June 30, 2012 – A Tale of Two Grounders


Over the last couple of years, we have spent a lot of time digging through Cardinals history, looking at specific games or former players.  There has always been a reason, a subtext that connects some piece of the past to what is happening with the team right now.  A few of them have a personal connection, while others, probably most of them,, are meant to help us keep from getting discouraged in the hopes that some piece of magical history could repeat itself.  Again.   And it often does.

This is not one of those stories.

Bricktown Ballpark (courtesy of baseballpilgrimages.com)

Last night, far far away from the spotlight of the national media, a Minor League game was played between the Memphis Redbirds and the Oklahoma City RedHawks.  There were no playoff implications and nobody set any personal or team record, but if you were fortunate enough to have seen it or heard a radio broadcast, you were treated to a game that you not likely forget.  For the real baseball fan, who looks beyond the box scores and home run highlights, you found one of those perfect baseball moments – the kind that make us baseball fans for life.   If you missed it, please read on as I attempt to give it the justice it deserves.

The setup

The Cardinals AAA Affiliate in Memphis were traveling to Oklahoma City to play a four game series with the RedHawks, the AAA Affiliate of the Houston Astros.   The Redbirds entered the game with a 30-52 record – a most disappointing season for first year Memphis manager, Ron “Pop” Warner.

What had been a perennial playoff contender was now a team in complete rebuilding mode.  Jon Jay, Daniel Descalso and Allen Craig are now regulars with the Cardinals in St. Louis.  Tyler Greene has run out of options, so his time with the Memphis Redbirds hjamie moyer statsas come to an end.   None of those players would have been in Warner’s plans for 2012, but  Tony Cruz, Matt Carpenter and Shane Robinson likely were.   Thanks to some key injuries, and good showings in spring training, all three are with the big club, and at least Cruz and Carpenter are likely to stay.  Since Robinson is one of the new right handed bats on the St. Louis bench, he may also have seen his last days in Memphis.  Also gone, via trades or free agency, are Adam Ottavino, Andrew Brown, Alex Castellanos, PJ Walters, Daryl Jones, Pete Parise, James Rapaport, Donovan Solano and Nick Stavinoha.

Injuries to the big club have also cost Warner pitchers Maikel Cleto, Victor Marte, Eduardo Sanchez, Fernando Salas and most recently  Joe Kelly as well as some time with outfielder Adron Chambers and power hitting first baseman, Matt Adams.  These moves bt the big club have prompted the early callups of Sam Freeman, John Gast, Scott Gorgen plus the acquisition of John Gaub and Clay Zavada.

These are not excuses for their current record, but just observations of what happens to a minor league system when bad things happen to the parent ballclub.

Although the season has been largely disappointing for Warner and the Memphis fans, the last homestand did end on a positive note, winning the series against Albuquerque.   Although it was just the third season win for the Redbirds (the other two were a home and away set with the Iowa Cubs), it did give them a little momentum heading into this roadtrip.

Don’t Answer the Phone

Until the phone rang again.   After a pair of bullpen meltdowns against the Pirates in St. Louis, the Cardinals recalled right hander Maikel Cleto and purchased the contract of lefty Barret Browning.  Cleto has been up with the Cardinals several times, but Browning, a former prospect in the Los Angeles Angels farm system, has never thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues.   The other half of the transaction were the optioning of Sam Freeman and Eduardo Sanchez, both of whom had become increasingly inconsistent.

The timing of the move couldn’t have worked out better for the Cardinals.   Since the team was leaving Memphis for Oklahoma City anyway, Browning and Cleto just took I-55 all the way to St. Louis while the rest of the team rode the bus, probably taking US63 to US412 to I44.  Both Cleto and Browning made it to St. Louis and appeared in the afternoon loss to the Pirates.  Browning was spectacular in his major league debut, retiring all six men he faced.  Cleto was just nasty in his inning of work.

Curiously, neither Sanchez nor Freeman made it to Oklahoma City in time for the game, so Warner’s lineup card was two players down before the first pitch was thrown.

No Hitting Allowed

The game got underway on time, at 7pm.  On the mound for the Cardinals was John Gast, one of the mid-season promotions in response to all of the pitching woes in St. Louis.  In his first few starts, he was impressive.  He went right after batters and was largely effective.   In the last few, he has come back to Earth and is looking like a AA pitcher with a huge amount of potential thrust into a most difficult situation.  But Gast is improving, which should give Cardinals fans one more reason to be optimistic about the team’s future.

On the mound for the RedHawks was Brian Bass, a 30 year old right hander that was originally drafted by Kansas City.  An Adam Ottavino type of pitcher, Bass was not given a contract after the 2006 season and has spent time with Minnesota, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and now finds himself in the Houston farm system.  Bass has spent parts of three seasons in the major league, pitching mostly in the bullpen.

Through the first four innings, it appeared as if Oklahoma City was going to run away with this game.  Redbirds starter, John Gast, left the bases loaded in the first and fourth innings, where the RedHawks scored two runs each time.  He also allowed a solo home run in the second inning.  Heading into the fifth inning, he was approaching 90 pitches and appeared to be headed for an early shower.

On the other side of the diamond, Bass was cruising.  He did not look like a pitcher with a 1-2 record and an ERA that would make you cringe.  Through his first four innings, Bass had allowed just one base runner, a lead off walk to Adron Chambers in the fourth.

What the box scores will not tell you is that this no-hitter in the making was a very fragile one, at best.  Memphis hitters were making good contact on Bass and either hit the ball right at a RedHawks defender, or one of the OKC players made a good play to keep Memphis hitless.   Such was the case during John Gast’s first at-bat, and this is significant.   He hit a bouncing ball deep in the hole at short, and Angel Sanchez made a great throw to beat him by a step.   Make a note here – Gast gets down the first base line very quickly for a pitcher.   That becomes important in a few moments.

That Which Was Made

The fourth inning was something of a total disaster for Memphis.   After successfully bunting Adron Chambers into scoring position , one of the many things Ryan Jackson did to make this win possible, Matt Adams and Steven Hill both struck out.

Then, in the bottom of the inning, a pair of defensive miscues by Matt Adams led to another pair of RedHawks runs.

With runners at first and second and nobody out, Brian Bass lays down a perfect sacrifice bunt.  Matt Adams fields it, and instead of taking a step away from the baseline, decides to throw a lollipop over the runner.  His toss is too high and pulls Pete Kozma off the base and Bass is safe.  Adams had plenty of time to take a couple of steps and make a good throw.   The play is ruled a sacrifice and a throwing error on Adams.   The bases are now loaded with nobody out.

After Gast strikes out Brandon Barnes for the first out, Jimmy Paredes hits a bullet to right field.  Fortunately, the ball was hit so sharply that the RedHawks had to hold the runner at third, plating just the one run.

With the bases still loaded, the next RedHawks batter nearly clears them then Fernando Martinez hits a rope down the left field line.  It bounces just foul, and the Oklahoma City fans all let out a giant sigh, as if they knew what was about to happen.

A couple of pitches later, Martinez hits the ball hard at Matt Adams.   He is unable to make the play, and the ball bounces to Pete Kozma.   With Adams moving to his right, he is unable to turn around and get back to first base.   Gast did not help his cause as he did not cover first either, so Kozma ends up holding the baseball while the RedHawks score another run.   It is ruled an infield single, but could just as easily have been Adams second error of the inning.

As badly as this game is going at the moment, the next two plays give you a glimpse of what John Gast is capable of, and why he will make a fine addition to the rotation in a couple of years.

Knowing he is on a very short leash right now, Gast gets the next batter to pop up, in foul territory to Bryan Anderson.  This was hardly a routine catch as the ball had a lot of spin and was assisted by a breeze.  Another detail that does not come across in the box score.   The most important thing about that play – it keeps the all important sixth run at third base.

There are now two outs, and that takes us to the first of our two turning points in this game.

On a 1-2 pitch, the speedy Angel Sanchez hits a ball through the right side of the infield.  It looked like a 2 run single all the way, but somehow, Pete Kozma was able to dive far to his left and make the play.   From his knees, he fires a bullet to Matt Adams to get Sanchez by a step.   This is one of the prettiest plays I’ve ever seen Komza make, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

And that Which Was Not

The Memphis fifth inning started off on a positive when Mark Hamilton hits a blast to to deepest part of Bricktown, just missing a home run by a foot or so.  The ball bounces off the wall and Hamilton cruises into second base.   That was the first Memphis hit on the night.  Hamilton moves up to third base on a ground out by Zack Cox.

Pete Kozma follows that with a double ripped, down the left field line.  Hamilton scores the first Redbirds run and the score is now 5-1 in favor of the RedHawks.  Bryan Anderson grounds out for the second out of the inning and Kozma takes third on the play.

That brings John Gast to the plate, and the second of our two pivotal plays, which actually has two parts.   The first was the decision to let Gast bat for himself in this situation.   He had struggled for most of the night, and was over 80 pitches.   He would last another inning, maybe two at the most.   Perhaps if there was another runner in scoring position, Warner might have opted for a pinch hitter here, but he didn’t.  And we are so glad he made that choice.

Gast hits a routine grounder to first base, but Mike Hesseman fails to make the play.   Kozma scores the second run for the Redbirds and Gast is safe at first on Hesseman’s error.

And then the floodgates opened, and nothing went in the RedHawks favor.

Adron Chambers follows that with a single.  Ryan Jackson doubles, scoring both runners.

Stop the presses  

Pop Warner makes a most unexpected substitution, sending Cedric Hunter in to pinch hit for Matt Adams.   With all of the Cardinals recent woes, this will certainly lead to a maelstrom of speculation of whether Adams had been called up or traded.   It was more likely that Adams had been removed as a precaution as the ground ball he booted was hit rather sharply.   At the end of the game, there was still no official word on why this move was made.

And Thus the Blowout Begins

Hunter hits a seeing-eye grounder that scored Jackson with the tying run.    That would end the evening for Brian Bass.   Of the five runs he allowed so far, just one was earned.   He is also responsible for Hunter on first base, and that would eventually cost him the loss.

Enerio Del Rosario is now into the game for Oklahoma City and he fares no better than Bass.  Steven Hill would draw a walk on a close call.  Mark Hamilton would follow that with a three run homer – in nearly the exact same spot as his double to start the inning – just a couple of feet deeper.  Zack Cox follows that with a double and Del Rosario walks Pete Kozma and Bryan Anderson.   John Gast, who should have made the last out in his previous at-bat, finally does so in his second.   Mermphis sends fourteen men to the plate, nine after what should have been the last out.   They also put 8 runs on the scoreboard and took an 8-5 lead.  One which they would not give back for the remainder of this game.

A One and a Two and a Three

It was something of a courageous decision to let Gast hit for himself in the top of the fifth, allowing him to take the mound after such a long inning on the bench proved to be just as pivotal as his two at-bats in the top of the inning.  It probably doesn’t warrant repeating, but the most important thing for a pitcher to do is throw a quick scoreless inning immediately after his team gives him the lead.

That’s exactly what Gast did.   As if to kick the wounded RedHawks, Gast didn’t even work up a sweat as he worked a swift fifth inning.

His team would reward him with another pair of runs in the sixth.   Gast’s night would come to an end in the bottom of the six as Pop Warner turns the game over to his bullpen, sans one Sam Freeman and Eduardo Sanchez.  Nick Greenwood, John Gaub and Chuckie Fick would close out this neat win for Gast, with the only blemish a solo home run by Mike Hesseman, his 24th on the season.

As quickly as the bottom of the innings were flying by, the tops were quite the other thing.  Memphis would score runs in every remaining inning: three in the sixth, one in the seventh, two in the eighth and finally six in the ninth.   After being no-hit through four innings, Memphis collected 21 hits in the final five.

Some of the individual performances were amazing.

  • Adron Chambers: 5-6 with a double, 4 runs scored, 1 RBI
  • Ryan Jackson: 2-5 with 2 doubles, 4 RBIs
  • Cedric Hunter: 3-5 with 3 RBIs and 2 runs scored
  • Mark Hamilton: 3-4 with a double and home run.  3 runs scored and 3 RBIs
  • Zack Cox: 3-6 with 2 doubles, a run scored and 2 RBIs
  • Pete Kozma: 1-3 with a double, 2 RBIs, 2 runs scored and a game saving defensive play

It should also be noted that, for all of the offensive mayhem in the last five innings, Memphis hit just one home run.   Most of the damage came by way of the double.   That’s good sustainable baseball.

It was an amazing game, not for the final score, but for those two magic moments in the fifth inning – one play that was made to prevent a blowout and one that wasn’t that led to one.  The game within the game, something that baseball fans cherish.   There is a final moral to this story though, and it has been something of a constant theme on this blog.   When the major league team is not playing, either with a day off or an early or west coast schedule, take the time to check out a minor league game.  Every once in a while, you will be rewarded with a gem like this one.   All of the audio is streamed for free, and the video from nearly every AAA game, and now, quite a few AA games is available for a small subscription fee.  Being able to watch the game last night was worth that price, and more.

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One Response to June 30, 2012 – A Tale of Two Grounders

  1. Always Appreciate your articles

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