Of bunts and bombs

Memphis Redbirds win second straight PCL championship

By Updated: September 17, 2018 12:40 AM CT

There is more than one way to win a championship ring. The Memphis Redbirds’ pursuit of a second consecutive Pacific Coast League title featured a game-winning hit from a pitcher, a walk-off suicide squeeze bunt and two home runs in the championship-clinching game from a player who earlier had been demoted to Double-A Springfield.

“It’s a little of last year all over again,” Redbirds president and general manager Craig Unger said amid the thrill ride. “It doesn’t really surprise you anymore. The resiliency of last year has carried over to this year and again it shows you the system is strong and that the players are learning to win.”

The fun began on Aug. 25 when the Memphis Redbirds clinched their playoff berth with a walk-off hit and the help of a Nashville error at AutoZone Park.

Uncork the champagne.

Then they scored two walk-off wins over Oklahoma City in their first-round playoff series, including the series clincher here when pitcher Giovanny Gallegos, of all people, stroked a game-winning line drive in extra innings to beat Oklahoma City.

Cue the champagne.

And then came a walk-off 11th-inning suicide squeeze bunt to defeat Fresno – the first that manager Stubby Clapp had called in two seasons – to put the Redbirds on the brink of their second straight Pacific Coast League title.

Chill the champagne.

But Saturday night at AutoZone Park in front of a raucous crowd of 8,834 that came to its feet before Gallegos induced a game-ending pop out, the Redbirds took a more direct different path to victory and the latest championship celebration:

Randy Arozarena blasted a three-run homer in the first inning and, just to make sure things didn’t get close, tacked on a two-run homer in the eighth; starting pitcher Jake Woodford threw 7.1 shutout innings, and the Redbirds defeated Fresno 5-0 to win the series 3-1 and the PCL championship.

“It’s good to be winning since the beginning of the game,” Arozarena said through Redbirds pitching coach Dernier Orozco, who acted as translator. “Too much tension at the end.”

Amen, said Clapp: “Today was beautiful.” 

It marked the fourth PCL crown (2000, 2009, 2017 and 2018) in franchise history and this one was 18 years to the day that a St. Cardinals prospect by the name of Albert Pujols delivered a walk-off home run in the debut season of AutoZone Park for the team’s first PCL crown. Stubby Clapp was then a beloved player, renowned for his grit and pregame backflips.

“Mark Little and I collided in center field,” Clapp told the Daily Memphian. “I was playing second and we were playing no doubles and there’s (a loud crowd) and I knew if there was a flair hit, I had to go it. And me and him couldn’t hear each other and collided. I tried to play through it, but had to come out of the game.”

Now, Clapp is a two-time PCL Manager of the Year and his team will return to the Triple-A Championship Game set for Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio. It’s a rematch of last year’s game with the Durham Bulls (Tampa Bay) and will be televised on the NBC Sports Network. Durham won 5-3 last September.

“Get some redemption,” said second baseman Tommy Edman, who shared the MVP Award of the PCL playoffs with Arozarena and batted .469 through the Redbirds’ eight playoff games.

But regardless of how Tuesday’s nine-inning playoff turns out, there’s no taking away the back-to-back PCL titles.

Or if you prefer the phrasing on the new T-shirts being worn by everyone from Redbirds owner Peter B. Freund on down to the team’s clubbies: “Beak 2 Beak Champions.”


Whatever it Takes

Not long after Redbirds third baseman Edmund Sosa caught that popup in foul territory and players started celebrating on the field, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright tweeted: “Congrats to the @memphisredbirds on their championship! Back to back!!! Question … do I get a ring?”

Wainwright, after all, had just been here on an MLB rehab assignment. He was one of the cast of thousands (OK, 66) to wear the Redbirds uniform this season.

“I’m sure if Adam wants a ring, he’ll get a ring,” Clapp said.

In 2017, the Redbirds’ roster had churned and churned as Triple-A rosters do in service of the big-league club. That turnover only escalated this season as the Redbirds lost their entire starting rotation from the beginning of the season to fortify the pitching staff in St. Louis. Jack Flaherty is 8-7 with a 2.86 ERA and will get votes in National League Rookie of the Year balloting. Dakota Hudson was with the Cardinals by the time he was named PCL Pitcher of the Year.

The lineup took a hit, too. When the 2018 PCL playoffs started the Redbirds’ top three home run hitters – Tyler O’Neill (26), Adolis Garcia (22) and Patrick Wisdom (15) – were all with the Cardinals.

So the Redbirds have been finding other ways to win. Clapp was out of position players when Gallegos lined the game-winner to put the Redbirds in the PCL Championship Series. When Clapp called for the suicide squeeze bunt for a 2-1 win in 11 innings vs. Fresno in Game 3 of the PCL championship series, he had the speedy Edman on third base and veteran Alex Mejia (who hitting third in the lineup) at the plate.

“Fastball away, a good pitch to get down,” Mejia said of his bunt up the first base line. “I’m always trying to think along with the manager, so I think about every scenario. It wasn’t much of a surprise. So I just went for it.”

And that brought the Redbirds to Game 4 and the opportunity to clinch.


Bringing it Home

Randy Arozarena, though ranked as the No. 11 prospect in the Cardinals’ organization by Baseball America before the season started, had hit just five home runs for the Redbirds in 267 regular-season at-bats when he launched the three-run bomb in the first inning. He then made a spectacular backhanded diving catch in left field in the seventh inning and hit another homer in the eighth.

All this from a guy who had been sent down to Double-A Springfield mid-season.

“It wasn’t because he wasn’t doing the right things,” Clapp said, “it was just because of (roster) numbers and stuff like that. He persevered. He went home on a paternity leave right at the end of the season, came back swinging the bat.”

Woodford breezed through the Fresno Grizzlies’ lineup, allowing just three singles and a walk with six strikeouts in his 7.1 innings pitched. He admitted to some pre-game jitters, but it never showed as he locked in from the start.

“You gotta worry about getting the first guy out, then the second guy and the third guy,” Woodford said. “And then you look up and it’s the sixth or seventh inning. You just try to get as many outs as you can before Stubby takes the ball from you.”

Gallegos got the last five outs for the save. The whole thing only took two hours and 20 minutes.

Or if you consider the Redbirds reported to spring training in mid-March, six months and 221 total team transactions, including 18 different players getting time in St. Louis.

Freund, who has a minority stake in the New York Yankees and also owns Memphis 901 FC, has watched his Redbirds win two PCL championships in the three years he has had the team.

“Amazing, right?” he said, shaking his head.

Yes, pretty amazing.

As was this scene: Pacific Coast League president Branch B. Rickey presented the Redbirds their championship trophy near home plate. The crowd stood and cheered and “We Are the Champions” blared from the stadium sound system as players carried the PCL championship banner around the field.

And then like every Saturday night at AutoZone Park, there were the regularly scheduled fireworks. You know, as opposed to the fireworks the Redbirds have been spontaneously setting off during the postseason.

“It’s crazy,” said Edman. “We’ve had a really fun playoff run so far.”

Back in the clubhouse, the boys of summer jumped around and sprayed champagne and hooted and hollered. No one in the organization was spared a dousing as Clapp and several players surrounded and drenched Mollie Shultz, the team’s young communications assistant.

Now, the Redbirds go try to win one more championship and pop the bubbly one last time.

“It doesn’t really get old,” Woodford said. “I don’t think it’ll ever get old.”


Memphis Redbirds Pacific Coast League Stubby Clapp St. Louis Cardinals Fresno Grizzlies
Don Wade

Don Wade

Don Wade has covered Memphis sports since 1998, voted on Baseball's Hall of Fame and the Heisman Trophy, and remains stunned his Kansas City Royals won a second World Series in his lifetime.

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