More than fireworks were launched at AutoZone Park on July 4th. In edging the Round Rock Express, 3-2 in 11 innings, the Memphis Redbirds began a four-game winning streak and the best month the team has seen in years. Entering that night’s game, the Redbirds had a record of 37-43 and were eight games behind the Nashville Sounds in their division of the Pacific Coast League. Since then (through Sunday), the team has gone 24-11. A five-game winning streak pushed the Redbirds into first place on August 3rd, the latest they’ve occupied the top spot in a season since 2002. A victory over Colorado Springs Sunday again leapfrogged the ’Birds ahead of Nashville.
With four weeks remaining on the schedule, there are a few elements that will decide if Memphis baseball fans see their first playoff action since the championship 2000 season.
* STARTING STOPPERS. It’s the first, last, and most obvious ingredient for any playoff baseball team: strong starting pitching. P.J. Walters recently struck out 27 batters over two starts. After starting the season 0-9, Adam Ottavino has won five of his last six decisions. Mitchell Boggs has pitched well enough to earn an early-August start for the Cardinals in St. Louis. These three hurlers — along with Evan MacLane and Oneli Perez — will have to put up consistent zeroes for the Redbirds to remain in contention.
* ROSTER STABILITY. The return of Nick Stavinoha from St. Louis has added considerable pop to the middle of the Redbird lineup. Mark Hamilton — a Texas League All-Star earlier this year for Double-A Springfield — brings lefthanded power that was dealt a blow when Brett Wallace was sent to Oakland in the Matt Holliday trade. Shortstop Tyler Greene may be the most talented two-way player Memphis suits up these days . . . when he’s not in St. Louis. (If Brendan Ryan and Julio Lugo stay healthy with the Cardinals, Greene should remain in Memphis until big-league rosters expand in September.) Injuries in St. Louis that require the services of Boggs or Walters will hinder the Redbirds’ playoff hopes. If the group that took the club to first place earlier this month stays together, they stand a decent chance of running off another winning streak of five or more games.
* CLOSING HAMMER. The trade of Wallace made most of the headlines last month, but for the 2009 Redbirds, the bigger hit came when relief pitcher Jess Todd was taken by Cleveland as the player to be named in the deal that sent Mark DeRosa to St. Louis. Todd was leading the PCL with 24 saves when the trade was finalized. Now, Redbird manager Chris Maloney is forced to essentially try out possible closers. Charlie Manning? Royce Ring? Pete Parise? Ian Ostlund? Matt Scherer? One of these pitchers will have to take command of the ninth inning for the Redbirds to play deep into September.
* SILENCE THE SOUNDS. Memphis has four more games with the Nashville Sounds, the team that has led its division for most of the season. (All four games will be at Greer Stadium in Nashville, August 31st, and September 1-3.) In baseball math, that is a potential eight-game swing in the standings. To date, the Redbirds are 4-8 against the Sounds but, ominously, have lost all four games in Nashville. The key, of course, is getting to the season’s final week in a position where this series matters. Which brings us to the final, critical factor for what remains of the 2009 season.
* LUCK. There’s no ducking this element in a pennant race. On August 2nd, the Redbirds beat Omaha when Jarrett Hoffpauir scored from first base in the bottom of the ninth ... after being picked off. (Royals pitcher Victor Marte threw the ball into centerfield after stepping off the rubber, and Hoffpauir never stopped running.) Just two nights later, the Redbirds fell to the Royals, 6-4, with two innings ending on a Redbird runner being thrown out at the plate. A bases-loaded line drive off the bat of Allen Craig resulted in a double-play instead of the tying and go-ahead runs. Inches here or there, a broken stride, a foul tip. These have ripple effects that will make or break a contender.