Mudcats in First Place and Eyeing Playoff Run

It is remarkable how playing winning baseball becomes addictive. In Zebulon, Carolina Mudcat players, along with fans, are getting hooked.

Entering Wednesday’s action, the Mudcats are in first place in the Carolina League Southern Division and also sport the league’s best second half record with slightly more than a third of the games having been played. Carolina has not made the playoffs since joining the Cleveland Indians organization in 2012.

It was Early Wynn who once said, “The two most important things in life are good friends and a strong bullpen.”  The Mudcats are getting that. Carolina is second overall in the Carolina League in saves with 25 and have gotten fine work from Grant Sides and Elvis Araujo, with both Louis Head and Benny Suarez shining also before earning promotions to Double-A Akron.

The starting pitching also deserves praise, with Ryan Merritt and Shawn Morimando ranking among the top-six starters in the league. Merritt has been particularly amazing, with a league leading nine wins and 2.10 ERA despite allowing a late home run to Courtney Hawkins of the Winston-Salem Dash in a, 5-4, loss on Sunday.

It must be thrilling for the players and fans to see Carolina doing well. Since the Mudcats moved to the Carolina League it has seemed to be the birthright of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans to lead the Southern Division. Attrition will ultimately take its toll in everyone in baseball, and the Pelicans will have a hard time replacing the talent of players, like Joey Gallo, who probably shouldn’t have been in the Carolina League for long anyway. It is a chance for the Muddies to shine in Class A Advanced ball and so far the club is going just that.

Manager Scooter Tucker seemed at a loss to explain Carolina’s second half success and uttered phrases like, “we’re doing what we’ve been doing” during the Mudcats’ weekend series against the Dash. To be fair, Tucker talked about “sticking to the process” during the early season struggles and perhaps it is that consistency towards approaching player development that has helped his squad pro form well of late.

It was Tucker who gave Merritt the chance to wiggle out of an eighth-inning jam against Hawkins, a 2012 first-round draft pick, on Sunday. Although Merritt lost that battle, having been given the opportunity will have it benefits down the road. Merritt, along with Morimando and Sides, are examples of players who struggled with the Mudcats in 2013 but are thriving this season.

The Florida Marlins-affiliate Carolina Mudcats of the Southern League sending players directly to the Major Leagues is long gone now. The Muddies are now a team that will send players upward in a more methodical and pragmatic manner. The hope for the players is to ultimately earn promotion to Akron, where last season’s coaching staff and many of the players from Carolina are also competing for a playoff spot.

And winning is the final phase of player development. It is also the one frontier Carolina had yet to reach in its relationship with Cleveland. The Mudcats’ growth in that regard is greater than just sending a few players on their way. The time to succeed on the field has arrived and the 2014 Muddies are responding.

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