DURHAM, N.C. - One of the first things they teach you in Little League is to look the ball into the glove.
Sounds simple enough, right?
Well, what should have been a simple out to start the ninth inning ended up costing the Mud Hens in a 6-5 loss to the Durham Bulls last night.
The Hens, who had won the first two games in the series, rallied from an early four-run deficit and pulled ahead 5-4 in the top of the ninth on a two-out, RBI double by Curtis Granderson.
John Ennis, who had 10 saves for the Mud Hens last season, then came on to try to close out the deal.
His first order of business was to retire the red-hot Damon Hollins, who was already 4-for-4 with a home run, a double and two singles. It appeared Hollins had obliged by grounding to shortstop Gookie Dawkins, who fired a perfect strike to first baseman Chris Shelton.
Shelton, however, dropped the ball.
"I just flat out dropped it," Shelton said. "I just took it for granted that I was going to catch it and I just took my eye off of it.
"It's just one of those things that happens and you just have to move on."
Easier said than done in the heat of the moment. Ennis proceeded to give up a single, a walk and then a bases-loaded, game-winning double to Jonny Gomes, who had struck out in his previous two at-bats.
"That [error] was hard because we knew we were coming up to the meat of their lineup," Mud Hen coach manager Larry Parrish said. "When you're doing that you can't give them outs."
Ennis stuck up for Shelton after the game in a quiet locker room.
"I just thought it was time to get a double-play ball," Ennis said. "You can't worry about what happened. You've got to go after the next guy."
It was a bitter loss for the Mud Hens, who fell behind 4-0 after three innings, only to score three in the fifth, one in the seventh and a run in the ninth to go ahead. Hens pitchers also fanned 12 Durham batters.
"It was a nice comeback and it was ours to win," Parrish said. "We sort of feel like we gave it away now."
Nelson Cruz wasn't sharp in his return to professional baseball. He sat out last season after being released by the Florida Marlins.
The right-hander played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, posting the 10th-best ERA in the league and was ready to impress. Cruz, however, allowed two homers in his first three innings, including a leadoff blast by Hollins.
Hollins also started Durham's three-run third with a leadoff double and scored on a two-out single by Gomes. Earl Snyder, who led the International League with 36 homers in 2004, then drilled a 1-1 pitch high over the 32-foot high wall in left to help chase Cruz.
Cruz fell behind on 11 of the first 16 batters he faced.
"I just didn't have good command of my fastball," said Cruz, who allowed seven hits. "I didn't feel like I had good stuff."
Ennis also was roughed up for the second time in three games. He allowed three hits and one run in 11/3 innings in his season debut Thursday.
"After the drop, it looked like John started overthrowing the ball," Parrish said. "I think he did the same thing the other day. He would get ahead and to finish a guy off he tried to do more. It's just early season jitters with the adrenaline pumping."
The two teams close out the four-game series at 5 p.m. today.
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