by Mike Potter
FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON It's the finale of the five-game set with the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx, and the Carolina Mudcats need every win they can get if they're going to catch the Huntsville Stars to win the first-half championship.
It's a very cloudy day for the noon start, but the road from Brier Creek to Zebulon is clear. I'm going to be able to complete my fifth round-trip on one tank of gas, and I haven't yet found a CD that cycles to Track 1 before I get to the parking lot.
I open up my E-Mail at the yard and notice that two players who will be dressed today have received player-of-the-week honors from the Southern League.
No transactions today.
Pick up my Italian sausage at the third-base concession stand and it's time to play ball.
They'd better hurry, too, because the clouds are getting darker. But the result is going to be pretty straightforward. Carolina wins 2-0 on a first-inning homer from Yonder Alonso (pictured) in a game called after 4 ½ innings plus two pitches. The Diamond Jaxx, who are in last place and heading home to a day off, don't utter a peep about waiting to see when the rain is going to stop.
Everything that matters much in the short box score happens in the first inning, and it's not complicated.
Sean Henry leads off the Mudcats' first by reaching on an error to West Tenn third baseman Leury Bonilla, and then steals second.
Then with one out, Yonder Alonso rockets a 1-1 fastball out yonder off the huge scoreboard in left, and for him that makes it a very good day. Alonso, who played his college ball in the ACC at Miami and is considered the top prospect in the Cincinnati Reds' organization, has his first tater in 53 at-bats as a Mudcat.
The word "yonder" doesn't mean much to los Cubanos de Miami, but he's quite aware now of what it means in Eastern North Carolina parlance.
"Keep using that," Alonso says. "I was trying to stay short because (pitcher Justin Sousa) was throwing pretty hard.
"It was great to put that first one out. It feels good. We got a win. And things are coming along better for me over the last 2-3 days."
Now it's all up to Tom Cochran, who began the season pitching up in Amish Country at Lancaster (Pa.) of the Atlantic League.
The first rains come in the third inning, two batters after N.C. State and Apex High alum Mark Mangini is out and David Espinosa gets a single when Espinosa's grounder hits Mangini between the basepaths. After a 55-minute rain delay, it takes Cochran one pitch to fan Brent Johnson.
"(The decision to return) was kind of between me and the coaches," said Cochran, who got his first decision in his second start for Carolina after spending four-plus seasons in independent ball. "I felt good when I went back out. I was pretty much locating my fastball and changeup."
The Mudcats don't get another baserunner after the first, but Cochran gets the final six outs with a 3-6-3 double play in the fourth and no more runners.
"Everything worked out pretty well after the first rain delay," Mudcats manager David Bell said. "It was pretty close as to whether Cochran was going back out or not.
"Now we've got to go play like we're in a post-season series. We'll try to win every game. Everything gets a little bit magnified in this (playoff run) situation - every pitch, every inning, every game - and the guys are handling it really well."
What does it all mean?
The Mudcats' deficit in the Southern League's North Division is just a game and a half. Carolina has five games left in the half while Huntsville has six.
Stars of the game
1. Alonso, for his homer.
2. Cochran, for the victory.
3. Plate ump Matt Schaufert, for having the good sense to send everybody home.
Play of the game
Carolina leads 3-2
Carolina: Won 2
West Tenn: Lost 2
West Tenn: none
Carolina at Tennessee, Wednesday, 7:15 p.m.
Tom Cochran (left, 0-0, 2.53) vs. Justin Sousa (right, 4-5, 3.48)
Montgomery at West Tenn, 8:05 p.m.
Chris Mason (right, 2-3, 7.16) vs. Steve Bray (right, 1-3, 3.32)