by Mike Potter
DBAP/DURHAM It's Night 2 of my odd journey of covering the Carolina Mudcats from Durham Bulls Athletic Park, where I know I've covered more baseball games than any three other print media types combined.
To review, I'm already in the house because I'm covering the Bulls' series against the Pawtucket Red Sox for the Providence Journal, a good daily newspaper that's at least hiring "stringers" for its home team's road games for heaven's sake. And then whoa! Suddenly I'm also covering the Bulls' game for Triangle Offense, as something has gone awry elsewhere.
Football coaches talk about "sudden change," and I guess this is one of those situations.
(This could be fun. You didn't actually believe that in 31 years of newspaper work I've never covered more than one game at a time, did you?)
(SPOILER ALERT: It's an ugly night for the Mudcats, who end up getting some help from their friends. And the Bulls' doldrums continue. Bulls box. Mudcats box.) Somehow, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo (pictured) is keeping a smile through it all.
The press box menu is chicken tenders with tater tots and a vinegary pasta salad. Low-carb dieters are out of luck on that one.
Anyway, it's really hot here as it usually is in late June.
Durham is on a six-game losing streak and playing its historical worst nemesis (Pawtucket is 29-18 all-time at DBAP, best of any IL team). First pitch for the Bulls is 10 minutes ahead of the first pitch for the Mudcats, who are in the penultimate game of a crucial series against the Tennessee Smokies to end the first half. The series doesn't mean much to Tennessee, but the Mudcats finally tied the Huntsville Stars for first place in the Southern League's North Division on Friday night.
Huntsville is in a series at their Alabama archrivals and first-half South Division champion Birmingham Barons, who have won nine straight games while the Stars have lost five straight. Tonight's game there starts an hour after the Bulls' game. Still with me?
Durham gets on the board with two out in the second, as Rhyne Hughes triples to left and scores on Ray Olmedo's single to left.
Bulls lead 1-0.
The Mudcats are on the wrong end of a real rarity in their second inning, when Eric Eymann - who has been nursing a hamstring injury - hits a triple-play grounder to third.
Tennessee strikes first in the bottom of the inning, as Doug Deeds leads off with a single to center, takes third on Jonathan Mota's single to center and scores on Darwin Barney's ground out to first.
Tennessee leads 1-0.
Pawtucket ties it in the third, as Jeff Bailey hits a one-out double to left and scores on Jeff Natale's two-out double to left.
But the Bulls add two more in a two-out rally in the third as Justin Ruggiano singles to right, advances on a balk and a wild pitch before Jon Weber rockets a 1-0 offering into the Diamond View seats in right.
Bulls lead 3-1.
Tennessee has a huge fifth inning, sending all nine batters to the plate and getting five runs on five hits, a walk and an error. The biggest play comes with two out with the Smokies up 3-0, as Barney hits a bases-loaded single to center and Chris Heisey commits a throwing error.
The Smokies lead 6-0 and meanwhile Huntsville is up 1-0.
Things aren't looking up for the Bulls, either, as Pawtucket scores three in the fifth. Bailey walks and Freddy Guzman singles to left, and then N.C. State alum Aaron Bates draws a one-out walk. With two out, manager Charlie Montoyo has the hook for Carlos Hernandez, and when Julio DePaula takes the hill things get worse. Carlos Maldonado hits a two-run single to left, followed by Travis Denker's RBI single to left.
Pawtucket leads 4-3.
It's getting worse, as Tennessee scratches out a run on a double play in the sixth. But there is some good news, and it's got nothing to do with an insurance policy. Birmingham has taken a 2-1 lead through five. ½.
Tennessee leads 7-0. And that's the final score, too.
They go quietly and lose 4-3.
Birmingham drubs Huntsville once again, 8-1, so Carolina is still very much alive. The bad news for the Mudcats is that shortstop Zack Cozart was hit on the right hand with a pitch in the seventh inning, so his status for the Sunday game is shaky.
Now here are some quotes:
Durham skipper Charlie Montoyo, whose team is still in the wild card spot after losing seven straight, "Playoffs? What, do you want me to impersonate that guy Jim Mora? I just want to win tomorrow."
PawSox skipper Ron Johnson: "I was really pleased with (starter and winning pitcher) Enrique Gonzalez," PawSox manager Ron Johnson said. "He had had a couple of outings where he had a hard time getting through the fifth inning. The bullpen has been the heart and soul of this team. And it was good to see the way we battled back for the second straight game."
Denker: "That was all right tonight. We have confidence in this team. We have great pitching, and that helps out. The bullpen has been there all year."
What does it all mean?
That the Mudcats' fate is still in their own hands. Carolina's magic number is two. Huntsville's magic number is two. If they either both win or both lose today, the result of the Mudcats' game at Huntsville on July 21 will determine the first-half champion.
That the Bulls remain in the International League's prospective wild-card spot - albeit by a slight half game over Gwinnett - and trail Norfolk by one game in the South Division.
Stars of the night
1. Tennessee starter and winner Jeremy Papelbon, for 5 2/3 shutout innings.
2. Denker, for reaching four times with two hits, two walks and the game-winning RBI.
3. Weber, for his sixth homer of the season.
Play of the night
The triple play Tennessee turned against the Mudcats in the second inning.
Bulls: Lost 7.
Mudcats: Lost 2.
Pawtucket: Won 2.
Tennessee: Won 2.
Pawtucket leads Bulls 4-2.
Mudcats lead Huntsville 8-5.
Mudcats at Tennessee, Sunday, 5 p.m.
Alexander Smit (left, 2-1, 3.08) vs. Casey Lambert (left, 4-5, 3.65)
Pawtucket at Bulls, Sunday, 5:05 p.m.
Kris Johnson (left, 2-6, 6.50) vs. James Houser (left, 3-3, 5.54)