This Saturday, things return to normal as WakeMed Park’s regular tenant, the Carolina RailHawks, take on the Puerto Rico Islanders for the second time this year. The Islanders downed Carolina 2-1 back on April 9 to spoil the RailHawks home opener. Carolina has not lost a game since, winning five of their last six matches. Meanwhile, the Islanders had not dropped a match this season before losing at Minnesota two nights ago.
Carolina currently sits atop the NASL table, and while Puerto Rico is tied for third in the league standings, they have two games in hand over the league leaders.
“To me, this is the most talented team we’ve ever had, and the level of play for the RailHawks is up there with many MLS teams,” says Carolina manager Martin Rennie. “And, Puerto Rico is one of the best teams in the CONCACAF region. So, these are two of the better teams in the country, and if people come out they’re going to see a good game.”
DBAP/DURHAM It’s yet another fine night for baseball in the Bull City, where Durham will take on the Louisville Bats in the third of their four-game series.
It’s tied at a game apiece, and both teams have obviously brought their bats with them.
Durham comes in with a two-game lead in the International League’s South Division, while Louisville would have the wild card if the season stopped today.
Durham has eliminated Louisville from the Governors’ Cup Playoffs each of the past two seasons, and adding even more spice to the rally is that about half the players on the Louisville team used to play for the Carolina Mudcats.
Both teams will send southpaws to the mound tonight, as Alex Torres (2-3, 2.21) will take the hill for Durham and Matt Maloney (2-0, 2.96) for Louisville.
Durham finishes with 16 hits and finishes big in a 12-6 victory.
The contest will be played on Dec. 1 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, one night after UNC plays at Penn State and N.C. State visits Northwestern.
Other Nov. 30 contests will have Boston College at Wisconsin, Nebraska at Georgia Tech, Michigan at Maryland, Florida State at Ohio State and Virginia Tech at Iowa. Thursday’s other games will be Illinois at Clemson, Miami at Michigan State, Indiana at Virginia and Minnesota at Wake Forest.
The ACC has won all four previous Challenge titles, including six of 11 games last season.
Although this was a tuneup for next month's FIFA Women's World Cup in Germany, it was also a clash between two top contenders, the first-ranked Americans and the fourth-ranked Japanese. But if the Japanese had their "A" game tonight, there's considerable distance between them and the top three.
At WakeMed, the Yanks combined a bruising defense that easily thwarted the runs of Japan's talented but diminutive forwards, excellent distribution by central midfielders Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd and lightning runs down the flank by an unstoppable Heather O'Reilly.
O'Reilly, who was an All-American for UNC from 2003-06, received a warm reception from the crowd at the pre-game introductions. In the 28th minute, her run to the byline past a hapless Aya Sameshima drew a collective gasp from the crowd, whereupon she crossed to Amy Rodriguez, lurking unmarked outside the six-yard-box, who knocked in the first goal.
"Every player has their strengths," O'Reilly said. "For me, it's about about taking players one-v.-one to the end line and making quality crosses in, and that was my objective for tonight."
O'Reilly got the night's second goal in the second half, after another wide ball from midfield, this one from Carli Lloyd.
"My tendency right now is to get end line and provide crosses. That's sort of my role on the team," O'Reilly said.
"But of course, when it opens up for me to attack and cut inside and get a shot off for myself, I have the freedom to do that. In this situation, I read the defender and knew I had some space inside to get a shot for myself."
The Japanese, whose 10 starting outfield players stood an average of 5-foot-3, compared to the U.S. average of 5-foot-7, rarely threatened American keeper Hope Solo, although they had spells in each half in which they were able to find space behind the American midfielders. However, Japanese attacks were repeatedly snuffed out before Solo had to get involved. American central defenders Becky Sauerbrunn and Rachel Buehler held their lines and either blocked through balls or held up attackers so long that forwards Shinobu Ohno and Mana Iwabuchi were caught offside.
"Japan is one of the most creative teams on the attack that we play," Solo said. "They and England have the most creative attacks."
"But sometimes they pass too much in the six-yard-box and the 18-yard-box. Sometimes they need to just pull the trigger. But they're coming along and I think they're going to do great things."
When invited to praise the atmosphere at WakeMed and the influence of the Tar Heels, Solo obliged, but noted that the U.S. women play in bigger venues elsewhere—and that as a native of the Northwest, Seattle is her soccer Mecca.
"It's a very intimate venue, very soccer specific and we love coming here. In my time, I think this is the third game I've played here. It's always been great, maybe less in numbers but always loud and enthusiastic," Solo said.
"We know [ex-UNC players] come from a school of great pride," she said. 'But I'm from Seattle and I like to say we have a soccer city as well. There are cities all over the States that claim to be soccer cities and I think that just shows enthusiasm for the game."
Late in the game, in the 81st minute, Solo, who cut a glamourous figure in her purple kit and television-ready makeup, managed to demonstrate her world-class skills, deflecting over the bar a long, apparently accurate left-footed shot by second-half substitute Karina Marauyama.
The evening had the air of a family reunion—a family that has become rich, famous and far-flung. Anson Dorrance, who has coached so many top women players at UNC, was there. So was Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, an approachable, amiable figure despite his conservative blue suit. Calling the game for ESPN2 was Julie Foudy, a former soccer great, and Ian Darke, a mainstay soccer commentator.
But the night's biggest star—and a key figure in the rise of women's soccer—was the redoubtable Mia Hamm. Young girls who could not have seen her play (Hamm retired from all competition in 2004) nonetheless clamored for her autograph when she was spotted with her children near a VIP suite. After she disappeared into the press suite, two frantic, near-teary autograph-seeking girls approached Triangle Offense scribes asking if she was still on the premises. We offered what counsel we could, and they darted off.
During the game, we moved through the stands, noting the sizable contingent of Japanese support. We visited with a friend who brought his grown daughter, who grew up playing Triangle soccer during the heyday of the 1999 World Cup triumph and subsequent short but happy life of the Carolina Courage at WakeMed Soccer Park.
We caught glimpses of Carolina RailHawks players (Brad Rusin and Jonny Steele) and personnel, including team president Curt Johnson, who was omnipresent through the evening and got some face time with Gulati. We also saw former president and new team scout Brian Wellman. (RailHawks coach Martin Rennie was not present, according to Johnson. Instead, he was watching the live feed of upcoming opponent Puerto Rico's game against the NSC Minnesota Stars.)
But it wasn't really the RailHawks' night, even as the orange-clad faithful sitting in the east stand looked wistfully around at the full stadium.
The Bulls took a 4-1 lead on Jose Lobaton's second-inning grand slam; extended it to 5-1 in the sixth when Russ Canzler hit an opposite-field home run on Louisville starter Mike Leake's final pitch; withstood a three-run homer by Jeremy Hermida that narrowed the gap to one run in the top of the eighth inning; and then added a pair of insurance runs in the bottom of the inning to provide a cushion for Mike Ekstrom, who, one night after blowing a three-run, ninth-inning lead, retired three Bats on three pitches—a trio of first-pitch groundouts—to preserve the win for Alex Cobb, who pitched—to my eyes—his best game of the season.
Montoyo hadn't noticed that Ekstrom had tied that unbeatable (and widely shared) record for one-inning pitch efficiency. "That's what it took?" he asked. Informed that it indeed had needed just three pitches, he exhaled a brief and tortured breath and said: "Seemed longer."
And so it goes when the Bulls play the Bats. The Bats hit, the Bulls hit (you can delete the spaces in your mind's eye, if you prefer), there somehow manages also to be plentiful good pitching, and it isn't as if Louisville is worlds better than Durham, despite Montoyo's chiroptophobia. In fact, the Bulls are a half game better than the Bats after Wednesday's win, and can of course continue, until at least September, to exercise their bragging rights over having eliminated Louisville from the Governors' Cup playoffs three years running. To some degree, Montoyo's fearful murmurings—based though they are on the Bats' rather frightening lineup, which never seems very far away from a major outburst—are just a tactic to make his team seem like the underdog, which they aren't, neither historically nor circumstantially. They have a better record, started the league's leading pitcher yesterday (Alex Cobb's ERA is half a run better than the next guy's), and were playing at home.
To wit: "They're a dangerous ball club," Louisville manager Rick Sweet said of the Bulls, right after our post-game interview began. "The two of us have the second-best record in the league behind Columbus." (Montoyo pretends ignorance of the standings, which is—let's be honest—a ludicrous pretense: more dissembling on his part.) "You expect every game to be like [Wednesday's]," Sweet added—and then engaged in his own dissembling. Praising Durham starter Alex Cobb, Sweet said: "He's one of the best pitchers in the league. He's kind of like that... what was that kid? Helling?" I helpfully interjected "Hellickson" and saw, chagrined, that I had fallen for Sweet's little trap. "Oh, I remember him," he said, laughing like a trickster. And then, by way of getting my head in the game, added: "Come on!"
And that drove home the point: when these two teams play, the game gets dangerous. You have to keep your wits about you.
"We're going to have to outhit that team," Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said, his face gray with gloom after the ugly loss. But honestly, his team scored eight runs—two of them on a seventh-inning pop-fly single by Chris Carter that found the Bermuda triangle in shallow left-center field—which should have been enough to win. Also, Louisville racked up 19 hits, 10 of those in their last three at-bats. Were the Bulls supposed to get 20? Anyway, the Bulls did outhit and outscore the Bats, by plenty, for seven innings. But they didn't put them away, didn't finish them off.
Ironically, Rick Sweet had conducted a postgame team meeting with his charges the previous night, after the Bats lost consecutive games at home to Buffalo (former Bull Dale Thayer got the save for the Bisons in the first of them). In that meeting he expressed concern about, as he put it, "the ability to put people away, finish people off." He was quick to tell me that he didn't yell at them, there was no negativity at all, but he needed them to apply nine full innings of concentration to their games, something he said hasn't quite been there this year.
Sweet made a point to distinguish between concentration, effort and results; it was really just the former that was lacking. "Part of it's youth," he said of a team that, while obviously more mature than the 2010 model—with a full year of Class AAA baseball under their belts now (I guess those would have to be timing belts)—is still rather wet behind the ears.
Some of the players, he added, have an eye on the big leagues, wondering when they'll get their (well-deserved) chance; and there are those who may have been put off or distracted by the rain: "worried about things that you don't have control over," Sweet said, instead of focusing on the game at hand.
Needless to say, Sweet was obviously quite gratified to see them do precisely what he was asking them to do. "In the eighth inning, when we scored the two runs" (on Daniel Dorn's home run off of Jake McGee), "I was pretty happy. I was thinking, alright, we had an hour-and-a-half rain delay, we were down 4-1, we've battled back [to 4-3 in the fourth inning]; yes, they scored a four-spot on us [to make it 8-3], but you know what? It wasn't because we did anything wrong. They just went out and got some base hits," one of them Carter's cheap two-run Texas-League dink, another Desmond Jennings's sacrifice bunt attempt that happened to net him a single. Sweet added that the victim of that four-spot, Bats' reliever Jerry Gil, had nearly gotten out of the inning with just one run scoring—he'd had Felipe Lopez at 3-2 with two outs but just missed with the payoff pitch. Russ Canzler then boomed an RBI double before Carter's single.
"So there were a lot of things that I was happy with, even though we were getting beat," Sweet continued. "And at that point, even if we had gotten beat, I would have said some good things." His team rewarded him by making good on the promise of Dorn's eighth-inning homer; and when Dorn added the game-tying single in the ninth—just beyond the reach of second baseman Lopez, whose range isn't great—the Louisville dugout erupted in cheers. They were easy to hear; in fact, they rang out in the DBAP, which, by then, somewhere around midnight, had only 44 fans left in it. We counted.
So far in Syracuse, two drastically different outcomes, with a lot of very crooked numbers put up by both teams. The Bulls erupted for a seven-run seventh inning and hammered the Chiefs, 9-2.
In the second, they participated in a hitter's getting into the record books. You might guess that that hitter would have been Justin Ruggiano, who already owns a couple of team career batting records and is within striking distance of several others; but in fact the Bulls were feeling charitable and arranged for the Chiefs' Michael Aubrey to tie a Syracuse record (and, incidentally, a major-league record) by serving him up four home-run balls in a row (!). Two of those came courtesy of Jeremy Hall, Even though Syracuse blanked Durham by the overwhelming score of 11-0, they did it on just eight hits—Aubrey's homers plated seven runs—and Aubrey didn't get a fifth at-bat. Had he homered in that hypothetical one, he'd have set what I imagine would have been an American professional baseball record.
That created a rematch with the Bulls' Alexander Torres, who beat Wilson 6-1 in Indianapolis on May 1. Wilson is the No. 15 prospect in Baseball America's ranking of Pirates farmhands, but their endorsement doesn't exactly ring from the rooftops. It concludes with this dismissal: "The Pirates might send him back to [Class AA] Altoona [to start 2011] to work on his command, rather than have him get beat up by Triple-A hitters." Hey, wow, let's not get too enthusiastic here, guys.
Or maybe let's do. Wilson allowed three runs on seven hits and three walks in six innings when the Bulls beat him in Indianapolis. But through six innings at the DBAP last night, the left-hander Wilson had allowed... let's see here, I'll check... oh, my god!—ZERO hits! Could we possibly be witnessing...?
No. Five walks. Doesn't throw hard enough to offset iffy control. "Effectively wild," though, in any case? Hard to say. He looked good enough, but there was nothing about his stuff that seemed to equate to a special night. "I thought he took full advantage of a big [strike] zone, and I thought he made great pitches," the Bulls' Chris Carter said after what had begun as a potentially historic pitching performance turned into a 9-6 Indianapolis win. "There was nothing good to hit," Carter added, like a man invited to large buffet but disappointed in all the food, and going home hungry. It was the third straight night that the Bulls lineup, now looking like they're pressing as a team, could do nothing against an Indianapolis starter. In a weird way, the change of scenery they'll get starting today, when they go up to play four games in Syracuse, might do them some good.
At one point, someone in the Press Box wondered if the Bulls would get anything going on this leaden, chilly night (a strong rainstorm blew through the area at around 5:30 p.m., delaying the game by a few minutes and leaving the air unseasonably clammy). "Not until they get Indy's starter out of there," was the reply. J. J. Furmaniak broke up Wilson's no-hit bid with a two-out single in the seventh. After Wilson completed the inning by getting Robinson Chirinos to ground into a double play, Wilson was lifted with a 4-0 lead. He'd thrown 98 pitches, 59 for strikes. Of his first 78 pitches, only 42 were strikes. He seemed to have gotten better as the night went on.
And then Indianapolis scored five runs in the top of the eighth inning, four of them unearned courtesy of a careless error by shortstop Ray Olmedo. That made it 9-0, and ended the game.
Well, it ended the first game.
The second game—and more about the first one—and about games to come, in a way—after the jump.
It was right around, let's say, 11:13 a.m. when Ruggiano, who just about 12 hours earlier had given the Bulls a walkoff 2-1 win in 11 innings over these same Indians, got ahead of Indianapolis starter Brian Burres 2-0. The lefty Burres threw him a two-seam fastball on the outer half of the plate. It wasn't a terrible pitch, really, but Ruggiano is the hottest hitter in the league right now, and he hit an opposite-field homer to straightaway right field.
And that was that. Alex Cobb, J. P. Howell and Jake McGee collaborated on a five-hit shutout—the Bulls' second in four games—and neither team scored again. (The Bulls had only four more baserunners.) Had we known at 11:13 what we knew a little over two hours later, the two bleary-eyed teams, wiping sleep from their eyes after the previous night's extra-inning game, could have gone right back to bed until Thursday afternoon. Instead, it had to be earned the long way.
Early Wynn, by the way, won 300 major-league games, but it took him seven starts over nine months between 1962-63, stuck on 299, to notch the 300th. So he's just about the right symbol for yesterday's game, which established its outcome from the start but then endured: an early wynner who broke into the majors at age 17, in 1939, Wynn pitched for 23 seasons, retiring 24 years to the day after his first game. (He didn't pitch at all in 1940.) Known as a pugnacious competitor, legend has it that Wynn was once accused of being so mean that he wouldn't give his mother a good pitch to hit. "Don't forget," he is reported to have replied, "my mother was a hell of a hitter." (A variation goes: "Somebody once said that [Wynn] would knock down his own mother if she crowded the plate on him. 'Why shouldn’t I?' said Wynn. 'My mother was a damned good hitter.'”)
Everybody wynns, except the Indians (who, alas, almost never do), after the jump.
Never mind that the RailHawks won 4-2 against the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers and that Barbara set up the first goal, lofting a cross to partner Pablo Campos, and earned and put away the penalty for the second. Forget that on the strength of Barbara’s play Carolina took just 19 minutes to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead the team never would relinquish.
He was disappointed. The great ones always are, it seems.
“I wasn’t real happy with the game,” said Etienne, who spent much of the night muttering and gesticulating in between creating scoring chances. “I’m happy we scored and I scored and we won, but I’m not real happy with the performance of the whole group today. We could’ve done much, much better.”
The Maltese talisman was upset that the team wasn’t able to keep the ball as much as he wanted and didn’t dictate the play at home. Even though the RailHawks are on a five-game unbeaten run, he says the squad should play to a higher standard.
“I believe we are the best team in the league, but we have to prove it every game,” says Barbara, whose team sits in first place in the NASL, three points clear of Puerto Rico, which has two games in hand.
“I think our game can be improved a lot from what we are playing right now. If we improve our possession and dictate more of the game, our game will be so much easier.”
Despite Barbara’s frustration, the 2,109 fans in attendance, the most in four home games so far this term, were treated to an open affair as both teams pressed forward throughout the match.
The Strikers opened the scoring in the eighth minute when former UNC player Brian Shriver cut in from the right and found Patrick Otte unmarked at the top of the box. The forward struck a half volley off the bounce, beating Brad Knighton and igniting the contest.
“We started kind of sleepy,” Campos said. “When they scored, we kind of woke up.”
Just seven minutes later, Barbara collected the ball near the right corner flag and struck a hopeful looping cross toward Campos. The big Brazilian beat two defenders at the far post and nodded the ball off the underside of the crossbar past former RailHawk Nic Platter and into the net.
In the 26th minute, Platter batted away a strike from Nick Zimmerman, causing a scrum to ensue in front of the goal. As players hacked at the ball, Barbara knocked it to the side, stuck out his leg and tumbled. Referee Daniel Fitzgerald pointed to the spot. Platter guessed right on the penalty, but Barbara’s strike was too precise.
It marked the second time this season and the fourth in club history that the RailHawks have come from behind to win.
Late on in the half Barbara played in Campos, the two strikers appearing in sync after learning each other’s footsteps on the training ground, but Campos was pulled down from behind before he could get his shot away.
“I have my point of view, the ref has his,” Campos said, pointing to his tattered sock as evidence. “The guy tackled me from behind and he kind of almost broke my leg. It was a tackle from behind. He didn’t hit the ball. It was inside the box so it’s a PK, but he didn’t call it. Life moves on.”
Still, Campos managed to knock the ball goalward while lying on his side before Ft. Lauderdale defender Scott Gordon cleared it at the line.
He earned his brace in the second half on a free header from a Floyd Franks cross, directing the ball in between Platter’s legs at the far post.
“He’s a big guy. You want to find his head,” Franks said. “My job is easy. I’ve just got to put it in a dangerous area.”
The Strikers got a consolation goal deep into stoppage time when substitute David Santamaria got in behind the defense and beat Knighton one on one.
But, as the visitors pressed forward desperate to earn a draw, the RailHawks caught them on the counter as midfielder Jonny Steele cut the ball back for Franks who played it on to substitute Allan Russell who tucked it away sweetly, sealing the three points.
The team has now scored in every game this season, 13 goals in total, and coach Martin Rennie says he has never had a squad with so many scoring threats.