Two Memphis Redbirds' Rapid Rise

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Every baseball fan loves Crash Davis. The career minor-leaguer — most famous for his season with flame-throwing Nuke LaLoosh and the Durham Bulls — may be fictitious, but he’s a one-man allegory for any athlete who plays entirely for the love of the game. No seven-figure contract, no sports-drink endorsements, no celebrity wife on the arm.

If a 30-something bush-leaguer is an American folk hero, what are we to make of the player who, still in his early 20s, plays his way from Class A to the major leagues (“The Show”) . . . in one season? Even LaLoosh had to pack his bags but once — for his big-league promotion — after finding the strike zone. In Marco Gonzales and Sam Tuivailala, the Memphis Redbirds currently feature a pair of pitchers who performed at four levels in 2014: Class A Palm Beach, Double-A Springfield, Triple-A Memphis, and with the St. Louis Cardinals in the Show. They’ll each play big roles in any success the 2015 Redbirds have on the field, if they’re not pitching at Busch Stadium in another pennant race for the Cardinals.

The 23-year-old Gonzales came so close to earning a spot in the Cardinals’ starting rotation that he actually started for St. Louis (against Memphis) in the April 3rd exhibition game at AutoZone Park. (He allowed one run on three hits in 5 ⅔ innings against his current teammates.) Selected with the 19th pick in the 2013 draft, Gonzales befuddled hitters at Palm Beach last season (1.43 ERA in 37.2 innings) before doing the same at Springfield (2.33, 38.2). The lefty actually bypassed Triple A and made his major-league debut for St. Louis in his home state of Colorado on June 25th. Over the second half of the season, Gonzales earned four wins in Memphis and four more with the Cardinals to earn the franchise’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year award.

The final slot in the Cardinal rotation came down to a competition between Gonzales and another former Redbird, Carlos Martinez. For now, at least, Martinez is the fifth man in St. Louis, while Gonzales fills the role of Memphis ace. “There’s no frustration on my end at all,” says Gonzales. “I’m content with the competition I gave. It’s all part of the development; there’s time I need to spend here still. I’ll do whatever the organization tells me to do.”

Gonzales knows consistency is the ticket to the big leagues for a starting pitcher. “Learning from each and every outing,” he emphasizes. “Turning the page, making each start fresh, to get better. The mental preparation has a lot to do with that. [Big-league] hitters will pick you apart. Everybody’s locked in at all times. They’ll find weaknesses easily. You learn to pitch to your strengths.”

Reflecting on his rapid climb through the Cardinal system, Gonzales embraces his learn-on-the-fly season of 2014. “I had fun with it,” he says. “It was always exciting, thrilling to be at a new level and getting to know a new team. The competition just kept getting better. Jumping levels, the process [of learning] speeds up. I learned a lot.”

Drafted by the Cardinals as a shortstop in 2010, Tuivailala moved to the mound in 2012 when it became clear his arm had more long-term value than his bat. Able to tease 100 mph on the radar gun, Tuivailala emerged last season as a force out of the bullpen, primarily with Palm Beach (37.1 innings) and Springfield (21). Overall, he struck out 97 hitters in 60 innings, for a nine-inning rate (14.6) that would make Nolan Ryan blush. He appeared in two games with Memphis and made his MLB debut with the Cardinals on September 9th in Cincinnati.

“Now that I’m here [in Memphis], you gotta bring your A game every day,” says Tuivailala, a native of San Mateo, California. “The ability guys have at this level is no different from up there [in the majors]. [Major leaguers] can just repeat it consistently.”

As for his multi-stop tour last season, Tuivailala chuckles when asked about the itinerary. “I definitely didn’t expect the season to go fast like that. But I had a lot of fun, learning how to pitch to guys. I’ll get a better season out of myself — and learn more — this year.”

Tuivailala pitched in high school (in addition to playing the infield), but didn’t know he had a high-90s fastball in his right shoulder until his third season as a professional. He spent a lot of time during spring training this year with Cardinal closer Trevor Rosenthal, whose high-90s fastball helped him earn 45 saves with St. Louis last season. “We’d bounce things off each other,” says Tuivailala, “the grips, how to approach hitters. And what you do when things don’t go as planned. It’s the mental side of how to approach guys.” The new Memphis closer has added a changeup to his fastball-curveball repertoire, with hopes of another promotion, perhaps one that sticks next time. Like his buddy Marco Gonzales, Tuivailala will have his bags already packed.

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