Norfolk notched 11 hits, but only two were for extra bases. Columbus scored all its runs in the first and third innings and Columbus pitcher Will Lamb (Salem/UVA) pitched 5 dominating innings to put Norfolk on the brink of elimination.
The 2015 Carolina League postseason begins this week, and the first round will include the Lynchburg Hillcats (Indians) taking on the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Should Lynchburg advance, they will play for the Mills Cup, the Carolina League’s version of the World Series. A win would not only give the Hillcats their 3rd title in 7 years, but it would extend Virginia’s dominance in the Carolina League.
Dominance, you ask? There are three VA teams in the league-the Woodbridge-based Potomac Nationals (Nationals), Salem Red Sox (Red Sox), and the aforementioned Hillcats. Since 2008, not only have all 3 teams won a title, but they have combined to win 6 of the last 7 Mills Cup titles. In 2007, the then-Salem Avalanche went to the Mills Cup finals and lost, but since then:
CAROLINA LEAGUE CHAMPIONS SINCE 2008:
All Virginia based teams! For good measure, the 2009 runner-up was Salem, and the 2013 runner-up was Potomac.
Let’s see if the Hillcats can continue our state’s dominance and make it 7 of 8 champions this time around.
How Jackie Bradley, Jr. (Prince George/Salem ’12) has turned things around for himself.
Upon being drafted in the first round in 2011 by the Boston Red Sox, OF Jackie Bradley Jr. (Prince George) showed flashes of brilliance in the minors. He batted .250 in 10 games over 2 levels that first pro season, then batted .315 in 2012 while playing for Advanced-A Salem and Double-A Portland. He got off to a solid start in 2013 for Triple-A Pawtucket, batting .303, and was called up to Boston.
There is where his hitting troubles began.
Three seasons later, constant shuttling back and forth between Fenway Park and the Pawsox had plagued Bradley’s career so much so that questions emerged about whether or not the 25-yr outfielder had a future with the Red Sox.
It appears that Bradley has finally put those doubts to rest.
On August 8, Bradley went 0-3, dropping his batting average to .121. He has caught fire since. In the 4 games after that, he went 8-16 (4 of those hits were EBH!), and drove in 6 runs, sending his batting average up to .203.
On Saturday, he managed to, basically, equal that torrid 4-game stretch in one afternoon at Fenway Park.
Bradley went 5-6-all 5 hits were for extra bases! He hit 2 HRs and drove in a career high 7 runs in a Boston 22-10 slugfest over the Mariners and ace pitcher Felix Hernandez. His 5 extra base hits in this game tied a major league record held by 6 others, including HOFers Lou Boudreau and Willie Stargell.
Bradley’s batting average, thanks to his red-hot stretch, now stands at .250. Here’s hoping he has seen the last of the Pawtucket Red Sox.
When the Boston Red Sox recalled C Blake Swihart (Salem ’13) from AAA Pawtucket on the morning of May 2 and flew him to Boston for an afternoon game at Fenway against the Yankees, he was thrust into the starting lineup right away. Red Sox brass had hoped to keep their top overall prospect at AAA for a full season of conditioning. Those plans changed when fellow C Ryan Hanigan got hurt. Swihart did get a base hit and a walk in his major league debut, but otherwise struggled with his bat, hitting .125 through his first 9 ML games.
Now, he is on fire!
Swihart has apparently found his rhythm at the major league level. Going into Sunday’s game in Texas, Swihart has hit safely in 7 straight games and 9 of his last 10. He has brought his batting average up nearly 100 points, now batting .224. Furthermore, he showed tremendous poise and leadership on the field Thursday in a Red Sox 5-1 win. Fellow rookie, LHP Eduardo Rodriguez, called up for a spot start against the Rangers-his ML debut-ended up throwing 5 no-hit innings, and 7 2/3 innings of scoreless ball with only 3 hits allowed. Swihart was credited with guiding Rodriguez through the game.
The Red Sox have appeared to find their catcher of the future.
Since the Red Sox took over operations at the Carolina League affiliate in Salem, Va., players such as Daniel Nava, Xander Boegarts, Mookie Betts, and Brandon Workman have made it up to Fenway Park and are playing for the Red Sox. Others, such as Anthony Rizzo, Ryan Lavarnway, Ryan Kalish, and Wil Middlebrooks are now making their marks with other teams.
Now add the name Blake Swihart to the Salem-to-the-bigs pipeline.
The top position prospect in the Red Sox system, catcher Swihart has been called up from AAA, as the team has a huge hole at the position due to Ryan Hanigan suffering a broken hand during Friday night’s game. The Red Sox were hoping to give Swihart a full season at AAA, but has decided that now is the time to get a look at him.
Swihart came through the Roanoke Valley in the summer of 2013, batting .298 with 2 HRs and 42 RBIs for the 2013 Salem Red Sox, and helped them to a Carolina League championship.
When the Boston Red Sox broke their nearly century-old curse in winning the World Series in 2004, they did so with a roster of aging players and veterans and free-agent signees. Red Sox ownership knew they could not always depend on such a formula for winning. Not withstanding the 2007 Red Sox team, which won the World Series again with very much the same forumula as the 04 squad, the Red Sox knew they would have to start investing in their player development system to really have a shot at sustained success.
Right about this same time, about 700 miles away, the Salem Avalanche franchise, a Houston Astros affiliate in the Carolina League, was going through a series of ownership changes before they finally were sold to Fenway Sports Group, an arm of the Boston Red Sox ownership group, who were prepared to instill something special in this community when their PDC with the Astros expired after the 2008 season.
Highlights were few and far between with the Salem franchise. Too few Salem players had gone on to the big leagues after playing here, a tenure that included affiliations with Houston, Colorado, and Pittsburgh over the last 30 years. Their 2006 division title was the first for the franchise in 18 years, and when they won the 2001 Carolina League championship as a wildcard, it was the franchise’s first league title since 1987. Clearly, a new beginning was needed for this franchise.
Fenway Sports Group was determined to implement something special, determined to bring baseball pride back to this small city, located in the lower Shenandoah Valley. To say MISSION ACCOMPLISHED is an understatement.
Since 2009, the first year as the newly re-named SALEM RED SOX, the team has put up an impressive resume. They have made the playoffs three times in six years. In 2009, they made it to the Carolina League title series before falling to their Rte 460 rivals, Lynchburg. In 2013, they steamrolled their way to the Carolina League title, sweeping Myrtle Beach and Potomac to win the franchise’s first championship since 2001. In 2014, they won the Wild Card before falling to Myrtle Beach in the first round.
What has led to their success in this new beginning for the franchise? Remember that minor league baseball is all about player development, and a lot of the success in Salem is attributed to people who now call Fenway Park home. OF Daniel Nava (2009) was a part of the first Salem Red Sox squad and now is a mainstay in the Red Sox outfield, having batted .273 in three seasons with Boston. SS Xander Bogaerts (2012) became the everyday SS for Boston in 2014 and responded by hitting .241 with 13 HR and 51 RBIs. OF Jackie Bradley, Jr. (2012), a Richmond-area native, struggled at the plate but has become one of the premiere defensive players in baseball and was a finalist for the Gold Glove in 2014. 3B Wil Middlebrooks (2010) has emerged as the regular 3B for the Red Sox and a power threat to boot, the 2014 injury-plagued season not withstanding. Should he not be recovered from his injury, fellow 3B Garin Cecchini (2013) has emerged as a top prospect. 2B Mookie Betts (2013) jumped all the way to the Boston in 2014 and responded by hitting .291 in just 52 games. OF Bryce Brentz (2011) made his major league debut this year and hit .308 in 9 games.
On the mound, P Anthony Ranaudo (2011) made his major league debut in late season and won 4 games over a two month trial totaling 7 starts. In the bullpen, Drake Britton (2011, 2012), Matt Barnes (2012), and Brandon Workman (2012) have shown flashes of promise and could have a future with the Red Sox.
With so many Red Sox players emerging, the Salem-to-Boston pipeline is strong. With that in mind, who else could be the next one to emerge? I am picking LHP Henry Owens. Owens pitched in Salem in 2013, and won 8 games as a starter, but posted a 2.92 ERA, and had more strikeouts (123) than innings pitched (104). He finished the 2014 season in AAA and could emerge in Boston sometime in 2015.
The Wild Card Series is now a best-of-3, and is assured of going back to Kansas City.
OF Hunter Pence (Salem, ’05) had three hits and three RBIs, and 2B Joe Panik (Richmond, ’13) had 2 doubles, 2 RBIs, and scored 2 runs as the Giants rallied to defeat the Royals 11-4 and square the series up at 2 games each.
Game 5 is tonight in the City by the Bay, and the series will finish up one way or another in Kansas City this week.
Over the last 10 years or so, the Commonwealth of Virginia has become a real goldmine of baseball talent. It used to be football, but baseball is emerging. In recent years, Justin Upton, David Wright, Justin Verlander, Michael Cuddyer, Ryan Zimmerman, just some of the notable baseball talent that has come out of our great state.
So, who could be part of the next wave of Virginia talent? That is the focus of this new series. I have looked back at some minor league stats of this year and draft choices of the last 5 years, and I found some names that I like. They will be mentioned, but not ranked like a Top prospects list.
We start off with Red Sox IF Reed Gragnani, a Richmond native. At 5’11 and weighing 180 pounds, Gragnani, a switch-hitting second baseman, played his college ball at UVA, and was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 21st round of 2013. He finished up 2013 by batting .277 with a .356 On Base Percentage in 52 games with Lower-A ball at Greenville and Lowell.
This means that 2014 was his first full season of professional baseball, and he delivered. Now, living in Woodbridge, the home of the Carolina League champion Potomac Nationals, I had a chance to watch him play up close when his Salem Red Sox came to Woodbridge to play Potomac, and I was very impressed by what I saw in him. Gragnani was a solid hitter and seemed to show the right discipline at the plate. He finished the season batting .300, tied for second in the Carolina League, and led the league with a .409 On Base Percentage. He also drew 64 walks, good for 4th in the league. Gragnani made the Carolina League mid-season all-star team as well as the End of Season All-star team.
Reed Gragnani definitely has a future in the big leagues, and Red Sox Nation will be happy with him.
Salem wins on a controversial 2-run HR by Jake Romanski that might have been foul. Game 2 is Thursday night.