FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON It's my first night back covering the Carolina Mudcats live after a seven-day hiatus, and this series against the Jacksonville Suns - most of whom were playing for the home team last season before Carolina switched affiliations from Florida to Cincinnati - should be pretty interesting.
The Mudcats took a very tough blow on Sunday, when their road loss to the Tennessee Smokies left them one game behind the Huntsville Stars for the first-half title in the Southern League's North Division. Then they opened this six-game series by getting rocked 10-2 on Monday. How long they'll be hanging their heads will determine whether or not they win enough games in the second half to make the playoffs.
So I get my pregame Italian sausage and we're ready to - hey, I know somebody in the Suns' clubhouse! It's Theron Todd (card courtesy mattspenandpaperheroes.com) the former Mudcats hitting coach who now has the same role with Jacksonville. Todd was with the Durham Bulls in the late 80s, a very solid A-ball outfielder who never did make it to Triple-A but has now been coaching and managing for over 15 years.
(Jacksonville also has a North Carolinian on the club, as catcher Chris Hatcher played at UNC Wilmington and Kinston High before that. Hatcher did not play on Tuesday.)
Todd played on perhaps the best Durham club of the Carolina League Atlanta Braves era, the 1989 team managed by Grady Little that won both halves in the Southern Division but couldn't get past the Prince William Cannons in the title series. They didn't get rings, but the club did give the players some classy pewter mugs commemorating their Southern Division title.
It was in a late August game at Historic Durham Athletic Park where I saw Todd involved in probably the craziest play I have ever seen. The Bulls led by one run with the bases loaded and two out in the top of the eighth when the Kinston Indians' Ken Whitfield came to the plate.
What I know for sure is this. Whitfield hit a long fly ball to left, and after crashing hard into the wall standing up and coming away with the ball Todd took congratulations from center fielder Al Martin as the two trotted in from the outfield. Meanwhile, Durham shortstop Rich Maloney was gesturing wildly toward Todd, as the two-man umpiring crew had somehow determined there was no catch and a live ball.
By the time it was over Whitfield had an inside-the-park grand slam, and Little's head was about to explode. The skipper was ejected before he got to second base, where he threw his cap into the outfield in one direction and the second-base bag in the other. He then walked back to the dugout and dumped both a bag of balls and a bag of bats onto the field, then "stole" first base and hid it somewhere in the tunnel under the stands on the first-base line.
Unfortunately, there were no videos or even still photos taken of Little's explosion.
It took three policemen to guard the umpires' room from livid fans after the game, and about an hour after the incident (I was working for the p.m. Durham Sun at the time) umpire Frank Barket emerged to answer my one question: "What did you see on the play?"
He had determined that the ball had ricocheted off the wall and into the glove of the sprinting Todd.
But enough old stories for now (although I do have another one about Todd I'll save for another day) ...
Carolina wastes no time getting on the scoreboard - literally - as Sean Henry smacks former Mudcat Willie Glen's first pitch of the game off the middle of the massive scoreboard in left.
And they add two more in the third. Jose Castro leads off with a single down the first-base line and advances on Chris Heisey's single to left. Castro scores when Todd Frazier is out 6-4-3 with Heisey safe at second, and after a wild pitch Zack Cozart's single makes it 3-0.
Chris Denove adds another first-pitch homer to left to lead off the fourth and it's 4-0 Carolina.
After the stretch, the Mudcats rudely greet reliever Jay Voss. Frazier singles to left and Cozart walks. Logan Parker hits a two-run double to left, and later scores on a Denove grounder. That makes it 7-0 and that's the final score.
Southpaw Travis Wood (8-3) wins his club record-tying eighth straight decision, starts a shutout for the fourth time in his last five outings, and makes his 10th straight start that ends in a Mudcats victory.
Here's what they said:
Mudcats skipper David Bell: "That was a good one. We've had some close games lately, so that one was nice. Woody had his good stuff and we got some good hits. Henry has done that (lead off with a homer) several times now. He's playing great offensively and defensively."
Wood: "Everything was working well for me. We're hitting and the defense was playing great behind me."
Henry: "That's the third time I've done that now. Most pitchers throw first-pitch fastballs, and that's what I sit on."
What does it all mean?
The Mudcats are a game out of first place.
Stars of the game
1. Wood, for another solid win.
2. Henry, with his homer, a single and a stolen base.
3. Denove, with a homer, a single and a walk with two RBI.
Play of the game
Henry's first-pitch homer.
Mudcats lead 7-5.
Carolina: Won 1.
Jacksonville: Lost 1.
Carolina: Received LHP Tom Cochran from the Billings roster. Sent LHP Jeremy Horst to Sarasota. Placed LHP Alexander Smit (back spasms) on the disabled list, retroactive to Monday.
Jacksonville at Mudcats, Wednesday, 7:15 p.m.
Graham Taylor (left, 4-5, 3.34) vs. Zach Stewart (right, 3-0, 1.13)