The Mudcats are hoping experience pays off big in the Southern League pennant race.

FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON When the Carolina Mudcats open their final Southern League season at home on Thursday night at 7:15 against the Mobile BayBears, the team will have a familiar look.

Scratch that. An extremely familiar look.

No fewer than 20 of the 24 active players for third-year manager David Bell’s club spent time in Zebulon last season.

Only infielder Neftali Soto, pitcher Mark Serrano and catcher Kevin Coddington — all of whom were at lower levels in the Reds organization last season — and outfielder David Cook – who was at Round Rock in the Texas Rangers organization – were in the Mudcats’ home clubhouse for the first time for Media Day on Tuesday.

“It’s really good to be back,” said Bell, who will be joined again by pitching coach Tim Brown and hitting coach Ryan Jackson, the former Durham Bull and Duke All-American. “I’ve had some good players for the last two years here and a lot of them are back. I’m very comfortable with the group we have here and know them well.

“I was telling them today it just has a feel of being a special season here. Having that experience at this level, several guys with two and three years — it’s just a good mix. But it doesn’t do a whole lot of good talking about it until we go out and play.”

The infield should be very solid with returnees Mike Costanzo and Eric Eymann — both of whom spent some time at Triple-A Louisville last season — back on the corners and stalwarts Jose Castro and Jake Kahaulelio back up the middle. The newcomers are Soto, a regular first baseman who was third-round draft pick from 2007, and Rojas, an everyday shortstop.

Cook and returnees Denis Phipps, Cuban immigrant Felix Perez and Cody Puckett are the outfielders, with returnee Chris McMurray and Coddington behind the plate.

Right-hander Daryl Thompson, Mudcats’ lone representative on the Reds’ 40-man roster, will be the opening night starter. The other starters are returnees James Avery, Dallas Buck, southpaw Travis Webb and Jordan Hotchkiss, the only semblance of a local boy on the squad out of Asheville and Brevard College.

In the pen are 2009 first-round draft pick Brad Boxberger, Nick Christiani, Justin Freeman, lefty Donnie Joseph, Ruben Medina, Serrano and lefty Lee Tabor.