Monday, May 25, 2009

Baseball, Bruises, and the 'Birds

Funny how a hamstring is pulled in St. Louis and a groan of agony is heard in Memphis.

Posted By on Mon, May 25, 2009 at 1:06 PM

Not so funny, though, if you're a regular at AutoZone Park with a rooting interest in a Redbirds baseball team hopeful of reaching postseason play for the first time in nine years.

As injuries have mounted to members of the St. Louis Cardinals -- most significantly to starting outfielders Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick (victim of that hammy) -- key contributors here in Memphis have found themselves with tickets up I-55, leaving the Redbirds to compete in the Pacific Coast League with all too many players just cutting their teeth at Class Double-A Springfield.

On the last day of the Redbirds' season-opening home stand (April 16th), Memphis fielded a starting lineup packed with home-grown, highly touted position players: Bryan Anderson, Nick Stavinoha, Jarrett Hoffpauir, Allen Craig, Tyler Greene, Jon Jay, Shane Robinson, and Joe Mather. A month later -- for a Sunday matinee on May 17th -- half of those prospects took the field (Anderson, Hoffpauir, Craig, and Jay). Stavinoha, Greene, and Robinson were with St. Louis, while Mather was rehabbing an injured wrist that contributed to a dreadful (.129) start at the plate. (When the Cardinals fielded an outfield of Stavinoha, Robinson, and Colby Rasmus on May 17th, it marked the first all-rookie starting outfield for the Cardinals since 1996.)

As for the bona fides of the replacement players in Memphis, consider Javier Brito (first base) was playing in Double A before Seattle released him and he signed a free-agent deal with the Cardinals. (It should be noted Brito won the 2007 Southern League batting title playing for Mobile.) Donovan Solano (shortstop), and Mark Shorey (outfield) weren’t even included in the Redbirds’ 2009 media guide. A degree of normalcy returned when Ankiel and Chris Carpenter were activated last week, sending Robinson and Greene back to Memphis.

On the bright side, Redbird fans have gotten an earlier-than-expected glimpse of third-baseman Brett Wallace, the Cardinals' top pick in last June's draft and the second-ranked prospect in their system (behind only Rasmus). The 22-year-old Arizona State product was born to hit. He batted over .400 twice as a Sun Devil, hit .337 over 54 games split between Class A and Double-A last year, and has hit .353 over his first eight games at the Triple-A level.

The question for Wallace is where he'll play in the big leagues (first base not being an option, with Albert Pujols manning the spot at Busch Stadium). Built with the thick lower body of a third-baseman, Wallace must refine his glove work before he mans the hot corner in The Show. (His throwing error led to the only run Reno scored in Wallace's second game at AutoZone Park, a 1-0 Reno victory.) The longer the Cardinals' third-base situation remains in doubt -- Troy Glaus remains disabled while Brian Barden and Joe Thurston have struggled in May -- the more tantalizing Wallace's bat will be.

Despite all the player movement, the Redbirds had managed a record of 22-19 through Sunday, compared with a mark of 26-24 at the same time a year ago. Memphis has been among the weakest hitting teams in the PCL (.242), but has been carried by a pitching staff that leads the loop in ERA (3.61). Starters Blake Hawksworth, Clayton Mortensen, and Evan MacLane have taken command at the top of the rotation, while Jess Todd and Josh Kinney (a member of the Cards' World Series-winning club of 2006) have solidified the bullpen. The recent return of Mitchell Boggs from a stint with the Cardinals will only add to the depth of pitching coach Blaise Ilsley’s staff.

Injuries are as much a part of a baseball season as the seventh-inning stretch. How they impact the 2009 Cardinals -- and by ripple effect, the 2009 Memphis Redbirds -- will be compelling drama in the months to come.

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