by Mike Potter
FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON Talk about a must-win situation.
The Carolina Mudcats are facing one in their final regular-season home game, which will be their final home game of the season if they don’t work a miracle.
The Mudcats are in third place in the Carolina League’s Southern Division, five games behind the first-place Salem Red Sox who visit tonight for the finale of their three-game series. Both teams have eight games left in the season.
Salem has won the first two, but more importantly eight of its last 10 games while the Mudcats are 3-7 over the same span. So if Carolina wants to go from the worst team in baseball in the first half to a spot in the Mills Cup Playoffs, the Mudcats have got to get cracking. Now.
Shawn Morimando (8-12, 3.41) will take on the Red Sox’ Mike Augliera (8-6, 4.40) in a battle of lefties.
Tonight Salem puts what is likely the penultimate nail in the coffin, winning 6-4 in 12 innings.
Carolina takes a 1-0 lead in the second, as Erik Gonzalez hits a one-out triple to the right-field corner and comes home on Jerrud Sabourin’s fly ball to left.
Salem ties it when David Chester rips the first pitch of the third off the scoreboard in left.
The Mudcats take the lead again as Logan Vick blasts the first pitch of the bottom of the frame off the scoreboard in right.
But Salem puts up the crooked number in the seventh. Stefan Welch reaches on an error to Paddy Matera at third, followed by a single to Blake Swihart. Mookie Betts then drew a walk to chase Morimando and bring on Benny Suarez. David Chester draws a bases-loaded walk, followed by a sacrifice fly to right from Nick Natoli and Matty Johnson’s single to left to make it 4-2.
Sabourin leads off the seventh with a double to left and advances on an Alex Lavisky grounder that chases Augliera and brings on Nefi Ogando. After Vick walks Bryson Myles’ fly to center scores Sabourin.
Carolina then ties it in the eighth. Matera draws a leadoff walk and is replaced by Todd Hankins. Hankins advances to second on a Tony Wolters grounder to right, third on Gonzalez’ double to left and scores on Sabourin’s grounder to short.
Salem wins it with a two-out rally. Keury De La Cruz leads off with a single to left, advances on a balk and scores on Stefan Welch’s single to right. Welch wakes third on a wild pitch, and then scores as Swihart reaches on an error to Sabourin at first.
After the game the club gives out its team awards. Infielder Joey Wendle shares the team’s Willie Duke Award for most valuable player with promoted infielder Francisco Lindor, while catcher Wolters shares the Ed Hales Award for spirit and community spirit with departed pitcher Cody Anderson.
Wendle and Wolters, along with former teammate Tyler Naquin, will play for the Surprise Sagueros in the Arizona Fall League.
They said it …
Mudcats manager David Wallace: “This was another tough one. But the guys never gave up. We’re leading the league in hitting, but you have to have good pitching and defense to win consistently. We really haven’t been the same since Naquin and Anderson got called up. That’s what’s supposed to happen and great for them. But they were really good leaders in the clubhouse.”
Wendle: “This is a nice honor. It’s been a fun season and I’ve had a lot of fun here in Zebulon. It’s been a really good experience. The second half was definitely encouraging. We didn’t give up on each other and played some real good baseball.”
Wolters: “My parents always taught me that people are important, and that’s why we visit hospitals and help with the Miracle League. You can touch people’s lives by doing things like that. … We gave it a good try this year. We don’t like losing. But whether or not we make the playoffs we want to end the season with a bang.”
What does it all mean?
That the Mudcats’ chances to make the playoffs are about one in 15,000.
Stars of the game
1. De La Cruz.
Play of the game
Welch’s game-winning hit.
Mudcats: Lost 3.
Salem: Won 5.
Salem leads 12-8.
Mudcats (Joseph Colon 4-3, 2.99 and Ryan Merritt 0-0, 1.80) at Lynchburg (Jose Lugo 0-1, 4.50 and TBA), 2, 6:05 p.m.