SPRINGDALE - Two former University of Arkansas diamond stars helped take down Northwest Arkansas' newest baseball team in a rain-shortened first-place battle on Wednesday.
Pitcher Jess Todd hurled 3 1/3 innings of scoreless baseball in his Class AA debut while fellow former Razorback Casey Rowlett had a pair of hits and an RBI for Springfield in an 8-1 win over the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.
Todd, who the parent St. Louis Cardinals have on a fast-track after being taken in the second round of the 2007 Major League Baseball draft, fanned six, walked three and allowed two hits while working on a pitch count that saw him leave the game with one out in the fourth after 71 pitches.
"The first inning was a little nervous," Todd said. "I walked out there on the mound, and I heard people start yelling for me. It reminded me of when I was back at Arkansas. It was great."
The announced crowd of 3,756 fans included Arkansas head baseball coach Dave Van Horn and several of his former teammates from last season's Razorback squad.
"Van Horn came down when I was warming up to tell me he was here and rooting for me and giving me the thumbs up," Todd said. "Some of the guys sit behind the plate and that was nice also."
Todd's performance due praise from Springfield manager Pop Warner, whose Cardinals (17-16) took a game lead over the Naturals (16-17) in the match-up of Texas League North Division co-leaders.
"He threw the ball well," Warner said. "He was aggressive, but I wish he would have been a little more efficient. For his first time out, I was pretty pleased with his aggressiveness and his composure out there."
He didn't, however, classify Todd as wild.
"He wasn't wild," Warner said. "I just think in AA the hitters take a little bit more of the closer pitchers and foul them off…I think down the line he will be a little more efficient."
Naturals manager Brain Poldberg thought his hitters helped out Todd – 9-3 with a 2.89 ERA in 23 appearances for Arkansas last season - too much.
"Their starter was okay," Poldberg said. "He made some strikes when he needed to, but he wasn't in the strike zone a lot. I think our hitters chased some balls out of the zone."
Springfield won the game – stopped in the middle of the seventh due to rain - on the strength of a six-run fourth.
That outburst included an RBI triple off the left field fence by second baseball Rowlett, who spent the first month of the season with Memphis with the Class AAA club as an injury replacement.
He also had a single in his three trips to the plate.
"Casey gives me a lot of trouble and he is right behind ya'll right now making fun of me," Todd noted while doing his post-game interview session with about 10 members of the media, which prompted one Springfield player to ask if it was Jess Todd bobblehead night or something. "But it is nice to have him around."
Springfield's Allen Craig had two homers in the game – his fifth of the season to start the six-run fourth and his sixth in the top of the seventh to cap the scoring.
Apparently unlike major league rules, the stats and runs stand up even thought Springfleld did not bat in the seventh.
Cardinals' centerfielder Shane Robinson had three hits to raise his average to .422 this season while reliever Nick Webber got the win while going the final 2 2/3 innings.
"It just so happened that my first AA experience happened to be here in Springdale," Todd said. "It was great. I wish I had had two more years at Arkansas instead of just the one, but I love it here."
Todd, who was called up from Palm Beach on Sunday after going 3-0 with a 1.65 ERA and being named the Cardinals' Minor League Pitcher of the Month, admitted he didn't have much to go on against Northwest Arkansas.
"I was kind of just winging it," Todd said. "I talked to a couple of other players about what to throw to what hitters and that helped me out. That helped me out a lot."
He is thrilled to be in Springfield instead of Palm Beach, where eight starters split the games and piggybacked each other with two of them combining to pitch every game.
"That extra day is going to be nice," Todd said. "We were on a four-day rotation and now I am on a five. Pitch count there was 65, which is what I was on tonight – 65 to 70. Now I will head toward 100 to 110.
"I just have to stay ahead of my hitters," Todd added. "It will be nice when I can extend the innings and go five or six innings like a starter should do."
Todd, who fanned 17 in an SEC Tournament game last season including the first nine batters he faced, has what is called a short-arm style, one that usually translates into a reliever on the big league level.
"I think that (short-arm delivery) is great deception for him," Warner said. "This was the first time I have seen him, but he has got some deception about him and he is pretty packed up out there and he hides the ball well. It was good to see."
Todd certainly has a handle on the differences in college and minor league baseball.
"I'd say it is the lowest hitters," Todd said. "In college, you have the top of the lineup stacked while the lower half is average. Here it is all pretty stacked."
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