GAMEDAY: Three Wins Away from a Championship

Salem Sox celebration

This team believes.

No matter how you portray it, it is impossible to deny that the Salem Red Sox are on a historic run right now. Winners of eight straight, 13 of 14, 19 of 22, and, dating back to July 30, 27 of 35, the Sox have arrived into the finals, seeking three more victories to ultimately reach the top of the Carolina League mountain.

Over the past five weeks, just about every close game has gone Salem’s way. The Sox have won 10 straight one-run games and eight of their last nine extra-innings games, an amazing string of triumphs. Credit everyone. The bats of have produced timely hits, the gloves have made game-saving plays, and, perhaps most importantly, the arms have been dominant. Salem has a sub-3.00 ERA since July 30, and basically everyone in the bullpen has a sub-2.00 in this stretch.

In the Southern Division championship series, a 10-inning walk-off took game one. And in game two, the Sox overcame a 3-0 deficit to win in ten again, igniting a festive celebration by the Beach:

Sox celebration mound

Now, only two competitors remain in pursuit of the Mills Cup. Unquestionably, the Potomac Nationals were the best Carolina League team in the regular season. The P-Nats went 84-55, tabulated the league’s best ERA (3.69), led the league in stolen bases (216, 2nd most in minor league baseball, Bowling Green), and took 12 out of 20 against the Salem Sox.

But as strong of a season as the Nationals have had, the Salem Sox are indisputably the hottest team right now. In fact, you could argue that it was a dramatic comeback over Potomac on July 30 that turned this team around. In danger of losing their fifth straight game, the Sox erased a three-run deficit in the late innings to win in 10, with Keury De La Cruz delivering the knockout punch:


Turns out it wasn’t the last meeting of the season, but it was a pivotal turningpoint for the Sox.

The championship series is a best-of-five battle, with the first two games being held in Woodbridge before the final three (the last two if necessary) slated to be played at LewisGale Field in Salem.

Some keys to consider:

  • Blake Swihart vs. Potomac’s aggressive baserunners — This is one of the more fascinating storylines, as it pits strength vs. strength. Lately, when opponents try and run on the Red Sox, they are just handing Salem free outs. Swihart has thrown out more than 42% of men seeking to steal against him this year. And in the regular season, his game-changing presence often prevented opponents from even trying, evidenced by the fact that Salem’s foes attempted far fewer steals against the Sox than any other team’s opponents. In 20 games against the Red Sox, Potomac stole 35 bags. That’s a lot. In fact, that’s 20 more than any other team stole against the Sox this year. But the Nationals also had 12 men caught stealing against Salem, 20% of their full-season total, leading to more outs than against any other opponent.
  • Can Salem’s bullpen continue its mindbending dominance? Heading into the playoffs, Matty Ott had allowed just one run in his last seven outings. Matt Price had tossed six hitless innings over four outings since coming off the DL in mid-August. Robby Scott had a 0.81 ERA since July 1, an amazing stretch spanning 15 outings. Nate Striz compiled a 1.32 ERA in August. Madison Younginer owned a 1.42 ERA since July 25. All of these numbers improved in the first round, with Ott, Price, Scott, and Younginer all dealing two scoreless innings. Striz, who did not pitch against Myrtle Beach, is probably the first man out of the pen tonight in Potomac.
  • Can Mookie Madness continue? It’s amazing that this post is over 600 words deep and this is the first time Mookie Betts gets mentioned. He’s carried over his outrageously spectacular August into September, with a pair of hits in game one and the pivotal double in extra-innings in game two, leading to the run that won the series. He’s reached base in every game he’s played since August 2, a streak of 32 games, in which he’s batting .419. And as much as he’s been a run-producer with his bat, he’s been just as much a run-saver with his glove. If Mookie stays hot and is the best hitter in this series, Salem has an excellent chance to raise the Cup!
  • The game one pitching matchup features RHP Heri Quevedo vs. LHP Matt Purke. Can the Sox defeat a southpaw in the opener? On the year, the Red Sox have gone just 12-17 when facing a lefty starter, compared to 66-47 when facing a righty starter.

The Salem Red Sox are looking to win their first Mills Cup since the affiliation with Boston began in 2009. The Salem Avalanche, a Rockies-affiliate led by Garrett Atkins, Matt Holliday, and Aaron Cook, won Salem’s last title on September 10, 2001. If the Red Sox can keep their winning streak going and take both games in Woodbridge, Salem would have the opportunity to try and win it all on the 12-year anniversary of the Avalanche’s crown.

The ballgame begins at 6:35 PM, and you can listen live for free!

If you’re still hungry for a few more baseball nuggets, the championship game notes are below…

UPDATE: Here’s Salem’s game one lineup

  1. Coyle DH
  2. Ramos CF
  3. De La Cruz LF
  4. Welch 3B
  5. Swihart C
  6. Betts 2B
  7. Chester 1B
  8. Natoli SS
  9. Johnson RF

Ready to win it,
Evan

*****

September 7, 2013 6:35 PM Salem Red Sox (78-64, 43-27, 2-0) vs. Potomac Nationals (86-55, 42-28, 2-0)

Pfitzner Stadium                     Woodbridge, VA                          Mills Cup Finals Game One (Best-of-Five)

Probable Starters: RHP Heri Quevedo (6-5, 4.18) vs LHP Matt Purke (5-3, 4.43)

Championship Dreams: Two franchises both searching for their fifth Mills Cup title meet on Saturday night in Woodbridge to begin the best-of-five journey toward a champion. Salem and Potomac each advanced to the finals with a pair of one-run victories over Myrtle Beach and Lynchburg, respectively, in their divisional series, with three out of the four games going to extra innings. Scoring was at a premium in all four playoff games, with Salem tabulating an ERA of 0.90 in its two games, narrowly above Potomac’s 0.78 postseason ERA. In the regular season, the Nationals won 12 of 20 meetings against the Red Sox.

The Tipping Point: On July 30, the Salem Sox took the field with a 51-56 record, losers of four straight games, and situated five and a half games out of first in the Carolina League Southern Division. That night, an amazing late-game comeback gave the Red Sox a 6-5 walk-off win in 10 innings over Potomac, beginning an unbelievable stretch of baseball. After winning the final game of July, the Sox went 22-8 in August and won both regular season games in September, finishing the year 25-8 in the final 33 to win the second-half Southern Division title by six games. The momentum has carried over into the postseason, with back-to-back one-run wins over the Pelicans advancing the Sox into the finals.  The red-hot Red Sox enter the finals on an eight-game winning streak, with 13 wins in the last 14 games. The only loss in this stretch was a seven-inning tilt that the Sox dropped to Frederick 3-1 on August 28. Salem’s last loss in a regularly scheduled nine-inning contest was August 21, a 5-0 setback on a travel day to Alec Asher and Myrtle Beach. In their last 35 games, the Sox have outscored their opponents 171-106, highlighted by a team ERA of 2.78. Salem has put up an average of 5.91 runs per game, hitting .256 as a club with 28 home runs. Salem pitchers have given up only 12 homers in the last 3 games.

Making the Breaks: Salem’s string of success has a lot to do with clutch performances in tight games. The Red Sox are 10-0 in their last 10 one-run decisions, with the last one-run loss coming in 18 innings at Wilmington on August 13. In addition, the Red Sox have won eight of their last nine extra inning games since that July 30th tilt against Potomac. Including the playoffs, the Red Sox are 29-21 in 50 one-run games this season, most in the league.

The Betts Timing: While he did not reach base in the first nine innings on Thursday, Mookie Betts hammered the first pitch of the 10th inning into the gap for a double, extending his consecutive games on-base streak to 32 and eventually scoring the winning run for the Red Sox. In his last 32 games since August 2, the 20-year-old Betts is hitting .419 (49-for-117) with 16 extra-base hits and 32 RBI. Unbelievably, Betts has only struck out twice in his last 74 plate appearances over his last 18 games. In 129 games this season, Betts has walked 82 times, while only striking out 58 times.

He Giveth & He Taketh: While Blake Swihart’s 10-game hitting streak was snapped on Thursday night, the Red Sox catcher gunned down another man on the basepaths, perpetuating his amazing defensive streak. With the stick, he’s batting .386 (17-for-44) in his last 11 games and .361 (44-for-122) since July 24, the top clip in the league since then. The 21-year-old catcher also leads the league in caught-stealing percentage, nailing another potential thieve on Thursday to increase his percentage to 42.1% caught-stealing on the season, #1 in the league. No one has successfully stolen a base against the Red Sox in the last eight games. Entering the finals, it’s been 72 innings since Frederick’s Johnny Ruettiger stole a bag on August 28.

Does Defense Win Championships? Salem and Potomac made the fewest errors in the league in the regular season, but the Sox were alone in the top tier of great glovework. Salem made only 114 errors in 140 games, making multiple miscues only seven times in the entire second half and just twice in the final 36 games. Potomac was second in the league with 128 errors.

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