ZEBULON — The Carolina Mudcats have executed one massive, unlikely turnaround over the past seven weeks.
David Wallace’s club finished its first half in last place in the Carolina League’s Southern Division, with a 22-48 record that was 18 ½ games behind the first-place Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Not only were the Mudcats the only Carolina League club that was never in the race once the season got cranked up, but it was the worst record in all of organized professional baseball.
But fast forward through late June and July, and the Mudcats’ record is unrecognizable.
Through their 9-5 victory in their series opener against the visiting Frederick Keys on Aug. 1, the Mudcats were 22-16 in the half and just half a game behind Myrtle Beach in the second-half standings. And if the season had stopped at that point – what with the second-place team from the second half getting in if the same team wins both halves – the Mudcats would be in the Mills Cup Playoffs.
After a 5-4 win over the Potomac Nationals Tuesday, the Mudcats were 24-18 in the half and owned sole possession of first place in the division in the second-half standings.
“We’ve been playing well,” said first-year Carolina manager Wallace, who executed a similar though less dramatic turnaround with Lake County in the Midwest League last season. “We’ve been playing great defense, we’ve been pitching well and we’ve been getting timely hitting.
“We’ve just gotten better at everything. Our bullpen is better, and I think honestly it’s a matter of everything finally coming together. The things we’ve been working on all year are paying off. It’s a process and it takes time. But things are starting to happen for these guys.”
And he said it has been a total team effort.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one or two guys, and with each guy you can pick out a point where he’s improved,” Wallace said. “Whether it’s Joey Wendle on defense or Bryson Myles on offense, Tony Wolters on defense …
“(As for the pitchers) Rob Nixon, Owen Dew - those guys in the bullpen we’re relying heavily on now. Cody Anderson has been strong, Shawn Morimando has been very good and Nick Pasquale is throwing the ball well for us. Josh Martin and Louis Head – the list goes on and on.”
And it’s been happening lately without shortstop Francisco Lindor, the Indians’ first-round draft pick of last year who was called up to Double-A Akron on July 15. Wallace had said in the first half that Lindor, who played in the Carolina League-California League All-Star Game and then the Major League Futures Game, was probably the best player in the league.
Erik Gonzalez came up from Lake County as the Mudcats’ new regular shortstop on July 24, and the manager said he hasn’t missed a beat.
“Gonzalez has made as good of an impression as any kid can make in his first week,” Wallace said. “His professionalism, his play out on defense, his at-bats. All of it has been incredibly impressive.”
The Mudcats’ other first-round draft pick, center fielder Tyler Naquin from 2011, also played in the all-star game against the Cal Leaguers as did Anderson and Jerrud Sabourin.
“Whenever we get in those close games we’re getting the big hits that we weren’t getting,” said Naquin, who was the CL’s player of the week for July 22-28. “Pitching is coming all the way around, and when you put them both together with good defense you’ve always got a chance to win the ball game.”
Sabourin said simple persistence was key to the team’s improvement.
“I think we’ve just stayed consistent with our work ethic,” Sabourin said. “We knew this would turn around. Our defense, offense and pitching has been so much more consistent lately. The pitchers are getting the hitters out, and they’re doing it with good stuff.”
Nick Pasquale was named the Indians’ minor league player of the week for July 21-28.
“I’m feeling comfortable and being consistent and getting ahead of hitters,” Pasquale said. “We’re getting good run support and just pitching well as a staff.”
Wolters, who played in the league’s all-star game last season as an infielder, was converted to catcher in spring training.
“We just all stuck to our routine,” Wolters said. “We didn’t get all panicky about losing. Everyone kept their calm and just focused on getting better every day. At the end of the day, that’s what the minor leagues are all about. We’ve all been going hard. We’ve got a lot of energy, we wanted to win, and it’s all coming together now.”
Outfielder Jordan Smith has played in more Mudcats games this season than anyone, 109 out of the first 115.
“We’re winning close games,” Smith said. “And we’re helping our pitchers out with more run support. We just stayed positive, and that’s what (Wallace) and the coaching staff preached. We’ve turned it around and we’re enjoying winning.”