On June 26, 2009, the Durham Bulls were playing a weekend series in Toledo, but more than 5,600 people packed their home stadium to watch college kids play an exhibition.
Team USA — an all-star team of college players — had the second game of its weeklong series with the Canadian national team. The U.S. would sweep the five-game series, winning three at the DBAP and two in Cary.
The Friday game was the one to remember, however. More fans attended that contest than the other four combined, and a big reason was the man on the mound.
Gerrit Cole, then a freshman at UCLA, had a dominant night, showing why the Yankees drafted him in the first round coming out of high school the year before, offering him $4 million to skip college, and why he’d be the top overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Cole went 6 2/3 shutout innings, allowing three hits, one walk and striking out 12.
Years later, the DBAP was still using a cardboard cutout of Cole from that game to sell tickets to Team USA games.
Cole went 4-0 for Team USA that year with a 1.06 ERA and struck out 46 of the 106 batters he faced.
The following year, Cole didn’t make it back to the DBAP, but he pitched at the national team complex in Cary and put up a 2-0 mark with a 0.72 ERA.
He was joined on that team by position player Anthony Rendon, who hit .500 for the national team in two games played, including a 1-for-3 performance with one RBI in an exhibition game against the SwampDogs in Fayetteville.
Both Cole and Rendon will play a key role in the World Series this year, as the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals meet. The two free-agents-to-be are among a handful of participants with local connections and among the most prominent.
Cole, the likely American League Cy Young winner, has won 16 straight decisions. Rendon, a dark horse candidate for NL MVP, led the league with 126 RBIs and 44 doubles.
Shortstop Trea Turner will most likely be at the top of the Nationals order for the World Series games. The shortstop played his college ball at NC State and had 35 steals and 19 home runs for the Nats this season despite missing 40 games due to injury.
Turner played for the Pack in 2013 and 2014, producing 15 home runs and 56 steals while hitting .345. The Wolfpack advanced to the College World Series in Turner’s freshman season.
Turner is not afraid to continue to flaunt his NC State roots. When the Nationals won their Wild Card game, he donned an NC State football helmet in the locker room to help shield himself from spraying champagne. After the NLDS win over the Dodgers, he wore two different State helmets while patrolling the clubhouse celebration.
As we told you last week, Turner’s Nationals teammate, Ryan Zimmerman, also got his start in North Carolina, playing T-ball in his childhood hometown of Edenton.
Zimmerman moved to Virginia before high school, and he’s a 15-year member of the Nationals. In other words, he’s been in Washington as long as the team, getting the call-up to the majors in the first season after the team relocated from Montreal.
This is his first trip to the World Series.
“Me, the fans, the community, we’ve kind of grown up together,” he said. “I was 20 years old when I got here. We were not very good. And the fans — you know, I still talk to season ticket holders now that have been here since RFK. We went through those things together.”
Both coaching staffs also have plenty of local connections.
Joe Dillon, assistant hitting coach for the Nationals, hit .342 for the Mudcats in 2004 on his way to a callup with the Marlins. He concluded his playing career with two seasons on the Durham Bulls, winning a Governors’ Cup in 2009.
Washington pitching coach Paul Menhart pitched for Western Carolina, leading the Catamounts in strikeouts all three of his seasons with the team. He was first-team All-Southern Conference and won conference tournament MVP honors once. His first coaching job following his playing career was with the Catamounts, from 2003 to 2005.
Third base coach Bob Henley finished his playing career in 2002 with one game for the Hickory Crawdads.
For Houston, bench coach Joe Espada spent the 2006 season as hitting coach for the Greensboro Grasshoppers.
Bullpen coach Joshua Miller played for NC State before being drafted by the Phillies in 2001.