A star player, long retired, returns to lead a new generation, applying a touch that results in a historic season and ultimately a championship.
If Penny Hardaway’s first season as University of Memphis basketball coach goes anything like Stubby Clapp’s return to Memphis last year as manager of the Redbirds, the Bluff City may actually implode. In his first season in the skipper’s office, Clapp led the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate to the most wins (91) any Memphis baseball team had posted since 1948. The Redbirds reeled off a franchise-record 11-game winning streak early in the 2017 campaign and posted a statistically impossible record of 13-0 in extra-inning games. Your turn, Penny!
A few storylines as the Redbirds’ 21st season in Memphis gets underway:
• Forget about an encore.
The Redbirds won their first four games of the season in Round Rock, and scored 40 runs in doing so. But look at those silly numbers above. The 2017 Redbirds won or split 27 consecutive series, for crying out loud. It’s not happening again. But here’s the good news: The Redbirds could shave 10 wins — and merely split their extra-inning results — and still win their division of the Pacific Coast League. Furthermore, no Redbird team has successfully defended a championship, so there’s much to gain with another pennant chase.
Stubby Clapp hopes his 'Birds get off to another flying start.
• The boys are back.
Carson Kelly (catcher), Patrick Wisdom (third base), Luke Voit (first base), Harrison Bader (centerfield), and Wilfredo Tovar (shortstop) played significant roles in last year’s championship, and they’re all back. Outfielder Tyler O’Neill hit a combined 31 home runs last season between Tacoma and Memphis. Judging by his button-popping physique and four home runs in the team’s first four games, he’ll hit another 31 this year.
With the Cardinals keeping only four reserve position players on their roster, there will be an express shuttle between AutoZone Park and Busch Stadium. (Bader has already flown north to fill in for the injured Jedd Gyorko, currently on the 10-day disabled list.) But that shuttle will also deliver big-league-ready players to Memphis. When I asked Clapp last week about new faces that caught his eye during spring training, he paused and said, “We only have three.” (Max Schrock was acquired in the trade that sent Stephen Piscotty to Oakland and he’ll take over at second base.) A “veteran” Triple-A team means a team of players hungry for the next promotion. Under the right leadership — Clapp was named Minor League Manager of the Year by Baseball America last year — the 2018 Redbirds will aim to capitalize on the culture of winning established in 2017.
• A pair of aces.
Two young flame-throwers — Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson — should front the Redbirds’ pitching rotation. Flaherty went 7-2 with Memphis last season and posted a 2.74 ERA. Filling in on for the injured Adam Wainwright, Flaherty struck out nine Milwaukee Brewers in five innings for St. Louis last week then fanned 11 in Round Rock Sunday in his first start for Memphis. Hudson went 9-4 with a 2.53 ERA at Double-A Springfield last year before a July promotion to Memphis. (He won a pair of playoff games for the Redbirds.) As of now, 21-year-old Jordan Hicks and his 101-mph fastball are in the Cardinals’ bullpen. But when the Cards’ newly signed closer, Greg Holland, is ready for game action, Hicks may join Flaherty and Hudson in the Memphis rotation. The Houston native had not pitched above Class A before making the St. Louis roster last month.
• The USL is coming!
We learned a hard truth last season at AutoZone Park: A popular manager and exceptional team don’t necessarily sell tickets. The Redbirds finished 13th in the 16-team PCL in attendance, averaging 5,073 tickets sold for their 69 home dates. The upcoming season may well be the team’s last in a baseball-only stadium, as the Bluff City’s new United Soccer League franchise will open play — coinciding with baseball season — in 2019. Championships have proven easier to attain at AutoZone Park than profitability, so significant adjustments — including what we see in the stadium — continue. But in a facility built for baseball, Memphis has a baseball team built to win. Should make for a good match in the months ahead.