The baseball season is a methodical grind. The ebbs and flows are a common occurrence. Teams typically have success and failure within each series. With the separation being so small, the difference between the winners and losers often boils down to which squad wins the final game. To consistently take two-of-three games in a series is productive. To drop two-of-three games is a failure.
The 2013 Carolina Mudcats have been more drastic than normal. Once with one of the worst records in all of Minor League Baseball, the Muddies enter Wednesday fighting for a playoff berth with the Salem Red Sox along with the first-half divisional champion Myrtle Beach Pelicans. It has been a slog for Carolina but when a team with the talent that the Mudcats possess has struggles, the law of averages would suggest that success is bound to come at some point.
It finally happened in July. Carolina went 18-9 in the month—an average of two wins every three games—to climb back into the race for the playoffs. In an astonishing reversal of the first half of the season, the Mudcats’ performance in July was actually one of the best in all of the minors.
Things have leveled off in August however. A pivotal series in Salem ended with Carolina dropping three-of-four against the Red Sox—including a tough, 10-9, loss in the series finale where the Mudcats had the tying or leading run on base in seven of the nine innings. Failing to get key hits, along with committing costly errors, is what is most troubling for Carolina manager Dave Wallace.
“Every guy (on the team) has what it takes to be in the big leagues,” Wallace said. “We have made some mental mistakes that will keep you out of the big leagues. We have made some single-A mistakes—and that is fine. That is what we are here to work on. The next few weeks of games are going to be great for these guys. The intensity is elevated. That is when the cream of the crop rises. It is about the mental game and the effort, more than the numbers.”
The forlorn nature of the first half, a painful experience that tested the patience of Wallace is now a distant memory. Wallace feels the mistakes in August that have prevented Carolina from overtaking Myrtle Beach for first place in the Carolina League South Division and slightly behind Salem for the Wild Card are an entirely different breed.
“It does not feel like the first half at all,” Wallace said. We have been playing pretty good baseball and I expect us to finish the year playing good baseball.”
Call-ups have depleted the Mudcats, often at critical times. Heading into a the showdown series with first-place Myrtle Beach on August 14, Carolina was forced to face the Pelicans without All-Stars Cody Anderson and 2012 first-round draft pick Tyler Naquin. When both players were promoted to Double-A Akron, Wallace was in no mood to lament the loss of talent and pointed out that it comes with the territory.
“Salem, Lynchburg, Myrtle Beach—they have all lost their Naquin’s, their (Francisco) Lindor’s, and their Anderson’s too,” Wallace said. “Myrtle Beach lost their middle infield and basically their whole starting staff. Salem has lost their best pitchers and their best shortstop. It not about the guys that are not here; it is about the guys that are here.”
Teaching never stops at the minor league level. Wallace insists that player development takes precedence over all else. But he also believes that playing fundamental and winning baseball during the closing stretch of the campaign—culminating in a playoff berth—would be a terrific learning experience for his squad.
“We have several games coming up with Salem,” Wallace said. “It is going to be us or them. That is going to be fun. I love it. If they beat us straight up, they beat us straight up. We are not going to beat ourselves. This is a great experience. This what it is all about.”
Photo by Nikolaus of Carolina Mudcats