Sunday night at AutoZone Park, a few thousand Memphis baseball fans received a nine-inning slice of the kind of baseball a prospect-packed team can deliver when those prospects — and not incidentally, their supporting cast — are in top form. In beating the Iowa Cubs, 6-0, the Redbirds received a three-run double from Oscar Taveras (the top-ranked prospect currently in the minor leagues), the sixth triple of the season from second-baseman Kolten Wong (the 84th-ranked prospect), and 7 2/3 shutout innings from starting pitcher Carlos Martinez (#38). Add to the mix Brock Peterson’s 18th home run of the season — a total that leads the Pacific Coast League — and the Redbirds took a step toward righting a wayward ship. Having lost seven of eight on its most recent road trip, Memphis is now tied with the I-Cubs atop its division of the PCL (alas, with an underwhelming record of 38-40 heading into Monday night’s game).
Martinez mixed heat (his fastball reached 96 mph in the eighth inning) with a knee-wobbling breaking ball, striking out eight while allowing only three hits and no walks. For a St. Louis Cardinal fan base already salivating at the precocious talent of Michael Wacha (the 76th-ranked prospect), Martinez finding a comfort zone as a starting pitcher is the kind of supplemental luxury few big-league clubs enjoy at the Triple-A level. If he and Wacha are able to start 40 percent of the Redbirds’ remaining 66 games, you have to like the chances of a Redbird return to the PCL playoffs.
A few more thoughts as the Redbirds fly into the second half of their season:
• The club sold 6,569 tickets to Sunday night’s game, a picture-perfect summer evening for baseball downtown, with the fans down the rightfield line enjoying a sunset that would have pleased Monet. The night before — fireworks follow Saturday night games — 13,637 tickets were sold, the largest gate of the season to date. The average this season is 6,866, slightly down from 6,954 in 2012. (The month of July should provide a bump, though, with 17 home games. At this point last year, the Redbirds were averaging 6,755 tickets sold.)
A lesson to be taken: prospects and (almost) winning baseball are moderate variables in selling Triple-A baseball. At this point last year, the Redbirds were a last-place outfit, limping along with a record of 28-50. No Taveras, Wong, Wacha, or Martinez. But on June 16, 2012 — a fireworks night — 13,240 fans packed AutoZone Park to watch New Orleans shut out the team.
• For Father’s Day, my daughters customized a t-shirt for me: black, with white lettering that says “Save Taveras.” (If you’ve seen the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you get the joke.) The Redbirds’ season has been impacted as much by the ankle injury suffered by their star prospect — on May 12th — as by the sporadic exploits of the future Cardinal outfielder. Having missed almost a month initially, Taveras returned to the lineup 17 games ago (Memphis has gone 6-11 since his return) but continues to favor his tender right ankle with every gallop in centerfield or on the bases. Following his big third-inning double Sunday night (after which he scored on Peterson’s homer), Taveras was removed from the game ... favoring that ankle. You have to wonder if Oscar Taveras will be remembered more for the games he missed in Memphis than for those he played.
• There’s an old-school simplicity to playoff races in the PCL. The four teams who finish first in their division go to the postseason. Second place is as good as last place. The American Conference’s North Division — Memphis, Iowa, Omaha, and Nashville — is positively bursting with mediocrity. Thus a team two games under .500 can be tied for first place. The Redbirds will play 26 of their final 66 games against their division rivals. If they can win 16 of those games, then split the other 40, a record of 74-70 may be enough to get the club into the playoffs. And if Wacha and Martinez haven’t been recalled by St. Louis, a five-game series — regardless of the opponent — will favor Memphis.
• With his next hit, Adron Chambers will become the 10th player to pick up 300 as a Redbird. With 19 more, he’ll move past Keith McDonald and Skip Schumaker into sixth place on the franchise chart. Nick Stavinoha is atop that chart with 531 hits over his five seasons (2007-11) in Memphis.