by Mike Potter
FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON It's the opener of the Carolina Mudcats' final series of the season, a five-game set against the Mississippi Braves that will conclude with an afternoon game on Labor Day.
Frankly it doesn't mean much except for individual statistics. The Mudcats are in last place in the Southern League's North Division - although only a game and a half behind the fourth-place Huntsville Stars, who are playoff-bound after edging out Carolina by a single game to win the first half.
Mississippi will finish with a winning half unless the Mudcats really do some butt-kicking over the next five days, but the Braves are solidly in third place in the South and most of them will be headed back to their hometowns after a long bus ride following Monday's contest.
But both teams have been playing out the string very well, as each comes in with a three-game winning streak.
With the Southern League's wildly-unbalanced schedule, it's Mississippi's only visit to North Carolina this season - only the Tennessee Smokies, Jacksonville Suns and Huntsville visited Zebulon for more than a single five-game series.
That's too bad for one particular reason, because colorful Mississippi manager Phillip Wellman, who played for the Durham Bulls in the late '80s and coached there in the early '90s, is in town just once.
Both rosters are pretty depleted as the Cincinnati Reds try to bolster Louisville and the Atlanta Braves do the same for Gwinnett in an attempt to win the International League's Governors' Cup.
The Mudcats will have a quality pitcher on the mound tonight in southpaw Matt Maloney (pictured), who was sent directly down from Cincinnati apparently for just this one outing to keep him fresh.
Fortunately it's a beautiful night for, well, anything. And the Mudcats end up winning 6-5 with a bottom-of-the-ninth rally.
Let's grab an Italian sausage - I'm going to be missing those things all winter but it's not as if I need them - and play ball.
Mississippi jumps on Maloney for one in the first, when Brandon Hicks blasts a one-out, 1-1 offering off the big scoreboard in left.
The Mudcats rally in the bottom of the frame off Tim Gustafson, as Jose Castro hits a one-out single to left before Sean Henry rockets an 0-1 pitch off the scoreboard.
It's a long time between runs before the Mudcats make it 3-1 in the sixth, when Henry hits a one-out single to right and scored on Zack Cozart's two-out double to right center.
The Braves eke out a tying run in the eighth, as Kody Kirkland reached on an infield hit off Zach Ward, advancing on a fielder's choice, a walk and a hit batsman before scoring on Jason Heyward's one-out sacrifice fly to center.
But the Mudcats come through with two in the eighth, with a pair of errors helping the rally. Henry's single, a two-base throwing error by catcher Jose Camarena and Eric Eymann's sacrifice fly are the highlighs.
Mississippi ties it again in the top of the ninth, as Cody Johnson singles and later scores on a passed ball, and Kirkland singles and scores on Camarena's sac fly.
Then in the bottom the Mudcats get some pre-Labor Day weekend fireworks. Jason Bour leads off with his third hit of the night and advances on Logan Parker's sacrifice bunt, and after Kris Negron walks Castro sends his team home with a single to left.
Here's what they said ...
Mudcats manager David Bell: "The guys are playing well right now, and that's good to see in this situation. Everybody wants to be playing well at the end of the season."
Castro: "I just wanted to put the ball in play and not do too much. After I hit it I said 'Thank you, God!' Nobody wanted to play extra innings."
Henry: "It's not my first time playing games with a team that has been eliminated from a pennant race. We've won four in a row, and that's big at this point. Everybody wants to finish strong."
What does it all mean?
That the Mudcats, playing just for pride, have their best winning streak of the season since June.
Stars of the game
1. Maloney, with one run allowed in a seven-inning quality start.
2. Henry, for his homer and two singles.
3. Castro, for his two hits including the game-winner.
Play of the game
Castro's walk-off single.
Carolina leads 4-2.
Carolina: Won 4.
Mississippi: Lost 1.
Carolina: LHP Joe Krebs promoted to Triple-A Louisville. RHP Josh Beal promoted to Carolina from Sarasota.
Mississippi at Carolina, Friday, 7:15 p.m.
Kyle Cofield (R, 10-5, 3.78) vs. Luis Montano (R, 0-6, 6.11)