The Memphis Redbirds are back in the Pacific Coast League playoffs. For the first time since 2010, the Redbirds will compete for one of two league championships at the Triple-A level (the other being the International League’s). As you were grilling burgers on the Fourth of July, you didn’t exactly see postseason baseball coming to AutoZone Park two months later. But thanks to some stellar starting pitching and the thunderous bat of a sometimes-overlooked slugger, the Redbirds will indeed host the Omaha Storm Chasers this Friday in Game 3 of the PCL’s American Conference championship. If momentum can be carried over from the regular season, Memphis has a more than decent chance of earning the franchise’s third PCL title.
How significant has the Redbirds’ two-month surge been? Consider the team was lagging in fourth (last) place in their division on July 2nd, with a record of 38-46 after being shut out by the Nashville Sounds. Starting the next day in New Orleans, Memphis won five straight and eight of ten games. Having won seven games through the end of June, starting pitcher Tim Cooney won seven more games to break the franchise record for victories in a season. Another lefty, Tyler Lyons, won six consecutive starts. Marco Gonzales and Zach Petrick added to the fun, providing the Redbirds with one of the most consistent starting rotations in Triple-A baseball. Supported by an offense that found its groove right after super-prospect Oscar Taveras was promoted to St. Louis (July 1st), Redbird pitching posted a 41-18 record to finish the season with 79 wins, third most in franchise history.
The face of that hitting groove has been first-baseman Xavier Scruggs. The 26-year-old slugger was hitting .248 on July 2nd, almost precisely his career average (.249) over the first six seasons of his pro career. But with an August for the ages (.345, 8 homers, 28 RBIs), Scruggs managed to steal some headlines from more talked-about Cardinal prospects like Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty.
“The season’s been a learning process,” says Scruggs. “I had to make a lot of adjustments, to figure out what pitchers were trying to do to me, and have a plan. I had to take a step back. Physically, I had to make my swing shorter, started taking what a pitcher gives me, even if it’s just a base hit to the right side.” Like every aspiring big-leaguer, Scruggs aims to be a more consistent hitter as he ponders the offseason and his future in the game. (Scruggs is not on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster so will not be going to St. Louis this month to help in the parent club’s pennant race.)
Scruggs is reluctant to accept accolades without mentioning the impact of his teammates. In particular, he describes how important outfielder Tommy Pham has been to the playoff push. With his playing time boosted upon the promotion of Taveras, Pham finished the season hitting .324 with 20 stolen bases. “Tommy has worked hard all season,” says Scruggs, “even when he wasn’t playing. As soon as he jumped in, he was able to be a spark plug. He’s been huge for us. It’s one of the reasons we took off.”
And how do you explain three months of sub-.500 baseball, followed by a two-month storming of the PCL gates? “The team just started gelling,” says Scruggs. “All the personalities came together, and everyone started feeling their role. Pitching came together and hitting came together at the same time. Earlier in the season, there’d be good pitching one day, but no hitting. For some reason, it took our team that long [to gel]. I can’t put a finger on exactly why, but I’m just glad we ended up doing it.”
Scruggs is one of eight current Redbirds who played for the 2012 Springfield Cardinals, a team that won the Texas League (Double-A) championship. He sees similarities in the 2014 Redbirds, and beyond the familiar faces of teammates like Eric Fornataro, Audry Perez, and Jermaine Curtis. “Guys want to finish strong,” says Scruggs. “Guys are trying to finish strong individually and collectively. When we started to play better, you got the sense guys wanted to get here earlier, stay later. We were having more fun in the clubhouse. Everybody in that clubhouse is a huge team guy. There are no big egos on this team. It’s fun to be around.”