Friday, April 15, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Boston darns Salem Red Sox to fit stadium

Salem Memorial Ballpark will be a festive place this summer. The Red Sox are going to win home games. A lot of them.

At last, it all has come together. The developmental goals of the parent club are in complete accord with the tenets required to win here.

By sheer serendipity, this club is built perfectly for this park.

The Boston Red Sox want guys who can run, cover ground in the field and hit line drives at the plate. It wasn't always this way. Ten years ago, a speedy singles hitter in the Red Sox system might as well have given it up and taken a job selling insurance. He wasn't likely to be appreciated at Fenway Park.

But that's changed. The major league success of sparkplugs such as Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia -- combined with general manager Theo Epstein's newfound emphasis on "run prevention" -- has put speed back in vogue in the post-steroid era. So that's a skill the Red Sox are drafting in bunches, and they're developing it here, an ideal place for it to shine.

The starting outfield Salem put on display in its 3-1 victory over Lynchburg on Thursday was Shannon Wilkerson, Peter Hissey and Jeremy Hazelbaker. Those three combined to steal 99 bases last year. At Salem Memorial Ballpark, where the gaps could have their own post office, that speed will turn a lot of doubles into outs on defense. And at the plate, it will give the team another way to score in the intimate, eight-team Carolina League, where pitchers know your every weakness by mid-May.

Minimal power? Minimal problem. This place saps that from you anyway.

Consider the recent history. Beginning in 1992, back in the old Municipal Field days, Salem enjoyed four straight years where the team hit at least 100 home runs in a season.

They moved here at the end of the 1995, and haven't reached the century mark since.

Think of some of the bombers who have come through this city during that decade and a half. Matt Holliday. Brad Hawpe. Mark Saccomanno. According to Jim Fulton, the club's fantastic team historian, Hawpe and Saccomanno share the record for home runs in a season at the current stadium. Each hit 10.

Bottom line: No matter how big your muscles are and swift your bat is, you're simply not going to park many at this park. Hissey got a brutal reminder of that in the third inning Thursday, when he crushed a high drive to deep right center -- only to see it die on the warning track for an out. The wind got a piece of it, sure, but so did that alley of doom.

"Salem's one of those parks where you can hit the ball well, do everything right, and don't always get the results," Hissey said. "So I try to worry more about the process and less about the result."

The good news? Hissey's line drive swing isn't going to produce many results like that. More often, he'll manufacture runs like he did two innings earlier, when he drew a leadoff walk and harassed the pitcher into multiple pickoff attempts with his speed. Hissey moved to second on a ground out and scored on Reynaldo Rodrigurez's single.

Presto. One hit, one run and an early lead.

"The game's evolving," Hissey said. "It's more speed, less home runs the last couple years since they've cracked down on steroids. The game's more for athletes, so it's nice to be in a system where they really value athletic players. We have a lot of them here."

And they can produce comfortable victories even when they collect only five hits. In the fourth inning, Hazelbaker dashed into the right field corner to dig out a hit, then fired it into the relay man, who nabbed the runner at third. Plodding, power-hitting right fielders don't do that.

In the fifth inning, Salem's Derrik Gibson (39 steals in 2010) shot a ball into the gap in left-center, then never broke stride when he realized nobody was going to field the relay. So instead of standing on second, he was standing on third. Base-cloggers don't do that.

These guys will. And as a result, they'll be very tough to beat here, all summer long.

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