998.

SERIES SUCCESS: Before taking three of four against Pawtucket this week, Durham had not won a series in the month of May. Durham swept Charlotte in a four-game series from April 19-22. Durham is 11-12 in the month of May after a 15-8 April. Despite that, the Bulls have a 5.5 game lead over Norfolk and Gwinnett entering action tonight against Rochester.

CLOSE CALL: Durham has outscored the opposition by an unbelievable 75 runs (261-186) over the first 46 games of the season. The reason the Bulls are only six over .500 is that the team has gone 8-10 in games decided by one or two runs. Before a 1-0 win on Monday, Durham had lost eight straight close games, with the last victory coming on April 23, 5-4 over Gwinnett.

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