Top 5 Moments of 2009 Season – #1 Mike Jones’ Walk-Off Homerun in Game 3 of Southern Division Championship Series
Game 3 of the Carolina League Southern Division Playoffs and the Sox were deadlocked with the Winston-Salem Dash 4-4. Salem had defeated the Dash the previous night in extra innings, and riding the fine pitching performance of Daisuke Matsuzaka two nights earlier, led the series 2-0. Looking to sweep the Dash the Sox needed some late-inning magic from one of their most reliable players. Mike Jones’ homerun in the bottom of the tenth inning wrapped the series for the Sox and sent them to their first Mills Cup Championship.
Jones homerun, coupled with Salem’s strong performances in the earlier road games, kept the hope alive that they not only had a chance to win the championship, but a good one. It seemed like the offense had finally found its spark with five homeruns in the Southern Division Series. Above all, Lewis-Gale Field was packed for the game and the atmosphere was electric even into the late hours of the night. Jones’ homer not only swept the Dash out of the postseason, but also any doubts that the Salem Red Sox were one of the best teams in the Carolina League.
In what might have been the most exciting day of the 2009 season, the final day of Carolina League games had a variety of possible outcomes that would decide the fate of Salem’s playoff chances. It was a simple scenario: a Salem win at Lynchburg or a Kinston loss at Potomac would secure Salem’s spot in the first round of the playoffs against the Winston-Salem Dash, which means a Salem Red Sox start for international superstar, Daisuke Matsuzaka.
“The thing I remember the most about the last day of the regular season was being in Lynchburg to watch the game and constantly checking the Kinston/Potomac score on my phone. The Kinston game was about an inning ahead of ours and it was more likely they would finish before us so I kept hitting refresh. However, my phone was about 5 minutes slower than MiLB.com’s scoreboard so I kept making Evan (our broadcaster) text me updates every half inning.” – Dave Cawley, Director of Media Relations
“We were losing pretty early in the game, which meant that Kinston’s result became doubly important. When Kinston took an early lead, it seemed like we were doomed for a one-game playoff the next day. But somehow, midway through a tense afternoon, our fortunes shifted for the better. Potomac began to rally against the Indians, and we followed suit. While I broadcasted the action in Lynchburg, I had my computer streaming the Kinston radio call, and occasionally I’d stick a single headphone-bud into my ear to surmise the exact situation. The Sox scored five times in the final three innings to emerge victorious while Potomac simultaneously plated eight in its final three frames to give Salem a cushion. Though it had taken longer than expected, at long last the Salem Sox had clinched a playoff spot, and the ensuing celebration in the visiting clubhouse was a mightily satisfying conclusion to the regular season.” – Evan Lepler, Salem Red Sox Broadcaster
Kinston ended up losing to Potomac minutes before the Salem Sox defeated the Lynchburg Hillcats in dramatic fashion. Salem entered the 9th tied 5-5 and Ryan Dent Scored on a Brad Correll double to push the lead to 6-5 entering the bottom of the 9th. Salem closer Derrick Loop (pictured above) came in and slammed the door, which would lead Salem to one of the most dramatic playoff series in team history.
Forty-five different ballplayers suited up for the Salem Red Sox in 2009, but only one of them already had a World Series victory under his belt. He’s also the only one whom the Red Sox were forced to pay over $100 million to obtain, and the only one who travels with an accompanying cult of reporters who chronicle his every breath.
Four days before Daisuke Matsuzaka won game one of the 2009 Southern Division Championship Series in Winston-Salem, NC, I was sitting in manager Chad Epperson’s office after one of the more exhilarating and important wins of the season. The Red Sox had just overcome a 6-0 deficit to win 7-6 in 11 innings, a victory that was vital to the team’s playoff chances. After the hoopla had died down, Eppy leaned over his desk to whisper a quiet message that I was to keep to myself.
“If we make the playoffs, we’ll have Daisuke in game one,” he said.
Two days later, another come-from-behind win on the final day of the regular season clinched Salem’s postseason berth. And two days after that, the man who Theo Epstein called “one of Japan’s national treasures” arrived in the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina. Before he took to the mound, Brad Correll’s two-run dinger in the top of the first gave Matsuzaka an early edge. Turns out, it was more run support than he would even need.
In his final rehab start before rejoining the BoSox, Matsuzaka dazzled with doses of deceptive velocity and an array of befuddling offspeed offerings. Over six and two-thirds innings, the Winston-Salem Dash mustered just three hits and one run, while Daisuke struck out seven, including the final batter he faced. With a preset pitch count having been reached, Eppy strolled to the hill with a grin on his face for perhaps his most upbeat hook of the year. Matsuzaka smiled and shook the hands of every Salem infielder, then high-fived everyone else upon his arrival to the dugout.
Salem won the game 7-2 and the series 3-zip, when, two days later, Mike Jones belted a series-ending walk-off at Lewis-Gale Field. Sure, Boston shelled out unprecedented money for the Far Eastern phenomenon with the idea of him winning playoff games at Fenway. But on September 9, 2009, the Salem Sox reaped the benefits of Matsuzaka’s mastery, an unforgettable evening for everyone involved and the #3 moment from 2009.
One key to the Salem Sox run at the Mills Cup last season was the strength of the bullpen. Loop, Blackey, Coello and Miller were the heart of the team’s core of fantastic fireman, two of which represented the Salem Red Sox in the annual Carolina-California League All-Star game in Lake Elsinore. Though the Carolina League lost 2-1, reliever Ryne Miller provided an MVP-earning performance pitching 2.0 innings of no-hit ball against the California League’s best hitters.
Miller, a late addition to the All-Star team, provided the nights biggest fireworks fanning 5 of the 6 batters and proving that he deserved to be recognized as one of the Carolina League’s best young pitchers.
The anticipation for the first game in Salem Red Sox history was palpable throughout the Roanoke Valley months before the games opened on April 9, 2009. It started with 1,000+ fans who packed Tanglewood Mall on November 16, 2008 to meet Salem outfielders David Mailman, Jason Place and manager Chad Epperson before getting their pictures taken with the 2004 World Series trophy and trying on Boston’s 2004 and 2007 World Series rings. Several thousand packed Lewis-Gale field on March 28, 2009 for “Sox Fest” to take pictures with the 2007 World Series trophy, but both events were just a glimpse of what would take place on Opening Night 2009.
5,287 fans piled into Lewis-Gale Field to see the first game in the franchises’ history which saw fireworks, skydivers, senators, congressman, a 4 hour, 12-inning bout between the Salem Red Sox and Frederick Keys (Baltimore Orioles) and Brian Matusz, the 4th overall pick in the 2008 draft and a very highly touted pitching prospect make his first professional baseball start. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, the Sox entered the 9th inning down 6-3 and battled back to score 3 runs and force extra innings. Maybe it had been the offseason layoff, but I never remembered the ballpark hanging on every pitch as much as the opening night crowd. We can only hope we are treated to the same experience on April 16th, 2010.