Minor league baseball never feels more minor than when the playoffs arrive in September. This is especially the case at the Triple-A level, where eight teams — four from the Pacific Coast League and four from the International League — vie for championships at the highest level below the majors. When big-league rosters expand on September 1st, many of the finest Triple-A players in the country are given lockers in major-league clubhouses, leaving playoff teams — like the 2017 Memphis Redbirds — with unfamiliar faces in the batting order and pitching rotation.
St. Louis Cardinal fans were thrilled to see Harrison Bader launch a tie-breaking home run in Sunday’s win over the Giants in San Francisco, the Cards still clinging to hope for a wild-card slot in the National League playoffs. Those with an interest in Memphis winning its third PCL title would prefer to see the 23-year-old Bader in centerfield at AutoZone Park Wednesday night when the Redbirds and Colorado Springs open their best-of-five semifinal series.
Pitchers Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty combined to win 17 games for Memphis this season. At the front of the Redbirds’ rotation, they would make Memphis the prohibitive favorite to win the PCL championship. Instead, they’re now 40 percent of the Cardinals’ rotation. (Adam Wainwright landed on the disabled list with a back ailment and Mike Leake was mercifully — for St. Louis — shipped to Seattle last week for a minor-leaguer and a Starbucks gift card.) Relief pitcher Ryan Sherriff was a PCL All-Star each of the last two seasons, but can now be found in the Cardinal bullpen.
The roster depletion is ugly on paper, but hasn’t yet impacted a Redbird season that is already historic by a few measures. Not even two months into the season, Memphis set a franchise record with an 11-game winning streak. (Back then Paul DeJong was clubbing baseballs for Memphis. He’s now the Cardinals’ everyday shortstop.) The 2017 Redbirds are the first PCL team in 11 years to win 90 games and the first in 36 years to win its division by more than 20 games. (The last Memphis baseball team to win 90 games was the 1955 Chicks.) Few postseason awards are more predictable than Stubby Clapp’s PCL Manager of the Year hardware. In his first year at the helm, Clapp has filled slots with the bats and arms St. Louis allows him, while retaining cohesiveness in the clubhouse consistent with five months of sustained success.
Dakota Hudson will take the mound Wednesday for Game 1 against the Sky Sox. One of the top pitching prospects in the Cardinal system, Hudson went 9-4 at Double-A Springfield before a late-season promotion to Memphis (one that coincided with Weaver’s move to St. Louis). Hudson will likely be throwing to a catcher — Gabriel Lino, Jesse Jenner, or Jeremy Martinez — who spent most of the season below Triple A. The Cardinals seized both the Redbirds’ starting catcher (Carson Kelly) and backup (Alberto Rosario) for their playoff push. After Hudson, Clapp will give the ball to the likes of Kevin Herget (62 innings pitched for Memphis this season) or Matt Pearce (54 innings). They’ll be tasked with winning a championship for some teammates nowhere near AutoZone Park.
Another irony of the PCL playoffs is empty seats. With school having resumed and football season underway, small crowds are the norm as the best teams in Triple A face one another for a crown. It will be a shame if Memphis baseball fans don’t find a way to properly salute this year’s club. Pending another Cardinal promotion, Patrick Wisdom (31 home runs and an all-league selection) remains a Redbird. So do Breyvic Valera (.314 batting average), Nick Martini (.303), and Rangel Ravero (.314). With the recent addition of outfielder Tyler O’Neill (a combined 31 home runs for Tacoma and Memphis), the Redbirds present a formidable lineup even with the mass defection to St. Louis.
Baseball measures greatness with flags. Having posted the greatest regular season in franchise history, it’s now time for the 2017 Memphis Redbirds to raise their own.
EDITOR'S NOTE: On Tuesday morning, St. Louis promoted Valera, a reinforcement for Cardinal infielder Matt Carpenter (currently nursing a shoulder ailment).