There’s a certain pride of ownership Memphis baseball fans can take in seeing former Redbirds contribute to successful teams in St. Louis. As the Cardinals shot out of the gate this year, winning seven of their first eight series and seizing first place in the National League Central, three members of last year’s Pacific Coast League champions played important roles. With more than four months of baseball to play before the postseason, these three could well make headlines this summer beyond Cardinal Country.
• David Freese — Acquired in a trade that sent Jim Edmonds to San Diego after the 2007 season, Freese starred for the 2008 Redbirds, hitting .306 with 26 homers and 91 RBIs. A sprained ankle early in the 2009 campaign hampered his progress, though he hit .323 in 17 games as a Cardinal. In just 56 games for Memphis, Freese drilled 10 homers and drove in 37 runs, then was instrumental in the Redbirds’ march to the PCL title. His home run accounted for the only run scored in the series-clinching victory of the opening round against Albuquerque. Then in Game 1 of the championship series against Sacramento, Freese’s sixth-inning blast was again all the Redbirds needed for the win.
Now five weeks into his first full season in the majors, Freese has all but locked up the Cardinals’ third-base job. On April 29th at Busch Stadium, Freese drove in six runs — the most by a Cardinal rookie in more than 50 years — in a 10-4 win over Atlanta. Through Sunday, Freese was hitting .320 with three home runs and 20 RBIs. Adding another power bat to a lineup that includes Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Ryan Ludwick, and Colby Rasmus must have National League pitchers pondering options.
• Jaime Garcia — Simply put, the 23-year-old lefty has been the third-best starter on the Cardinals’ staff. Considering the top two — Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright — finished with a silver and bronze in last year’s Cy Young voting, Garcia’s early standard is beyond the most optimistic expectations. On April 17th, he matched two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana pitch for pitch in a game that wouldn’t see a run scored for 18 innings. In each of his first six starts, Garcia pitched at least six innings and gave up more than one earned run only once (two, against the Giants). Through Sunday, he sported a 3-2 record with a 1.18 ERA. Shouldn’t surprise anyone who saw him in last year’s PCL playoffs, when he hurled 12 innings over two games without giving up an earned run.
• Nick Stavinoha — If you’re picking a player to support this season, Stavinoha is the guy. Having played 323 games for the Redbirds (fifth in franchise history), Stavinoha made the big club out of spring training ... but without a position to play. He hit .282 in 72 games for the Redbirds last year, but missed the playoffs when a pitch broke his hand late in the regular season.
Lacking the speed to play every day in the outfield, and with first base in St. Louis rather taken, Stavinoha has embraced one of the hardest jobs in sports: regular pinch-hitter. With the Cardinals down a run, one out away from a loss in Milwaukee on April 9th, Stavinoha drilled a homer off future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman to beat the Brewers, 5-4. Then on May 3rd in Philadelphia, his seventh-inning shot made a winner out of the pitcher for whom he pinch-hit: Jaime Garcia. Like a good plumber, a pinch-hitter’s job is thankless .. until he comes through, when there’s no one more valuable.
After a red-hot start in Memphis, outfielder Jon Jay was called up to St. Louis (to replace the struggling Allen Craig, who finds himself back in Triple-A). Joe Mather is a reserve outfielder for the Cards a year after being limited to 39 games for Memphis with a wrist injury. (Mather’s stolen base last Friday night in Pittsburgh led to the winning run.) If they can follow the lead of some of their 2009 teammates, the St. Louis roster won’t have many holes come October.