by Mike Potter
FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON Checking in again on the Carolina Mudcats, who have had a huge improvement since finishing far and away in last place in the Southern League in the first half.
They’ll come into their second game of the home series with the Jackson Generals — known last season as the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx — on a five-game winning streak and in second place in the SL’s North Division.
So David Bell’s Mudcats, who got a fresh infusion of talent at the break with first-round catcher Yasmani Grandal the centerpiece, are not only fun to watch again but may be ready to make a playoff run.
Pedro Villareal (3-1, 4.50) will go tonight on a fairly mild evening against Generals lefty James Paxton (0-0, 3.86).
The streak ends tonight but not without a fight, as the Mudcats come back from an eight-run deficit to get the tying run to the plate before succumbing 10-7 and dropping two games out of first place.
The Mudcats strike in the first inning, as Denis Phipps leads off with a single and comes all the way around when Henry Rodriguez singles to center where Brandon Haveman boots the ball.
Jackson responds in the third, as Brandon Bantz leads off with a single and scores on Vinnie Catricala’s one-out sacrifice fly to right.
And the Generals pour on four more with a two-out rally in the fourth. Carlos Triunfel and Jake Shaffer hit back-to-back singles, followed by Bantz’ RBI single to center.
Neftali Soto cuts it to 5-2 by leading off the Mudcats’ fourth by launching an 0-1 pitch high over the Catfish Corner notch in right.
But Jackson stretches the lead back to 6-2 in the sixth as Rich Poythress leads off with a double to left and scores on Shaffer’s one-out sac fly to center.
The Generals make it look easy with four runs in the eighth on four hits off James Adkins, but the Mudcats aren’t dead yet.
Carolina gets four straight hits off Moises Hernandez to start the eighth, and then with one out Felix Perez blasts a two-run homer to right to make it 10-7. On comes Stephen Penny, who gives up two straight hits before getting out of the jam.
Paxton gets the win, going five innings and allowing two runs — one earned — on three hits with 11 strikeouts and one walk. Haveman homers, doubles and singles for four RBI to lead the Generals’ offense, while Bantz chips in three singles for two RBI in a 15-hit Jackson attack.
Soto leads the Mudcats — who finish with 12 hits - with the homer and a single for three RBI. Tim Gustafson is solid in long relief, going three innings and allowing a run on three hits while striking out four without a walk.
They said it …
Mudcats manager David Bell: “That was great we came back. Gustafson gave us a chance and we continued to swing the bats well. That’s a good sign. I hope we can take it into tomorrow. That’s why we keep playing, taking extra bases and keep trying to score whether we’re ahead or behind. That’s why I don’t play by all those unwritten rules. Some of them are really stupid. They’re designed to speed the game up, and the way you’re supposed to try to play is to win.”
Perez: “I was ready for the at-bat on the home run. I was able to put a good swing on it. I expected us to make a comeback. We’ve been hitting well lately. Things are better than the first half, and we’re fighting for a chance to make the playoffs.”
Gustafson: “I think the second half has been a positive step for us. All around pitching, defense hitting. We’ve just got to keep executing. With the guys we have on the team and the talent level, as long as we can be consistent we’ll put together a lot more wins.”
What does it all mean?
That the Mudcats are establishing themselves as contenders in the second half, even if they can’t win every night.
Stars of the game
Play of the game
Mudcats lead 5-2.
Mudcats: Lost 1
Jackson: Won 1.
Mudcats (Matt Klinker 5-5, 4.26) vs. Jackson (Erasmo Ramirez 6-6, 4.78), Friday, 7:15 p.m.