Monday, August 20, 2018

Stubby's Stretch Run

Posted By on Mon, Aug 20, 2018 at 9:48 AM

Daniel Poncedeleon tossed a one-hitter for the Memphis Redbirds on July 15th at Omaha, a gem that earned the 26-year-old righty his ninth win of the season. The last pitch he threw in that game was likely the final one he'll toss for the defending Pacific Coast League champions this season.

Two days later, Austin Gomber tossed five shutout innings at AutoZone Park to earn his seventh win of the season in a Redbirds victory over Iowa. Like Poncedeleon, Gomber can now be found in St. Louis, a member of the Cardinals' starting rotation.

On July 25th in Salt Lake City, 13-game winner Dakota Hudson had his start abbreviated after only one inning, Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp delivering a baseball to the mound in the bottom of the second inning with a note that Hudson had received his call from the parent club. He's now hurling out of the Cardinals' revamped bullpen.
click to enlarge Stubby Clapp
  • Stubby Clapp

Three pitchers representing 29 wins and 272 innings pitched for the 2018 Redbirds are no longer a part of Clapp's arsenal as the club battles toward a division title and a chance to defend its PCL championship. And the roster churn has been felt in the batting order, too. Outfielder Tyler O'Neill and third-baseman Patrick Wisdom combined to hit 40 home runs in less than five months for Memphis but are now with St. Louis, each part of a recent eight-game winning streak that has the Cardinals back in contention for a postseason berth in the National League. Centerfielder and leadoff man Oscar Mercado is now wearing the uniform of the Columbus Clippers, traded to the Cleveland system on July 31st.

With the exception of the still-curious trade of Mercado, the recent Redbirds attrition is merely the effect of a Triple-A franchise doing precisely what it exists to do: fuel the big-league club. But at what cost to the on-field product at AutoZone Park? A culture change was bound to happen with the firing of Cardinal manager Mike Matheny (on July 14th), but Clapp now finds himself essentially managing a new team, with two weeks to gel for (hopefully) two playoff series.

"I think we're about the same number of different players as last year [62]," says Clapp. "But last year, it was steady, for a longer period, and then the changes happened. This year, the changes have been since day one. It feels like a lot more this year. You could see it coming." Injuries to three stalwarts in the Cardinals' rotation — Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez — made the luxuries of Hudson, Gomber, and Poncedeleon in Memphis more than St. Louis could afford.

"We put together a master plan," explains Clapp, "and then we put together a Plan B and a Plan C. That's just the way it is. It's what we're designed for. It's trying to find the right opportunities for guys either to get their work in, if they're down from the big leagues, or find the right area of the rotation for a new guy, or we might use this new guy out of the bullpen." Clapp emphasizes the value of veterans like catcher Carson Kelly, shortstop Wilfredo Tovar, and reliever Edward Mujica in maintaining a clubhouse atmosphere conducive to winning as new faces get accustomed to new lockers.

Despite stumbling through August with an 8-10 record (through Sunday), the Redbirds have a nine-game lead in their division of the PCL with 14 games to play. "We've been blessed," notes Clapp, "in that we did a good enough job at the beginning of the season to open a sizable lead. So we can do [the experimenting] without stressing over it. The worst-case scenario is that we lose a Triple-A baseball game. And that's the way I have to look at it. We want to win while we're here. But in the end, it's making sure these guys develop so they win [in St. Louis]. That's the key."

Clapp's name was mentioned as a candidate for the Cardinals' managerial job upon Matheny's ouster, and having won steadily over two seasons in Memphis — the Redbirds have a .625 winning percentage under Clapp — he'll be discussed among other major-league franchises this winter. And yes, Clapp would like to receive the call he's relayed to so many players over the last two summers. "In the grand scheme of things, obviously I want to be in the big leagues," says the 45-year-old Canadian once known primarily for his backflips in taking the field. "But that's not up to me. What is up to me: how we prepare these guys down here. Take it day by day. God will put me where I need to be. I try to get better every day, whether it's managing the game or relationships with players."

For now, Clapp manages a club hoping to hold off the Nashville Sounds, recent winners of 15 straight games, but still nine back of Memphis. The Redbirds must play 10 of their final 14 games on the road and face the Sounds in eight games that could decide a playoff berth. "We need to get our starting pitchers more comfortable," says Clapp. "When they start to do their thing, we'll reap some new rewards. Sometimes they're trying to do too much and not just be themselves. Some guys get hyped up and, for whatever reason, lose command."

This year's playoff schedule ensures the series clincher will be in Memphis for both the opening round and the final series. Clapp enjoyed one of those at AutoZone Park, 18 years ago. And he'd love another. But as he puts it, the Redbirds must take it day by day. "You gotta clinch first," he says with a smile. "I'm not about getting too far ahead of myself. I don't like being disappointed."

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