FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON The Carolina Mudcats return for the opener of a five-game home set against — surprise! — the Jacksonville Suns.

Mudcats infielder Mike Costanzo
  • Photo by Nikolaus © 2010 Carolina Mudcats
  • Mudcats infielder Mike Costanzo

The Southern League’s two easternmost squads aren’t even in the same division, but they’ll play each other 31 times this season.

The Mudcats come in two games out of the lead in the North Division while the Suns — managed by former Mudcats infielder and N.C. State assistant coach Tim Leiper — are half a game out in the South after winning the first half.

Fortunately for both teams the heat is down a little bit, and that’s appropriate because tonight’s promotion is “Christmas in July.” All the top holiday pop standards are on the PA system, fans are getting free souvenirs, and players from both teams are wearing photoshopped holiday hats on the video board.

The Mudcats will send Travis Webb (5-6) to the hill against Jeff Allison (5-6).

Led by a big night from Osvaldo Martinez, Jacksonville rallies early and coasts to a 6-2 win.

Mudcats center fielder Felix Perez makes something close to the play of the year with two out in the Suns’ second, running down John Otness’ sinking liner at the warning track on a dead sprint before crashing hard into the wall. He’ll bat in the third, but Sean Henry replaces him in the outfield to start the fourth.

Carolina gets a run up in the second as Dave Sappelt singles to left, advances on Mike Costanzo’s walk and scores on Webb’s two-out single to right.

Jacksonville takes the lead with a two-out rally in the third. Martinez hits a ground-rule double to left, after which Vinny Rottino ricochets a 3-2 pitch off the scoreboard in left.

The Suns take control with a four-run fourth. Lee Mitchell leads off with a single to left and then steals second, and scores on Brandon Tripp’s one-out single to left. Otness singles to left, and then Allison’s bunt advances the runners. Lorenzo Scott walks, and then Martinez hits a three-run triple to right to make it 6-1.

The score stays right there until the eighth, when with two out Costanzo rockets a 2-2 pitch high off the scoreboard in right.

But that’s it.

The Mudcats played without outfielder Sean Danielson, who was given his release earlier in the day. Catcher Chris Denove rejoined the squad and played the late innings.

Martinez, who leads the SL with 122 hits, paces the Suns with a triple, double, single and the three RBI while no other Jacksonville player has more than one hit. Allison goes the requisite five innings to get the win, allowing a run on five hits with six strikeouts against a pair of walks.

Costanzo leads the Mudcats with the homer and two singles but just one RBI.

They said it …
Mudcats manager David Bell: “Webb was kind of struggling from the beginning, and didn’t feel great. But he’s a tough kid and battled. He did everything he could. Martinez has been doing it all year for them and is obviously a good player. … Perez made a great catch. But he’s going to be sore. He injured his oblique and is probably going to be out a few days. Denove is going to be the backup catcher, but will be playing more first base, pinch-hit and double-switch. We had to release Danielson for the roster spot. It was tough to tell him. This team is going to miss him, but he’ll catch on somewhere.”

Leiper: “Martinez has been in the center of things for us pretty much all year. A lot of what he did early got overshadowed because (Mike) Stanton was here. The one thing I’ve liked is once teams saw him for the second or third time they made adjustments to him, and he has made the adjustment back. … Allison was good. He didn’t have his best stuff, but he really pitched smart and stayed within himself.”

Martinez: “I’ve just kept working hard every day, trying to see the ball and hitting the ball. That’s my approach and it’s been working.”

What does it all mean?
That both teams are exactly the same distance out of first place as they were when the evening began.

Stars of the game
1. Martinez.
2. Costanzo.
3. Allison.

Play of the game
Perez’ catch.

Season series
Jacksonville leads 13-9.

Carolina: Lost 2.
Jacksonville: Won 2.

Carolina: OF Sean Danielson released.
Jacksonville: P Dan Jennings placed on suspended list (50 games, banned substance).

On deck
Jacksonville at Mudcats, 7:15 p.m.

Tom Koehler (R, 12-2, 2.90) vs. Matt Fairel (L, 5-3, 4.25)