Corey Baker (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)

Weekly news from the St. Louis Cardinals’ Double-A Texas League affiliate

The Cardinals’ Double-A affiliate has a three-game lead through three weeks. Unheralded Corey Baker is pitching well in the rotation.

This report covers the period from Thursday, April 21st through Wednesday, April 27th.

The Springfield Cardinals opened up interdivision play in the North this past week with a four-game road series against the Arkansas Travelers (LAA) and returned to Hammons Field to face rival NW Arkansas Naturals (KC) for four.

The Cardinals had a so-so series at Dickey-Stephens Park against the Travelers, splitting two apiece. On the bright side, they lost no ground in the division, so no harm no foul. With one game remaining, Springfield has claimed two-of-three against the Naturals. The Thursday series finale will be covered in the Week 4 edition next time.

The North Division currently has just one team over .500 (Springfield, 11-8 overall) compared to the South's three-team race through the season's first three weeks. The Travelers (8-11) are three games back of the Cardinals but come to town this weekend looking to make some noise. Meanwhile, NW Arkansas and the Tulsa Drillers (LAD) sit four games back at 7-12 overall.

Thursday, April 21st, Springfield 4 at Arkansas 

Springfield opened up a four-game set at North Little Rock, Arkansas on Thursday, falling 9-4 to the Travelers in the series-opener.

In an uncharacteristic control lapse, starter Daniel Poncedeleon walked three batters and hit two before being pulled in the bottom of the second. It was the shortest outing of Poncedeleon's career, just 1 2/3 innings.

Right-handed reliever Chris Thomas responded, going 2 1/3 innings giving up a run and striking out two.  In the sixth, the Cardinals called on Josh Lucas, but he did not perform well, allowing five runs over two innings. John Brebbia came on for the final two frames, yielding one run and striking out four.

The Cardinals offense edged to within one run off the Travelers heading into the bottom of the sixth before the home club blew it open. Chris Jacobs hit a solo homer in the third inning, his second of the season. Collin Radack knocked in one with a double while Paul DeJong collected two hits, one a triple with two RBI.

Friday, April 22nd, Springfield 1 at Arkansas 3

Arkansas capitalized on two Cardinals errors to take game two, 3-1. With the win, the Travelers forced a two-way tie atop the North Division at 7-7.

Despite the two unearned runs in the third, starter Andrew Morales was dominant in his seven innings of work. Following the third, Morales retired his next 12 in a row and 13 of his last 14 to keep the Cardinals within striking distance. The right-hander struck out six but took the tough loss.

Travelers pitching shut out the Cardinals hitters through the first six innings before Carson Kelly produced a two-out RBI single in the seventh, but Arkansas regained a two-run lead in the eighth to secure the victory.

Saturday, April 23rd, Springfield 3 at Arkansas 0

With early season stakes on the line in the North, the Cardinals cooled off Arkansas, which had won its last four games, with a combined 3-0 shutout victory on Saturday night.

Corey Baker pitched the first 6 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing just six hits and striking out six. Reliever Corey Littrell promptly gave up a single, but retired the remaining two outs via strikeouts to strand Baker's inherited runner at third.

Kurt Heyer took over with one out in the eighth and fanned both his hitters. Closer Ronnie Shaban converted his fourth save with a clean ninth.

The Cardinals' bats had a rather pedestrian night, going 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position and leaving 11 runners aboard. However, Harrison Bader keyed the offense with a pair of singles, a run, and RBI.

Sunday, April 24th, Springfield 10 at Arkansas 2

The Cardinals thumped Arkansas to execute a split of the four games on Sunday evening behind a balanced, collective offensive performance and strong pitching.

Starter Mike Mayers allowed two earned runs on eight hits and completed five innings to earn his second win of the season. The right-hander struck out four batters and issued just two walks on the day.

Springfield manager Dann Bilardello elected to go to his bullpen in the sixth. Chris Perry was the first of three Cardinal relievers combined to pitch the last four innings. Perry was pulled an out into the seventh, giving way to Corey Littrell, who proceeded to strike out the three batters he faced. Kurt Heyer retired the final five outs in a row.

Seven of the nine Cardinals hitters recorded at least a hit on Sunday. Of the 12 total hits, Luke Voit, Bruce Caldwell, Chris Jacobs, and Carson Kelly accounted for nine. Caldwell hit an RBI single and slugged a solo shot, his fourth of the year. Kelly had a season-high three hits including an RBI double. David Washington was just 1-for-4 but knocked in two via a double.

Monday, April 25th, Springfield 4 vs. NW Arkansas 3

Paul DeJong ripped an opposite field line drive to the right-center fielder gap, plating David Washington and Luke Voit as Springfield took the home series-opener over NW Arkansas in walk-off fashion.

Trey Nielsen recorded the first two outs in the sixth but ultimately finished at the 5 2/3 threshold. Nielsen allowed three earned runs on six hits but walked two and struck out four. Chris Thomas followed Nielsen and ended the Naturals' scoring threat via a strikeout.

Thomas pitched a scoreless seventh and Josh Lucas followed with the final two scoreless in relief. Lucas earned his first win of the season thanks to DeJong's walk-off hit.

The Cardinals offense struck early via the sticks of Harrison Bader and Voit, who had solo shots. Bader later was removed from the game after crashing into the outfield wall attempting to chase down a fly ball just a couple inches short of a long ball. The outfielder pleaded to remain in the game, but Bilardello opted to go with C.J. McElroy. Bader walked off the field under his own power.

Tuesday, April 26th, Springfield 3 vs. NW Arkansas 4

The tale of two outings came to an abrupt close for Daniel Poncedeleon in the seventh. Going into the sixth, Poncedeleon was filling up the zone with strikes and retired 14 consecutive Naturals' in a row. However, the right-hander unraveled in the seventh as NW Arkansas rallied for four hits; the biggest a three-run shot from Frank Schwindel to even the series at one apiece.

Despite being on the losing end, Poncedeleon racked up a career-high ten strikeouts using a fastball, cutter, and slider mix.

The Naturals held the Cardinals to four hits. Two were against starter Christian Binford in a two-run second inning, with the big blow Chris Jacobs’ two-RBI double.

Wednesday, April 27th, Springfield 8 vs. NW Arkansas 1

With a morning start time, Springfield blew away NW Arkansas as they clubbed three home runs on their way to an 8-1 victory on Wednesday in front of 5,712 fans at Hammons Field.

Harrison Bader had a superb day at the plate, recording his second four-hit game of his brief career and finishing a triple shy of the cycle. The outfielder drilled a two-run double as well as a homer to left field, a solo shot.

On the bump, Andrew Morales pitched six four-hit shutout innings as he earned his third win of the season. On 91 pitches, 63 thrown for strikes, Morales walked just two and struck out four. Kurt Heyer followed with two scoreless frames while Ronnie Shaban served up a dinger and walked a batter, but otherwise minimized the damage.

Luke Voit's third Double-A home run was a two-run variety while Chris Jacobs hit a solo shot. Collin Radack had two singles and two RBI.

Who's Hot

Harrison Bader - Bader had been relatively quiet entering Wednesday's action. On Wednesday, the former Florida standout exploded for a four-hit performance, finishing a triple shy of the cycle.

With the performance, the outfielder raised his average from .303 to .338, a team-high mark and currently fourth in the Texas League circuit.

Corey Baker – Baker is a bit of an underrated member of the Cardinals' rotation. The righty with a heavy sinker is off to an excellent start through his first three starts of 2016, with a minuscule 1.76 ERA in 15 1/3 innings pitched with 12 strikeouts to four walks.

In his most recent outing, Baker threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings in a win over the Travelers last Thursday.

Who's Not

Breyvic Valera - Now three weeks running, Valera has appeared in the "Who's Not" section. The utilityman is hitting .170 (8-for-47) on the season but did have two hits against NW Arkansas on Wednesday.

Josh Lucas – In 2016, Lucas has thrown eight innings and allowed that many runs (seven earned) for a whopping 7.88 ERA over six games. The tall, lanky righty coughed up five earned runs in two innings last Thursday against the Travelers.

Springbirds batting order

Harrison Bader hit lead-off in every game this past week, though he exited early once after being shaken up from crashing into an OF wall. Manager Dann Bilardello looks to be sorting through his options for the two-spot as Breyvic Valera, C.J. McElroy, and Bruce Caldwell slotted there throughout the week, with Caldwell getting the most at-bats. The same can be said about the three-hole with Collin Radack and Luke Voit seeing time there. Voit was the three-hitter in the latter part of the week.

Voit and David Washington mixed and matched at clean-up. However, Washington received the most playing time in the clean-up spot. Radack, Caldwell, Voit, Washington, and Paul DeJong all took at-bats in the fifth spot at different times this past week. Chris Jacobs was the sixth hitter, primarily.

Rounding out the batting order, DeJong (seven), Carson Kelly (eight and nine), McElroy (nine) and Breyvic Valera (nine).

Team Transactions

4/24 C Luis Cruz was assigned to Springfield from Triple-A Memphis

Cruz was promoted to Memphis when backup Alberto Rosario hit the DL with a lat injury. With Rosario's activation, Cruz was returned to Springfield.

In his two Triple-A contests over two weeks, the 22-year-old went 1-for-7 (.143). Cruz will see minimal playing time behind star catching prospect Carson Kelly, but started in place of him on Wednesday and had a hit in four at-bats.

4/25 INF Mikey Reynolds was assigned to Springfield from High-A Palm Beach

In his first month of game action, Reynolds will make his professional debut in two different leagues. The 25-year old opened the year with High-A Palm Beach in the Florida State League, a level where he starred in 14 games before his Monday promo to the Double-A Texas League to replace injured Alex Mejia.

Reynolds was acquired by the Cardinals last September from the York Revolution in the independent Atlantic League. At Palm Beach in 2016, Reynolds’ line is .182/.270/.218/.488 in 55 at-bats. The right-handed hitter drew three walks, scored four runs, plated seven and was 4-for-5 in stolen base attempts in the Florida State League.

He appeared briefly for Springfield on Wednesday, going 1-for-2 in his Double-A debut.

4/25 INF Alex Mejia placed on the 7-day disabled list

Mejia's return to Springfield had lasted just three games before the 25-year old middle infielder got shelved on Monday. In his three contests over the weekend, the right-handed hitter collected three singles in 10 at-bats, scored a run, was caught stealing, drove in a run and struck out twice. Mejia also drew three walks over the trio of Texas League contests.

Since Mejia’s move to the DL, Breyvic Valera has seen all of the playing time at short.

4/25 Jesse Jenner was assigned to High-A Palm Beach from Springfield

Rosario bumped Cruz off the Memphis roster, and Cruz' return did the same to Jenner, who has now returned to Palm Beach. In his only 2016 action to date, Jenner had two singles in six at-bats plus a walk with Springfield. The right-handed hitter did not strike out and he scored one run.

The Cardinal Nation Top 40 Prospect Watch

#12 Carson Kelly - With the bat, Kelly is slowly but surely catching up to the league. In his past 10 games, the catcher has an improved .294 average (10-for-34), but only two of his 13 base hits this year came gone for extra bases, and he has not walked a single time in his first 55 at-bats.

Defensively is how Kelly will ultimately make his living.

"Your pitching staff is your No. 1 priority," Kelly told this past week. "First catching, then hitting. So, I've been focusing on the catching. The hitting might not be there, but I believe in where I'm at right now, and it's going to come through."

#13 Harrison Bader - Bader is a dude (legit prospect). The outfielder is fanning at an above-average rate, but for one of the younger position players in the Texas League and the fact he's hitting .338 while flashing the occasional power and playing a demanding position (center field), he has been nothing short of impressive.

Also, consider this: he crashed into the outfield wall this past week and was shaken up. Already known as a "grinder", Bader pleaded to remain in the game. He was in the starting lineup the following night and another day later had a career-game.

#16 Paul DeJong - DeJong's Double-A debut has had more valleys than peaks thus far. One of his few peaks was a walk-off 2-RBI double to the right-center field gap in the win over NW Arkansas on Monday night. He certainly still has plenty of room to improve on a .191 average and 29-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

#22 Daniel Poncedeleon - Speaking of highs and lows, Poncedeleon was on the verge of putting together perhaps his best outing of his career had he not unraveled in the seventh inning of his recent outing against NW Arkansas. The righty was mixing up a fastball, cutter, and slider that gave the Naturals hitters some fits because they all moved similarly. His 10 strikeouts attest to that deception, but success will depend on his ability to command the strike zone consistently.

#28 Trey Nielsen - Nielsen had two rough outings to open his first Double-A campaign. The 24-year old has bounced back in his last two starts, but to be an effective starter, he will need to throw more strikes and have more efficient games. Nielsen has walked (12) more batters than he has struck out (11) in 19 2/3 innings.

#34 Corey Littrell - Honestly, I am still surprised, but not shocked that Littrell was moved to the bullpen with his deep arsenal. However, the lefty has been a pleasant surprise in the early stages of being a reliever. Littrell has not been scored upon in 8 1/3 innings, spanning seven games so far. Keep an open eye out for a potential velocity spike.

#37 Andrew Morales - Morales may not be a starter in the long-term, but he seems poised to re-establish himself as a prospect. The 6-foot-0, 185-pound righty has a 3-1 record with a 2.16 ERA in 25 innings over four starts. Morales has not allowed an earned run in his last 13 innings pitched.

The reason? Morales say he's staying aggressive, throwing all of his pitches for strikes and is learning to read opposing hitters.

What's Next

Springfield finished this week with a 4-3 record. The Cardinals look for the series victory over NW Arkansas on Thursday at 7:10 PM with Corey Baker as the scheduled starter.

The Cardinals will then look for a more favorable outcome against Arkansas with a four-game set this weekend. Mike Mayers will have the series-opening nod followed by Trey Nielsen on Saturday, and the final two probables are TBA.

Following the homestand, the Cardinals travel to NW Arkansas for four next week, starting Tuesday.


Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.

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