Wednesday, September 16, 2009
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: A Red Sox comeback? It's not illogical

LYNCHBURG -- They ate their postgame meals in complete silence. No talking. No whispering. The only sounds in the Salem Red Sox clubhouse Tuesday night were forks jabbing food and the hissing of showers.

Logic says they do not come back from this. Reason says the series is over.

But logic has no place in these Carolina League playoffs. Reason died here Tuesday night in front of a festive crowd at City Stadium.

And because of that, there's no way you pronounce the Red Sox done. Baseball doesn't work that way. After Tuesday's bizarre thriller, it seems just as likely that the Red Sox will reel off three straight victories and win this thing as it does that they'll go home and concede.

We were reminded of this game's glorious unpredictability when Jose de los Santos swung his little bat and made the biggest connection of his young career, delivering a two-out, walk-off home run that gave the Lynchburg Hillcats a 5-4 victory and a 2-0 lead in the Mills Cup championship series.

As the ball sailed over the wall in left-center field, de los Santos' season stats were viewable on the scoreboard above: .247, 0 HR, 31 RBIs. The guy's a fleet-footed pipsqueak, a slap-and-dash Dominican who'd never hit a home run on U.S. soil.

He'd gone deep twice in batting practice this season. In games? He hadn't even skimmed the fence.

"It's unlikely as it could be," Lynchburg manager P.J. Forbes said.

"The last thing that I thought," said Salem pitcher Kyle Fernandes, who delivered the fateful fastball on the outer half, "was that the No. 9 hitter was going to hit a bomb off me."

And this isn't just any No. 9 hitter. This is a No. 9 hitter with a career slugging percentage (.301) that is lower than his on-base percentage (.315). He'd gone nearly 1,400 at-bats in the U.S. without hitting one out.

"Our stress to him is line drives, hard ground balls, use your speed," Forbes said. "I can still see it happening. It was just a good swing. He put a good swing on a pitch he was obviously looking for.

"But I'm not going to say the result was expected, because it wasn't."

And likewise, the Red Sox didn't expect themselves to dig an 0-2 pit after sweeping Winston-Salem in the first round. But there is no team better equipped to bounce back. Salem has the oldest roster in the Carolina League, a collection of veterans who've seen things like this before.

Look around this place. Right fielder Brad Correll has been a pro since 2002. Second baseman Zach Borowiak, who debuted in 2003, actually retired after the '07 season before returning this year. Salem outfielder Chih-Hsien Chiang, who hit a clutch three-run homer Tuesday, played for Chinese Taipei in the Olympics and World Baseball Classic.

These guys know pressure. And even better?

"They care," Salem manager Chad Epperson said. "They care. And they should. They've worked their [tails] off this year to get to this point, and they battled. I know they're mentally and physically exhausted. But you know what? When that first pitch is thrown, they find that gear and they play in it. It's a lot of fun to be a part of."

Correll was on a Lancaster team in '07 that set all sorts of offensive records -- then got ousted in the first round of the playoffs.

"It just goes to show that anybody can win these games," he said. "Hopefully, it'll be something for the memory books and we come back and win three and a row. Which I definitely think is very possible."

They all do. And after Tuesday's wackiness, predictions are worthless. Before the ninth inning, Lynchburg's two most crucial batted balls went a combined 50 feet.

But nothing topped the homer. And as soon as Fernandes watched it soar out of the park, he took two steps toward the dugout.

Then he realized something: There was nothing in there for him.

So instead he walked straight toward that quiet clubhouse. The Red Sox would soon get back on a bus bound for Salem, preparing to win three straight elimination games in this series.

Logic be damned.

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