FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON The Carolina Mudcats are back for a short five-game homestand, and they have a very tough row to hoe.
Not only are they eight games behind the first-place Chattanooga Lookouts with a "tragic number" of 18 for elimination, but they're taking on the best team in the league in the Birmingham Barons.
Rain has been falling for much of the afternoon, but an hour before game time it's pretty obvious the field is ready to go. And for me that's great news, since I got back home to Brier Creek at, yes, 3:20 a.m. the last time I was out here after the game started over an hour late and the Mudcats lost in 12 innings.
But there'll be none of that tonight - at least not in the rain-delay department. The one bad thing that happens is that the Mudcats are about to take a 9-1 shellacking.
To my knowledge, tonight I am the only media guy in the park besides the Mudcats' radio crew and Birmingham's Curt Bloom, whom I am seeing for the first time since he was the Prince William Cannons' announcer in the Carolina League in 1989.
And I know one more guy in the Barons' clubhouse in hitting coach Andy Tomberlin, who played for the Durham Bulls in the late '80s at the old park.
Time to grab at Italian sausage and see how it's going to go.
Both starting pitchers, Carolina's Luis Montano and Birmingham's Matt Long (pictured), get off to a good start.
And the only run over the first four innings comes with two out in the third as the Barons' Christian Marrero puts an 0-1 offering from Montano over the right-field wall for his ninth homer of the campaign.
The Barons beat up Montano in the sixth. C.J. Retherford and Marrero each single and are erased on fielders' choices - with Retherford out at the plate on David Cook's grounder to first. With two out, Jim Gallagher lifts a 2-2 offering over the right-field wall and it's 4-0.
Things don't get better with Ramon Geronimo on the hill in the sixth, as Retherford hits a two-out double to right and scores on Marrero's double to right.
And in the seventh, Dayan Viciedo leads off with a double to left and scores on a double to left from Gallagher, who scores on former Mudcat Javier Colina's single off the glove of first baseman Logan Parker to make it 7-0.
Birmingham scores two more on four hits in the ninth off Durham native Chris Kelly.
Carolina finally breaks the shutout with one out in the ninth as Stephen Chapman takes Ricky Brooks' 3-2 fastball over the Catfish Corner fence down the right-field line.
Here's what they said ...
Mudcats manager David Bell: "Their starter was really good and they've got some good, strong arms in the pen. That's a good ball club for this league, and not only do they know how to win but they have a lot of guys with a chance to play in the big leagues."
Colina: "This is the best team I've played for in 13 years of pro ball. They hustle, they're smart and everybody works hard. Everybody works together well, and we want to keep working hard so we can win a ring."
Chapman: "It was a fastball, middle in. We were (nine) runs down so there was no sense being tricky. ... That team has everything. They have solid pitching and hitting. We just didn't barrel a lot of balls tonight."
What does it all mean?
That the Mudcats are 8 ½ games out of the lead in the North Division.
Stars of the game
1. Gallagher, for his homer, double and single with five RBI.
2. Long, for his shutout quality start of six innings.
3. Marrero, for his four hits including a homer and a double with two RBI.
Play of the game
Gallagher's homer in the fifth.
Birmingham leads 4-1.
Carolina: Lost 2.
Birmingham: Won 1.
Carolina: RHP Sean Watson promoted to Louisville. LHP Philippe Valiquette activated from disabled list.
Birmingham: RHP Matt Zaleski sent down from Charlotte. RHP Miguel Socolovich sent down to Winston-Salem. C Jared Price placed on inactive list. C Adam Ricks promoted from Winston-Salem.
Birmingham at Carolina, 7:15 p.m.
Charlie Shirek (R, 4-4, 3.18) vs. Zach Ward (R, 0-2, 23.14)