FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON Indulge me, please, for a few lines.
I'm pretty sure I'm writing about a Carolina Mudcats game for the first time since 1997.
But when the first guy I see on the field is Carolina hitting coach Ryan Jackson (pictured, a former Duke All-American I covered with a mildly disappointing Durham Bulls club in 2000 and a Governors' Cup champion in 2003) and he greets me with a big smile, I figure everything's going to be OK. (He's 37 and seems to have lost a few pounds since his playing days. I'm going to have to find out how he did it.) I tell him how far ahead of the game a writer is if he knows just one guy in the clubhouse, and he knows exactly what I'm talking about.
In the press box are a passel of vaguely-to-very familiar faces, primarily that of PA announcer Dave Slade. (I've known Dave for 25 years, from his radio and PA duties with Northern and now Jordan High School, as well as N.C. State.) Dave says he's been doing this with the Mudcats for five years. Tempus fugit, I guess.
Instead of having a 90-minute buffet like so many Triple-A teams do (and that's one reason why some aging press guys can't fit through the flippin' door), the Mudcats have a little menu sheet with five choices: a hamburger and fries, a cheeseburger and fries, a hot dog and - well, you get the potato refrain - an Italian sausage sandwich and chicken fingers. I go with the Italian concept, figuring I'll rotate the three others (a burger without cheese is just wrong!) on a nightly basis. A guy needs a balanced diet, right?
It's "Thirsty Thursday" for the fans, and a beautiful - albeit typical Eastern North Carolina warm and humid - night for America's pastime as the Mudcats take on the last-place West Tenn Diamond Jaxx for the first time this season.
So I meet both teams' broadcasters (and learn out about eight transactions), get the media guides from the Southern League and from the Cincinnati Reds (still wrapped in the plastic. Classy!) and I'm back in the saddle.
Now for some stuff about the actual game ...
It's the opener of a five-game series that's the final homestand for Carolina in the first half, and it's a heck of a pitchers' duel. The 'Cats' Zach Stewart and the Jaxx' Steve Bray each give up a run in six innings.
Each is a homer, as Marshall Hubbard goes yard down the left-field line with two down in the first (his seventh) for the visitors and Sean Henry responds for Carolina by smacking the first pitch of the bottom of the frame (his sixth) off the massive scoreboard in left.
After the Mudcats can't score with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth Hubbard makes them pay, leading off the ninth by blasting a 2-0 offering from Ruben Medina nearly to N.C. Hwy. 39 behind right field.
Ouch. West Tenn wins 2-1. Here's the box score, folks.
"Hubbard played a great game for them, definitely," Mudcats manager David Bell said. "He looked like he had a good approach."
The skipper was happy about the way Stewart, the Cincinnati Reds' third-round pick last year who was in just his fifth Double-A start, handled the outing.
"He was great," Bell said. "He's been good since he's been here. He's going in the right direction, that's for sure."
Added Stewart, "I was happy except for the home run. He hit a fastball, away. I try to pitch to my strengths rather than their weaknesses."
Diamond Jaxx catcher Yamid Haad played for the Durham Bulls in 2002. West Tenn third baseman Matt Mangini, a graduate of Apex High, and catcher Colt Morton both played college ball at N.C. State.
What does it all mean?
Since Jacksonville won 2-0 at Huntsville, it leaves the Mudcats 2 ½ games behind the Stars with nine games left in the half.
Three stars of the game
1. Hubbard, with his two home runs.
2. Bray, for his solid start for West Tenn.
3. Stewart, likewise for the Mudcats.
Play of the game
Hubbard's homer in the ninth. Duh.
West Tenn leads 1-0.
Carolina: Lost 1.
West Tenn: Won 1.
Carolina: Add RHP Jerry Gil (3-7, 7.74) from Sarasota. Placed C Korey Feiner (.000, 0 HR, 0 RBI) on DL retroactive to Wednesday (left calf strain).
West Tenn: Traded with San Diego for C Colt Morton (.222, 1,5), who was at Lake Elsinore. Added RHP Steve Shell (1-0, 7.90) from Tacoma. Signed IF/OF David Espinosa (.349, 1, 14), who was with Grand Prairie of the American Association, on Wednesday. Sent IF Ogui Diaz (.185, 0, 3) to Clinton on Wednesday. Sent C Jose Yepez (.100, 0, 0) to High Desert. Sent RHP Matt Renfree (0-0, 3.52) to Clinton.
West Tenn at Mudcats, Friday, 7:15 p.m.
Luis Muñoz (left, 1-2, 4.76) vs. Travis Wood (left, 5-3, 1.22)