Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Guess what? These Red Sox guys can really hit the baseball

The only thing more refreshing than the weather on Opening Night was seeing the Salem Red Sox actually hit the ball.

I mean really, really hit the ball.

Did you see that score (13-2 over Myrtle Beach)? Did you see that hit count (15)? I don't care that it's only one game: Salem players don't do that. Not now, when they are the Red Sox. Not years ago, when they were the Avalanche. Not in the chill of April or the heat of July.

Not in this ballpark.

Here's what Salem players do: They pitch, they bunt, they steal bases, they collect sacrifice flies. They win 2-1 hand-wringers and lose 4-3 heartbreakers. They do it all in a tidy two hours and 10 minutes. Beer sales end after your third sip, and the kids are in bed by 9:45.

But not now.

Apparently, this team is a bunch of mashers.

And it wasn't just Friday. The Red Sox came into this game with a 5-2 record and a Carolina League-leading 26 extra-base hits. They were second in the league with six home runs, a category where they are historically punchless.

Last year, despite being a playoff team, the Red Sox ranked last in the league in slugging. In 140 games, they hit a league-low 62 home runs, fewer than half as many as league-topping Potomac had. Sixty-two? That's all ya got?

The Avalanche of 2008 wasn't much better at the plate (68 homers, second-to-last in slugging).

So the strong offensive start in the first seven games of 2010 was interesting, but all that came on the road. When they took the field at Salem Memorial Ballpark on Friday, it was safe to assume the Red Sox would start reverting to the norm. Those high walls and deep power alleys would gulp the homers and swallow the crooked numbers.

Instead, this. Thirteen runs in the first five innings. Two more home runs. Seven more extra-base hits.

Five players with multi-hit games, including three-hit nights from center fielder Peter Hissey and catcher Tim Federowicz.

Most of the damage came against Myrtle Beach right-hander Zeke Spruill, who is no soft-tossing scrub; Baseball America ranked him the eighth-best prospect in the Braves organization.

"One through nine is solid," said first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who played with most of these guys at low-A Greenville last year before being promoted to Salem at the all-star break. "The whole lineup, really. Everyone potentially is a .300 hitter.

"We're capable of doing this any day of the week."

On Friday, that was great news for the concessionaires, who could sling hot dogs and nachos deep into the night as the boys on the field swung the sticks.

Granted, you could have flown an iron kite in the wind gusting out to left field Friday. But all that did was push Federowicz's fifth-inning missile into the trees instead of onto the road.

And Ryan Lavarnway, who went deep in the third inning? He clubbed two homers on Thursday in Lynchburg. He doesn't need help.

Can the Red Sox sustain this? I have no idea. Shoot, THEY have no idea. But this much we know: It's different.

History tells us hitting improves as the season goes on. The timing is supposed to be off for everyone right now. It certainly was for a couple performers in gorilla suits, who got caught on the field during the seventh-inning stretch. We ended up seeing perhaps the first recorded case of gorillas standing at attention during "God Bless America."

We saw a man propose to a woman on the top of the Red Sox dugout.

We saw the seats filled with a festive crowd of 4,903 and the picnic area alive with frolicking children.

And we saw the Red Sox hit. A lot. In Salem Memorial Ballpark.

What a strange, wonderful night.

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