Monday, September 11, 2017

PCL Championship: Memphis vs. El Paso

Posted By on Mon, Sep 11, 2017 at 10:02 AM

click to enlarge Patrick Wisdom, Redbirds president Craig Unger, and Manager Stubby Clapp
  • Patrick Wisdom, Redbirds president Craig Unger, and Manager Stubby Clapp
The Memphis Redbirds are headed to the Pacific Coast League championship series. This may have seemed pre-destined, the Redbirds having posted the most regular season wins (91) in the PCL since 2006. But the cruel nature of postseason baseball forces a Triple-A team built over five months and 140 games to prove itself in a best-of-five series, and often (as noted in last week’s column) with stars long gone to expanded major-league rosters. Having split the first two games of its conference final with Colorado Springs last week at AutoZone Park, Memphis didn’t so much as win a three game series on the eastern foot of the Rocky Mountains as survive the closest thing to beer-league softball professional baseball will see this year.

Consider some numbers from Games 3 through 5 (the latter two won by the Redbirds). Memphis and Colorado Springs combined to scored 73 runs on 99 hits in the three games. The fewest runs scored by a losing team was eight (by the Sox in Game 4), and the Redbirds lost a game in which they scored 15 runs (Game 3). Memphis manager Stubby Clapp — the PCL’s Manager of the Year — made a total of 14 pitching changes to bring his team back to Memphis with its season alive.

I’m convinced the Redbirds won their semifinal series in a game they actually lost. Down 16-7 in the eighth inning of Game 3, the Redbirds rallied for seven runs in the eighth and one more in the ninth, coming up a run short in what looks like the final score of a bad-weather football game (16-15). When asked what distinguishes his club, Clapp has insisted it’s a refusal to quit, however bleak things might look on the scoreboard. The Redbirds may have entered Game 4 (and Game 5) with their season on the line, but they had every reason to believe they could make more than a dent in the Colorado Springs bullpen. (Three home runs in the first inning of Game 5 made it clear the Sky Sox starters weren’t safe either.)

The roster shakeup (thanks to St. Louis and Milwaukee promotions) made for some bizarre moments. Sky Sox pitcher Aaron Wilkerson made his Triple-A debut this season in Game 2 at AutoZone Park . . . and no-hit the Redbirds for seven innings. (Wilkerson was removed after seven, having reached a pitch-count limit. This is still the minor leagues, and still primarily about development, no-hitters be damned.)

There was an uncomfortable moment for Memphis in the 10th inning of Game 4 when the Redbirds loaded the bases, the score tied and one out. His club’s season on the line, Clapp sent Tommy Edman to the plate. Edman starred last year on the campus of Stanford University. A sixth-round pick of the Cardinals in the 2016 draft, Edman split the 2017 regular-season between Class-A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield. That key at-bat was Edman’s third at the Triple-A level, all as a pinch-hitter in these playoffs. He struck out, but Nick Martini followed with a walk, the Redbirds rallied to score four runs, and Stubby’s gang improved to 12-0 in extra-inning games this year. Perhaps there is some pre-destiny in the mix.

The Redbirds will have to beat the PCL’s defending champs to raise their third pennant. And the El Paso Chihuahuas — an affiliate of the San Diego Padres — have retained plenty of offensive firepower since the MLB roster expansion, including this year’s PCL batting champ, Nick Buss (.348). Outfielders Franchy Cordero (.326) and Rafael Ortega (.317) would make life difficult for the likes of Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty (now pitching in the St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation). Clapp will send Dakota Hudson (eight Triple-A starts), Kevin Herget (10), and Ryan Helsley (two) up against this formidable lineup.

It’s somewhat eerie to compare this Redbirds postseason run to the one Clapp enjoyed (as the team’s second baseman) in 2000. Seventeen years ago, Memphis fell behind its semifinal opponent (Albuquerque) two games to one, only to rally and win a pair of games (at home, a significant difference from last weekend’s fun in Colorado Springs). Those Redbirds also relied on lower-level reinforcements, one of them — Albert Pujols — delivering the most famous hit in franchise history, a home run to win the PCL title at AutoZone Park.

This year’s PCL champion will be crowned in El Paso (where Games 3 through 5 will be played, as many as necessary). Clapp played his college ball at Texas Tech in Lubbock, a short (by Texas standards), 350-mile drive from El Paso. In a year of coming home for Stubby Clapp, you get the sense this story’s final chapter may include one more dose of pre-destiny.

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