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The Roanoke Times | File
Salem Red Sox players Sean Coyle and Matt Gedman (right) are all smiles after beating Lynchburg earlier this month.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
As she watched the players leave the field and move the celebration indoors, where bottles of champagne were waiting, Susan Schlossberg stood in the box seats of Salem Memorial Ballpark on Tuesday night and pulled out a photograph.
“They were great guys, very classy and sweet,” Schlossberg said, looking down at her picture. “Some years, they are really great. Other years, they’re not. These are good kids.”
Schlossberg has been attending baseball games in Salem since the 1970s. She considers herself the players’ mother away from home, offering them use of her Smith Mountain Lake house when they have rare off days.
And that’s what her photo showed: a large group of 2013 Salem Red Sox, arms around one another, smiling by the water.
A similar scene unfolded Tuesday night, as the Sox completed a three-game sweep of Potomac to give Salem its first Carolina League title since 2001. A mob formed near the mound. Hugs erupted, ceased, then erupted again. Finally the players posed with the Mills Cup, smiles beaming to communicate their pride.
The second photo probably doesn’t happen without the first. One by one on Tuesday, the players talked about what a brotherhood this team had become, how organizational status became stripped, how selfishness had dissolved.
“I’m overwhelmed right now with emotion for these guys,” series MVP Sean Coyle said.
“Something just clicked with our staff,” said Matt Price, who earned the save in the clinching game.
“I couldn’t ask for a better bunch of guys to do this with,” third baseman Stefan Welch said.
“With this team,” second baseman Mookie Betts said, “it seems like wins just kept coming in, no matter what happened, no matter how the game went.”
Synergy. That’s what happened here.
Typically, minor league seasons are defined by how well the best players develop. And the Sox had their share of stars come through here this season. Well-regarded prospects such as Garin Cecchini, Henry Owens, Deven Marrero and Noe Ramirez all enjoyed well-earned promotions to Double-A, and you should see at least two of them make the majors.
But what made the 2013 Red Sox special was that they actually got better when the roster was diluted. In closing the season with 11 straight wins (including all five playoff games) and 22 victories in their last 25, the Sox tapped some unlikely sources.
The affable Welch was picked up like a discarded rosin bag. Batting .142 in the Pirates system, he thought he’d been released when the manager called to tell him he’d been traded to Boston. The 24-year-old outfielder then hit .292 in 75 games for Salem, plugging the significant hole left by Cecchini’s departure.
Betts came up from low-A Greenville and dazzled, hitting .341 in 51 games and reaching base in each of his last 35 contests (including playoffs). Cather Blake Swihart, the lone midseason all-star still left at year’s end, delivered a .367 average in August and virtually erased opposing running games with his gifted right arm.
But while Betts and Swihart are highly regarded in the prospect world, others played above their labels. Led by Price, a Virginia Tech alum who overcame a drug suspension to shine in his first full pro season, the bullpen flourished. Undrafted free agent Nick Natoli did a fine job replacing the defensively savvy Marrero at shortstop, then went 2 for 4 with two runs scored in the clinching game.
“My role here isn’t to be a prospect,” Natoli said. “My role is to help other guys and play my part. It was obviously awesome to contribute with a good game.
“This is the first time in three years I’ve played pro ball that I absolutely enjoyed playing with every one of these guys.”
Anybody hear that echo?
Credit also must go to manager Billy McMillon, pitching coach Kevin Walker and hitting coach Nelson Paulino, who got the most out of what they were assigned. In his second season as Salem’s skipper, McMillon used a myopic yet effective approach: Let’s get 27 outs today.
The Sox did that again and again in August and September to bring the title home.
“Each year has its own challenges,” McMillon said. “We had some players that moved up, so that was a really big thing. The idea of winning a championship at the minor league level is generally a second thought. Development is the priority there.
“The fact that we could do both was really a testament to these guys. I’ll remember this season more than I will any other season, because we were the last team standing.”
And, fittingly, the last one posing.
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