Saturday, May 07, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Salem Red Sox out to prove that they want it

They smiled collectively and turned their music up loud as they feasted on Chick-fil-A and the joy of yet another victory.

It was late Thursday night in the Salem Red Sox clubhouse. Technically, it was still Cinco de Mayo, but that wasn't the reason Latin jams rang out from the stereo.

"We take turns [with the music]," pitcher Drake Britton said. "Whoever wants it."

Whoever wants it. That phrase ought to be sewn into these guys' uniforms. Because so far, that's been the M.O. of a Sox team off to one of the best starts in all of minor league baseball.

No. 8 hitter? You want it tonight? Cool. Go draw yourself a two-out walk like Derrik Gibson did in the bottom of the 10th Thursday -- then steal a base.

Who else? No. 9 guy? You want to set off the real dancing? Great. Go hit yourself a slow roller toward first, like Zach Gentile did Thursday, run your tail off, then wait for the onrushing teammates to meet you after the ball gets thrown away.

Thursday's 4-3 win -- a come-from-behind, walk-off, how-did-they-do-that event -- bumped the Red Sox to 18-7. Entering Friday, only the Triple-A Columbus Clippers (20-6) and Single-A Burlington Bees (19-7) had better winning percentages in all the affiliated minors.

So Salem won again Friday, too, by a 2-1 score.

"These kids are resilient, and it's never one facet of the game that we win with," Salem manager Bruce Crabbe said. "We've won with pitching. We've won with defense. We've won with hitting. And we've won with base running, so it's been a little combination of everything."

Ten years ago, when he managed the Pulaski Rangers, Crabbe rarely -- if ever -- mentioned winning. The Appalachian League is all about development, all about getting guys acclimated to pro ball. First you learn to do laundry, pay your rent and, in many cases, speak a little English; then you worry about what the standings say.

While winning isn't the sole focus at this level, either, it does matter more.

"We still continue to work on the process more than the results," Crabbe said. "But these kids have been through the process for three or four years now, so they understand that when they do the process well, the result usually comes to a head in a positive way."

In other words, they do what they've done so far. Even if the skipper didn't see it coming.

"We've been a pretty well-rounded ballclub, which I was surprised with," he said. "I didn't expect the pitching to be so good. I didn't expect the hitting to be so good. I thought we would be an aggressive type of ballclub and run the bases and put pressure on teams in that sense."

They've done that (36 steals through Thursday) while batting a Carolina League-best .280 and leading the circuit in homers (25) and slugging (.477). Five regulars are hitting better than .300, led by Reynaldo Rodriguez at .348. The pitching staff, fueled by Ryan Pressly and Jeremiah Bayer, has the second-best ERA in the league, at 3.44.

Salem hasn't won a first-half division title since 1988. The Sox are by no means a lock to do it this year. This weekend series is their first meeting with the Pelicans, who are only three games back in the Carolina League Southern Division.

So the games tonight and Sunday are big -- as minor league games go. You never know how many of these guys will be around in the second half, so to assume that quality in May will translate to quality in August could be folly.

Britton, scheduled to start today for Salem, has had a rough beginning to this season (0-2, 9.00 ERA), but several strong innings at the end of his last outing have the 6-foot-2 southpaw believing he'll be pitching closer to the 2.97 ERA he put up last year in Greenville, S.C.

"I'm back," he said with a smile. "I'm on it."

And why wouldn't he feel that way? Why wouldn't any of these guys?

You look around this place, and there's nothing but positive energy flowing.

"It's definitely a fun clubhouse," outfielder Peter Hissey said. "It's light, and that really only happens when you're winning and playing the game right. That's the biggest thing: We're playing the game the right way."

It's an ideal atmosphere in which to thrive. These days, whoever wants it can take it.

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