Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Redbirds Up, Tigers Down

Posted By on Tue, Sep 8, 2009 at 9:16 AM

Perhaps the Memphis Redbirds just need a Democrat in the White House. The St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate clinched its first playoff berth since 2000 late Saturday night, completing a double-header sweep of the Oklahoma City RedHawks. The victory was the Redbirds’ fourth in a row and finished a 20-game stretch during which Memphis won 13 games, including seven on a rigorous 13-game road trip. Need more perspective on the last time AutoZone Park hosted playoff baseball? When Albert Pujols hit the championship-winning home run on September 15, 2000, John Calipari had yet to coach a basketball game at Memphis.
click to enlarge memphis_redbirds.gif

This division title was unlikely in the extreme. As recently as July 3rd, Memphis was six games under .500 and eight games out of first place. Trades and promotions cost the team its most heralded prospect (third-baseman Brett Wallace), its closer (Jess Todd), and three members of its starting rotation (Mitchell Boggs, Blake Hawksworth, and Clayton Mortensen). But with steady play from the likes of outfielder Allen Craig (.322, 26 home runs, 83 RBIs), shortstop Tyler Greene (.291, 15 homers, 31 stolen bases), and third-baseman David Freese (10 home runs and 37 RBIs in a season shortened to 56 games by injury rehab), the Redbirds went 40-24 since Independence Day. Starters P.J. Walters and Adam Ottavino turned their seasons around and have been consistent winners, while manager Chris Maloney has coordinated a bullpen of fill-ins rather masterfully.

A key to the ’Birds playoff chances may be the left arm of Jaime Garcia. One of the top pitching prospects in the Cardinals’ system, Garcia returned to the mound recently after a year spent recovering from surgery. He gives Memphis a third starter with the ability to eat seven innings and keep his offense in the game. Postseason baseball in the minors is much like the big-league variety: few pennants are won without dominant starting pitching.

The Redbirds will open their best-of-five series with the Albuquerque Isotopes in New Mexico Wednesday. The Redbirds were 6-10 this season against the Dodgers’ top affiliate (2-6 in Albuquerque). Game 3 will be Friday night at AutoZone Park, with Games 4 and 5 to follow over the weekend if necessary.

The Memphis Tiger football coaching staff has one of the most challenging weeks of the season on its hands. Having spent a month preparing to open at home in front of 45,000 against a Top 10 opponent from the mighty SEC, the Tigers now get five days to lick their wounds from a 45-14 drubbing and prepare to face Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro, a team not even favored to win the Sun Belt Conference. However disappointed the Tiger players may be after the season-opening loss on ESPN, a second-straight defeat to the Blue Raiders (who won in the Liberty Bowl two years ago) would be an ugly commentary on how little growth the team has made. Motivation, rest assured, won’t be a problem for Middle, as the U of M will be one of the biggest foes on its home schedule. Can the Tigers play with the sense of purpose necessary to level the emotional playing field?

A few numbers I’d be concerned with if I were Tommy West:

174 — Rushing yards accumulated by Ole Miss. The Tiger secondary will be exposed on occasion this season (though they played above themselves in limiting the Rebels to 175 passing yards). But the U of M front seven has to hold firm. When a team chooses to run the ball 39 times, it’s telling you your defensive front can be beaten.

7 — Penalties drawn by the Tigers. The drive-killing dead-ball penalties have to end. With a young offensive line, Memphis will likely improve in this area as the season unfolds.

10 — Average yards per reception by the tandem of Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton. The Tigers need this figure to be between 15 and 20 yards. A tender ankle hindered Singleton against Ole Miss. So again, this number should see improvement.

1 — Number of teams in Conference USA’s East Division that lost its opening game of the season. Whether or not the games were league contests, it’s no fun looking up at the rest of the division before Labor Day.

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