Eight-game winning streaks can transform a baseball season. Just ask the Memphis Redbirds. After losing the first game of a double-header to Omaha at AutoZone Park on May 17th, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate found itself slogging along with a record of 14-23, last in the Pacific Coast League in batting average, runs scored, and (perhaps most deflating) attendance. But starting that very Sunday — with a 4-1 win over the Storm Chasers in the second game of the double-header — the Redbirds have been rolling, earning their eighth consecutive win at Fresno Monday night. Memphis is still a game shy of .500 (22-23) and trails Round Rock by six-and-a-half games in its division of the PCL. If Memorial Day is the first mile marker for measuring a baseball team’s strengths, the 2015 Redbirds have gained plenty over the last week.
What went wrong over the season’s first six weeks? There are plenty of new faces in uniform for the Redbirds, as there is every season in the minor leagues. (Welcome home, Jacob Wilson.) But the team also features veterans who contributed significantly for a division champion in 2014: pitchers Tim Cooney and Zach Petrick, rightfielder Stephen Piscotty, middle-infielder Greg Garcia, and first-baseman Xavier Scruggs.
Based on their numbers a year ago, Piscotty (the Cardinals’ third-ranked prospect) and Scruggs should be this team’s run-producers. Scruggs drove in 87 runs in 2014, his first season facing Triple-A pitching, and had a slash line of .286/.370/.494 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). This year, the X-Man has 21 RBIs in 39 games, his averages having dropped to .219/.369/.477. A year ago, Piscotty drove in 69 runs with a slash line of .288/.355/.406. This season: 20 RBIs and .235/.343/.451. The Cardinals have tasked Piscotty with developing his power stroke (note the increase in slugging percentage) and the Stanford alum is already more than halfway to his 2014 home run total (9) with 6. If Piscotty and Scruggs find consistent strokes as the temperature rises, the Redbirds could threaten the Express at the top of the American Southern Division.
A pair of veteran acquisitions — Ty Kelly (.197 batting average) and Dean Anna (.233) — hasn’t made anyone forget Kolten Wong or Randal Grichuk. Seeking an offensive boost, the Redbirds released 31-year-old Scott Moore on May 18th to make room for Jacob Wilson, the former Bartlett High School and University of Memphis star who, with Ed Easley of Olive Branch, has added meaning to the “home” team at AutoZone Park. Wilson homered in his first Triple-A game and has hit .238 over his first seven games with Memphis. Most importantly, the Redbirds’ starting pitching has stabilized during the winning streak, with Petrick, Tyler Lyons, and Nick Greenwood following Cooney in the rotation. (Top prospect Marco Gonzales is again on the disabled list with shoulder discomfort.)
As for the sagging attendance, the weeknight numbers should improve now that schools have closed for the summer. And Memphis is the only PCL city also home to an NBA team that reached the second round of the playoffs. Perhaps enough Grizzly fans will need a warm-weather sports fix to help the franchise escape the PCL’s attendance cellar. In the meantime, general manager Craig Unger and the new Cardinal brass at Third and Union face the challenge of filling empty suites (even with a reduction in number after the massive club-level renovation, some suites remain unoccupied) and convincing casual fans that minor-league baseball is premium entertainment.
• Conventional wisdom says players don’t sell tickets to minor-league baseball games. But there’s a slugger currently wearing a Redbirds uniform you might consider seeing before he hangs up his long-worn spikes. Dan Johnson — signed by Memphis on May 4th — played his first professional game in 2001, and his first Triple-A game (for Sacramento) in 2003. Over his 15 pro seasons, the 35-year-old Johnson has appeared in 431 big-league games with five teams. But he’s closing in on his 1,300th minor-league game. Remarkably, Johnson has been MVP of both Triple-A leagues (the PCL in 2004 and the International League in 2010). He’s hit 241 home runs in the bushes (182 at the Triple-A level). Johnson is Crash Davis minus the chest protector and Annie Savoy. Find time to visit Third and Union, buy a cold drink (however expensive), and give this baseball player a hand for playing the game he loves.