Sports » Sports Feature

FROM MY SEAT: Birds of October



It’s been a good month to call yourself a Memphis Redbirds fan. To begin with, the home team hasn’t lost any games recently at Third and Union, its miserable 2006 season having ended on Labor Day. But as the major league postseason has unfolded, every time you happen upon SportsCenter, there’s a former Redbird on your TV screen. Within 24 hours last weekend, So Taguchi -- a Redbird from 2002 to 2004 -- hit a game-winning home run for the St. Louis Cardinals in New York and Placido Polanco -- a Redbird in 1998 and ‘99 – was named MVP of the American League Championship Series. (Remarkably, two middle infielders from the ‘98 Redbirds have now been named MVP of the ALCS. Adam Kennedy earned the honor in 2002 with the Angels.)

Beyond Chris Carpenter’s two stellar outings on the mound for St. Louis in the Cardinals’ Division Series against San Diego, there was no more critical an element to the Cards’ four-game victory than their relief pitching. And that bullpen -- minus closer Jason Isringhausen, who underwent hip surgery last month -- was largely a troika of rookies who cut their teeth at AutoZone Park. Big righty Adam Wainwright -- acquired from Atlanta in the 2004 trade that sent another former Redbird, J.D. Drew, to the Braves -- has been considered a candidate for the St. Louis rotation the last two seasons (including 2005, when he won 10 games for Memphis and led the Pacific Coast League in innings pitched). Last spring, though, Wainwright earned a spot in the Cardinals’ bullpen and pitched beyond his 25 years all season (3.12 ERA in 75 innings). Taking over the closer’s role vacated by Isringhausen, Wainwright got the final out in all three wins over the Padres, and looked menacing at times in doing so. Don’t doubt that Wainwright’s role in 2007 will be a major decision for Tony LaRussa this winter. (Isringhausen may be unavailable until next year’s All-Star break.)

Setting up Wainwright’s starring role in the playoffs’ opening round were Tyler Johnson and Josh Kinney, a lefty-righty duo that Memphis fans will remember merely for being part of a revolving door of relief pitchers over the last two years. Johnson showed promise in 2005, when he picked up 77 strikeouts and 7 saves over 59 innings pitched with Memphis. He made marginal impact this year in St. Louis (only 36 innings pitched), but his sweeping curveball made San Diego’s lefthanded batters look silly. As for Kinney (a sparkling 1.52 ERA over 71 innings for Memphis last season), he was as reliable from the right side as Johnson was from the left, pitching in each of the Cardinals’ three wins over the Padres.

The local impact on this year’s run to the World Series doesn’t stop with the Cardinals. Oakland’s Danny Haren started and won Game 3 in the A’s sweep of Minnesota. Haren won 11 games and led the PCL in strikeouts for the 2004 Redbirds, before eventually appearing in the World Series with St. Louis. Haren battled for five innings last Saturday in Detroit, leaving a tie game before the Tigers won the pennant on a ninth inning home run by Magglio Ordonez.

Another young hurler, Anthony Reyes, took the hill for St. Louis in Game 4 against the Mets. Having won 13 games over the last two seasons for Memphis, Reyes is a lock to be in the Cardinal rotation in 2007. He struggled against the mighty Met lineup, but left after four innings having given up but two runs (each on solo homers). This time, the St. Louis bullpen -- starting with 2006 Redbird Brad Thompson -- imploded, giving up 10 runs over the last five innings.

Finally, you have Polanco, at last earning some national recognition for his always steady, never spectacular contributions. Part of the trade that brought Scott Rolen to St. Louis, Polanco is making his second postseason appearance, and hit over .500 in the Tigers’ sweep of Oakland. And you gotta love the winterized ski cap he wore under his Tiger lid in frigid Detroit. Whatever it takes.

It’s impossible for this year’s postseason to match the dramatic runs of the 2004 Boston Red Sox and last year’s Chicago White Sox. Simply too much dreadful history behind those long-awaited championships. But consider this: should the favored Mets finish off St. Louis, we will have seen 10 different baseball teams in the last five World Series. It’s the kind of parity the NFL and NBA fantasize over. “Wait till next year” has become a legitimate rallying cry for the game’s also-rans. And one thing’s for certain: no matter who squares off Saturday night in the 102nd World Series, you’ll have a former Memphis Redbird to cheer. Better yet, it’s barely five months until Opening Day.

Add a comment