Unable to attend Sunday's double-header due to a family gathering, I was back in Salem on Monday night and boy did it feel like a century since I had been around Salem baseball– two weeks to be exact since I sat in the press box.
But, even though I was a no-show just after the six-game away stand, the show went on for the Salem Red Sox. Going 4-2 on the away stand, Salem had a pivotal four-game series at hand against the Carolina Mudcats where they looked to extend the gap on Carolina for the final playoff spot (both teams are still chasing Myrtle Beach).
After splitting the double-header, a game apiece, on a dreary Sunday, Salem came into Monday under “must-win” circumstances, like most of August, with only fourteen days left in the Carolina League season.
Keep this in mind: Following this four-game home stand against Carolina, the Sox head down to Myrtle Beach for a three game series and travel from there back to Carolina to face the Mudcats for another three games – that’s ten games in the next eleven days Salem has against the only two teams who are currently a threat! And as Myrtle Beach is two and a half games up on Salem for the last playoff spot, the Red Sox will have an opportunity to gain the ground they need to punch their post-season ticket.
The jump-start to Monday’s game was promising, too!
Salem wasted no time to post runs in the second and third innings. Blake Swihart started it all by smacking a frozen-rope down the first baseline for a RBI-triple that scored Stefan Welch. Mookie Betts stepped in next and crushed a RBI single and before I could blink, Betts was already over on third base. And after a deep shot to center from Matty Johnson, Betts scored and made the score 3-0.
It was like a replay of Swihart’s first at bat that got Salem going again in the third!
Yet another frozen-rope kept Carolina first basemen, Jerrud Sabourin, on his toes after Swihart ripped another ball at him that squirted through and was good for Swihart’s second RBI on the night; pushing the lead to 4-0.
With two outs and the bases juiced, STILL in the fourth, Nick Natoli launched a three run double to right-center field and cleared the bases for Salem! But that wasn’t all; Johnson stepped in next and singled to notch his second RBI of the night as Salem batted around the lineup in the inning and stretched their lead to 8-0 (For the record, Salem registered FIVE runs before Carolina could escape the inning).
Making the most of their opportunities early and often set the tone for the night, to say the least! And this is something Salem seems to be trying to stress around the clubhouse.
“It’s huge especially playing against these guys since we’re in the playoff race right now. As long as we can take the pressure off of our pitchers a bit, it helps and I think Quevedo settled down after we had the big lead,” said Natoli. “Leads are everything in this game and it’s hard to come back late in the game and as long as we push runs across the plate early, it’ll be good.”
Side Note: To the girl who absolutely killed “Rocky Top” in the Sing For Your Supper promo, you are AWESOME! I never once thought a Roanoke-native could nail that song like she did!
It was Heri Quevedo that led the way for Salem on the hill as he held Carolina scoreless in the first four innings, only giving up one run in the fifth. And to the satisfaction of pitching coach Kevin Walker, Quevedo was able to battle through the inning and strikeout the side; stranding two Carolina base runners.
RHP Kyle Kraus came in during the sixth inning and gave up just one run on a series of Carolina hits and base runners. After holding Carolina to a scoreless seventh, eighth AND ninth inning, Kraus was eligible for his first save on the year and sure enough, he got it! RHP Heri Quevedo came away with the win extending his season record to 6-5.
Though it was the Salem shortstop, Nick Natoli, who proved to be the man of the night following three early RBI’s in the third and a fielder’s choice single that scored Swihart later in the seventh to make the Salem lead 9-2. And even though Natoli isn’t always in the starting line-up, he proved to be a valuable asset to the team as this season dwindles down.
I caught up with Natoli in the clubhouse after the game to discuss the outlook of the clubhouse with just 13 games remaining along with the dominant 9-2 win.
“It makes things fun in the clubhouse and we can joke around and have fun with it. It stinks being behind them a game so now that we’re up a game and a half makes it a bit of a lighter load tomorrow and the weeks to come,” said Natoli.
“If we play too serious, we’re not going to make the playoffs. Our biggest thing is having fun within the clubhouse and things will fall into place. We have a goofy clubhouse so we try to stay as loose as possible. And as long as we keep doing our routines each day and going about our business the right way everything should be fine.”
Don’t forget the Sox are back inside LewisGale Field Tuesday night for the final game of the series against Carolina. The Red Sox won’t be back in town until August 28 for six straight home games to close out the season, so make your way out to Salem and catch a game, with a playoff atmosphere, before it’s too late.