If any team ever had a good reason to make excuses, it would be the Carolina Mudcats.
Early in the morning of May 12, nearly three dozen men – players and field and support staff – had a collective near-death experience they’ll never forget.
The Mudcats were on one of those long, red-eye bus trips that are the bane of the lower minor leagues. They had defeated the Salem Red Sox 3-1 and were in Columbus County, most of the way through their planned seven-hour bus trip to Myrtle Beach when the driver lost control of the bus and it flipped on its side.
Seven players were beaten up enough to go on the disabled list, but no one on the bus suffered a life-threatening or quality of life-changing injury.
The Mudcats were in the thick of the Carolina League’s Southern Division race at the time. Their three-game series at Myrtle Beach was postponed, and they headed back to Zebulon for medical evaluations. That weekend, they returned to action.
And they lost 12 straight games.
‘We were lucky’
The crash was particularly tough on Carolina’s starting pitchers. N.C. State alum Tyler Brosius and fellow starters Lucas Sims, a top prospect, Steve Janas and Andrew Thurman were placed on the disabled list along with reliever Dave Peterson, outfielder Dustin Peterson and infielder Jacob Schrader.
After the accident, Sims tweeted: “Thank you everyone for the support. We’re beat up pretty good but thanking the Big Guy upstairs that no lives were lost in our crash.”
The photos from the accident confirmed their good fortune.
“After I saw what the bus looked like, I was really happy no one was seriously hurt,” Mudcats manager Luis Salazar said. “It might take a month or a month and a half before the guys can get completely back body-wise. We just have to keep an eye on everybody.
“But they’re all getting strong again, and I think we can get back to the way we were playing before. We’re just trying to get through the first half so we can bounce back for the second.”
The second half starts June 25, after the Carolina-California League All-Star Game (June 23 in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.). The roster is taking shape again. Schrader, who had a bone contusion in his left quad, was reactivated on May 21. Dustin Peterson returned June 2 and was 1-for-4 with an RBI in his second game back.
“Everything is good now,” said Schrader, who hit two homers with eight RBIs in his first 10 games after returning. “Really all I needed was a lot of massaging and a lot of stretching to heal.
“But I missed over a week, and the next time I got on a bus it was miserable. It was shocking that the most serious injuries were concussions. We were lucky. Obviously when you go through something like that everyone thinks about it, but at the end of the day you’ve just got to perform. We just have to keep putting it behind us.”
A turning point toward normal
Schrader wasn’t in the lineup the night the streak ended with a 2-0 win over the Pelicans on May 29 at Five County Stadium, but he did get to see it.
Seth Webster, a relative newcomer, started and pitched seven innings that night. The Braves organization had recently signed him after one solid start in an independent league. It was just his second start with the Mudcats.
“We were at Potomac when I joined the club, and there was just a mood that was kind of nerve-wracking,” said Webster, who added that he didn’t know any of his fellow Mudcats. “Obviously I wasn’t even here for the crash, but you could just tell how it affected people. It’s always a fear riding on a bus through the night, but when you’re on a team it actually happened to, one little bump and every little turn you could see everybody looking around.
“But everybody knows you’ve still got to come to work and do your job. I think the win kind of put it behind us. I’m not sure the bus crash caused the losses, but it’s tough to come to the park when you’re hurt. My teammates have buddies I don’t even know who are still down in Orlando (at Atlanta’s spring training complex) recovering.”
The Mudcats won four straight to close May, then won four of five before dropping their past two entering Tuesday night’s game against Potomac. The hot stretch included a 3-2 victory in their first game at Myrtle Beach since the accident.
“That’s a big jump, but a big opportunity for those guys,” Salazar said of the pitchers who were called up from Rome. “We lost the four starters, but the guys who joined the team have been good for us.”
Pitching coach Derrick Lewis said he’s optimistic about what lies ahead.
“We gave the new guys the same game plan that everyone else has,” he said. “I think at some point this season all those guys who were hurt will come back. We’ve just got to take time and be patient with it.”
And so do the players on the team. Days after the accident, Sims tweeted how excited he was to begin his road to recovery. Janas tweeted a similar thought: “First time off the bump today since the #buspocalypse, the comebacks on!”
“It’s been a couple of weeks now,” outfielder Sean Godfrey said. “Some guys went to the hospital. But you can’t really make excuses for yourselves when you get back out there.
“If you’re on the field, you’re expected to be 100 percent and ready to go. We had some mental stuff to get through, but we’re getting past it. But that was the scariest thing I’ve ever been through.
“It’s a miracle nobody was hurt worse.”
The Mudcats after the Crash
Seven players went on the disabled list after the crash: RHP Tyler Brosius, RHP Steve Janas, RHP Lucas Sims, RHP Andrew Thurman, RHP Dave Peterson, OF Dustin Peterson and INF Jacob Schrader
Still on the DL: Brosius, Janas, Dave Peterson, Sims, Thurman
Back on the field: Jacob Schrader (as of May 21), Dustin Peterson (as of June 2)
At Five County Stadium
Potomac vs. Carolina, 7 p.m.
Winston-Salem vs. Carolina, Friday 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 6 p.m.