Winston-Salem Dash third baseman Trey Michalczewski’s first swing of his first at bat in the first game of the Carolina League South playoffs sent the ball soaring towards the right-field corner of BB&T Park. Second baseman Jake Peter, already on first, sprinted to second as the crowd shouted, “Go! Get outta here!” and, as if heeding the fans’ demands, the ball bounced off the top of the fence and out of the park.
The crowd erupted as Peter and Michalczewski triumphantly rounded the bases.
But the Dash’s first-inning blast against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans wasn’t finished yet.
First baseman Keon Barnum stepped up after Michalczewski and, not to be outdone, whacked a homer of his own into the grassy berm behind the left-field wall, also on his first swing.
It seemed impossible that the Dash fans could have voiced their appreciation more than they had just moments before, but the stands exploded.
Baseball fans love home runs, and the Dash’s heavy hitters connected well, inspiring confidence both in themselves and the crowd.
But things hadn’t always looked so sunny for them.
The Dash tallied 40 losses in the first half of the season. They finished not only in the bottom of their division, but also the bottom of the Carolina League.
In the second half, a switch flipped, and the Dash turned the league upside down in their favor.
For the first time in the Carolina League’s 70-year existence, a team went from losing 40 games in the first half of the season to winning more than 40 games following the All-Star break.
Specifically, the Dash won 45 out of 68 contests, a crusade marking the best finish for a Winston-Salem team in 28 years.
They didn’t get there just on the backs of Michalczewski and Barnum’s batting averages, though.
As of this playoff opener, the Dash pitching staff recorded an impressive 3.13 ERA, the best produced by Winston-Salem minor leaguers since the 1957 Red Birds.
Perhaps its brightest star: Carson Fulmer.
The White Sox picked up the right-hander from Vanderbilt University, where he’d been named National Pitcher of the Year. He’s proven his worth as a first-round draft pick thus far; over 23 innings with the Dash, he booked a 1.96 ERA and 26 strikeouts.
Based on those numbers, Fulmer holds the position of the White Sox’s second-ranked prospect and looks to ascend steadily through the affiliate ranks.
On Sept. 9, the Winston-Salem faithful cheered him on like he was their son at a Little League game, but after the Pelicans got on the scoreboard in the top of the second inning, lefty Brian Clark took over duties on the mound.
Clark silenced the Myrtle Beach bats immediately. He struck out his first two batters and continued to shut down the Pelicans in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings. It wasn’t until Gleyber Torres drilled a line-drive solo homer for Myrtle Beach in the eighth that Clark’s stellar ERA took a hit, and it was only the third hit he’d allowed over those six innings.
Of course, he was backed up by tremendous fielding. The Dash recorded four double plays over the course of the game, two during Clark’s tenure and two in the first two innings.
Considering their explosive first inning and another run in the fifth — catcher Omar Narvaez slid into home thanks to a single from right fielder Nolan Earley — the Dash basically had the game in the bag before right-handed reliever Brad Goldberg stepped up to clinch the save.
Goldberg was a hell of a reliever for the Dash to have in their arsenal. On his first pitch, he blazed a 93-mile-per-hour fastball past Pelican right fielder Mark Zagunis, and while he didn’t strike anyone out, he certainly struck a chord with the audience.
I noticed the speed of Goldberg’s fastball on the orange screen of a fan’s Stalker radar gun. There were quite a few peppered in the area behind the mound where I sat.
At first, I thought innocently, “Dang, these are some serious fans.”
Then, mentally smacking myself in the face, I put it together and realized the obvious — these guys are scouts, scribbling stats in red pen on tablet-sized notebooks.
With their second-half performance, the Dash must have raised some eyebrows across not only the Carolina League but the entirety of the minor leagues. This playoff opener featured five Top 30 prospects in the White Sox’s affiliate roster: Fulmer, Michalczewski, Peter, Barnum and outfielder Adam Engel. All of them played pretty spectacularly.
Unfortunately, the Dash’s championship hopes were, well, dashed in two nail biters down on the Pelicans’ home turf later in the week.
Sept. 9 might well have proved to be the last chance for Winston-Salem to see these rising stars in action. Fulmer could very well start in Chicago in the near future. Michalczewski’s consistent switch hitting and strong arm couldn’t hurt the Windy City, either.
That’s the nature of the minors, though. We hate to see the greats go, but we love to watch them leave, because they fight every game for their chance to show their stuff and rise in the ranks.
Needless to say, this historic season’s been one hell of a showcase.