The Springfield Cardinals followed up a 6-2 homestand by swiping three of four at NW Arkansas to move back into first place last Friday. They went on to snare their first Texas League North Division first-half title since 2009 with a 5-2 clinching victory over Tulsa on Sunday.
"There is some joy in there, and some satisfaction of getting it done," Cardinals manager Dann Bilardello told MiLB.com after his squad guaranteed itself a playoff berth in September on Sunday. "We didn't really have an easy road. I think any time you win; it's never easy. We had to go on the road to do it, and I appreciate that more than anything."
The Cardinals will return to the Texas League playoffs for the first time since winning the franchise's only league title in 2012. Their roster features a mix of prospects and Texas League veterans, who helped the club to achieve its best first half in team history, a record of 41-29.
The second half officially began on Tuesday night, as Springfield dropped the first two games against the Drillers after the standings reset.
This report covers the period from Thursday, June 16th through Wednesday, June 22nd.
Thursday, June 16th, Springfield 2 at NW Arkansas 1
Luke Weaver twirled another gem, silencing the NW Arkansas bats after Springfield pitching had allowed a season-high total of hits on Wednesday night.
With command of his fastball on both sides of the plate and deception playing off it, Weaver pitched a career-high eight innings as Springfield defeated NW Arkansas on Thursday night at Arvest Ballpark to even the series at one-all and maintaining their half-game gap behind Tulsa.
"(Weaver) threw great," Springfield manager Dann Bilardello told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette following the 2-1 win. "He probably made one mistake but, man, what an effort. He kept the ball down and made clutch pitches when he had to."
All of Springfield's offensive production came in the third inning when Jonathan Rodriguez started with a base-on-balls. Bruce Caldwell doubled Rodriguez to third, and Harrison Bader’s fly out to right was deep enough to bring him across. Caldwell scored on a sac fly by Luke Voit, and that finished the scoring.
Friday, June 17th, Springfield 2 at NW Arkansas 0
Following Weaver's masterpiece, Daniel Poncedeleon was even better on Friday night, as Springfield blanked NW Arkansas to take a two-to-one game lead in the series. The Cards slid back into first-place with a Tulsa loss as three contests remain in the first half.
Poncedeleon tossed 8 1/3 scoreless innings, issuing just two walks while fanning nine as he continued an outstanding month of June. The righty induced nine groundouts against three flyouts for his fourth win.
"He kind of had everything going. He was in a really good rhythm from the beginning, and that gave him confidence," Springfield manager Dann Bilardello told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "Then he had a mix of all his pitches, which were working tonight. He got some easy out and some tough outs, but for the most part, I think he got after them. He was around the zone, and he made pitches all night long.”
Poncedeleon was lifted by Bilardello with one out into the ninth after allowing a walk and a single. Josh Lucas struck out the game's final two batters to pick up his team-leading eighth save.
"It was one of the better performance I've seen this year from our staff. Good for him. It gave our bullpen another rest, which we needed," the manager said.
On offense, Jonathan Rodriguez and Carson Kelly led the attack with RBI doubles. Luke Voit collected three hits in four at-bats, including a double.
Saturday, June 18th, Springfield 1 at NW Arkansas 0
For the third straight night, the Cardinals pitching staff quieted the NW Arkansas bats. With the win, Springfield took three-of-four and maintained a half-game lead over Tulsa with two left.
Trey Nielsen pitched six two-hit innings, walking two and matching a career-high with eight punchouts. He earned his sixth win of the season after Pedro Echemendia, John Brebbia, and Josh Lucas combined to hurl the final three innings in relief.
Not much was needed on the offensive side. Mason Katz was the source of production for the Cardinals with an RBI double.
Sunday, June 19th, Springfield 5 at Tulsa 2
Springfield clinched the first half North Division championship with a 5-2 victory over Tulsa.
Carson Kelly and Paul DeJong spearheaded the Cardinals attack, combining for six hits and three of the five runs. DeJong recorded a sac fly and solo home run. Mason Katz collected two hits and pair of RBI.
J.C. Sulbaran contributed 4 1/3 innings of one-run ball while having troubles throwing consistent strikes. Sulbaran issued four walks and struck out one. Ronnie Shaban tossed 2 2/3 scoreless innings before John Brebbia worked around three hits and a run over 1 1/3 innings pitched. Kevin Herget notched his fifth save, recording the final two outs.
Monday, June 20th, Springfield 5 at Tulsa 4 - 11 innings
The North Division champions closed the half with a 5-4 win over Tulsa, setting a team record with their 41-29 mark.
The Cardinals offense outlasted the Drillers after coughing up a ninth inning lead. They pulled in front in the 11th thanks to a run-scoring wild pitch which scored Mason Katz, who had reached on a walk. Luke Voit collected an RBI single and a solo homer to pace the attack.
Corey Baker went five innings, scattering three runs across seven hits, three walks, and four strikeouts in a no-decision. Heath Wyatt followed with two scoreless innings of relief. Chris Perry posted a zero in the eighth before blowing the save in the ninth.
Chris Thomas recorded the win after throwing a spotless 10th. Pedro Echemendia picked up the save after retiring the side in order in the 11th.
Tuesday, June 21st, Springfield 5 at Tulsa 9
Springfield opened the second half with a tough 9-5 loss to Tulsa after the Drillers routed the Cardinals' bullpen for seven runs in late innings.
Heading into the seventh with a 5-2 advantage, the game got away from Chris Thomas, who took a blown save and the loss. Two walks, a hit by pitch and three singles in just 2/3 of an inning plated three. With the bases loaded, Rowan Wick made his Texas League debut, but his wild pitch brought home the fourth tally of the inning.
Tulsa tacked on three more in the eighth against Kevin Herget, though only one run was earned due to a throwing error by second baseman Mason Katz. First baseman Jonathan Rodriguez came on in relief and retired the final two batters.
The bullpen washed away another strong effort by Luke Weaver, who allowed just two runs over six innings on five hits, a walk and four strikeouts.
The offense managed just eight hits, all singles, and a lone walk. Bruce Caldwell collected two hits with a run scored. Michael Ohlman had two hits and an RBI.
Wednesday, June 22nd, Springfield 6 at Tulsa 8 - 10 innings
Springfield dropped its second straight as their relief corps coughed up another lead to Tulsa, who prevailed 8-6 in extras. The Cardinals split the four games with the Drillers.
Starter Daniel Poncedeleon gave up four earned runs on seven hits over five innings. He walked four and struck three before giving way to Pedro Echemendia in the sixth. Echemendia surrendered two runs on three hits in 1 1/3 before Justin Wright inherited a runner that was erased on an inning-ending double-play.
Ronnie Shaban pitched a scoreless eighth and ninth before allowing a two-run walk-off homer in the 10th.
Offensively, the Cardinals were led by Harrison Bader, who tripled twice, singled, and collected an RBI in five at-bats. Anthony Garcia had a pair of RBI singles while Bruce Caldwell and Michael Ohlman produced RBI singles as well.
Carson Kelly - Although he was out of action on Monday and Tuesday, Kelly has hit safely in five straight games after a two-hit performance in his return to the field on Wednesday. The catcher owns a .400 average (14-for-35) with two homers, 5 RBI, and an on-base plus slugging north of 1.050 over his past 10 games.
Luke Weaver - Kelly's batterymate Weaver has only been with the S-Cards for three weeks, but has certainly made his presence felt. Over the past week, the righty made two exceptional starts, totaling 14 innings with three earned runs allowed. During that time, Weaver yielded 12 hits, one walk, and 10 strikeouts.
Juan Herrera - The jump to Double-A appears to be a substantial one for Herrera, who is just 6-for-52 (.115) over his first 16 games for Springfield after missing most of the last year due to injury.
Nick Martini - Since making his season debut on Friday with the S-Cards following his return from Memphis, Martini has just a single through his first 20 at-bats.
Heath Wyatt - Wyatt has appeared in limited action since his demotion from Memphis on May 29th. The sub-winder has an 8.10 ERA after surrendering six earned runs on 16 hits over just 6 2/3 innings.
Poncedeleon named to TL All-Star team
An hour before toeing the rubber for his Friday night start against NW Arkansas, Daniel Poncedeleon received word he would replace Mike Mayers --- who was selected, but is currently with Triple-A Memphis --- on the North Division team for the Texas League All-Star Game on Tuesday, June 28th in Springfield.
The right-hander joins teammates Bruce Caldwell, Paul DeJong and starters Carson Kelly, Harrison Bader and Luke Voit on the North squad.
Springbirds batting order
Regular lead-off man Harrison Bader was penciled in that spot only once this week after being held out of action due to an ongoing hand issue. Nick Martini hit lead-off five of the seven games while Jonathan Rodriguez was there last Thursday. Manager Dann Bilardello tinkered between Bruce Caldwell and Bader in the two and three-spots throughout the week. Michael Ohlman and Luke Voit also saw time there.
When Voit wasn't hitting third, he continued his normal clean-up duties with Anthony Garcia spelling him on Wednesday. Garcia was the fifth-hole hitter for the majority of the games with Paul DeJong following at sixth. With DeJong hitting fifth on Wednesday, Carson Kelly moved up to six in the lineup.
To round out the order, Kelly was primarily the seventh hitter followed by either Ohlman or Mason Katz and Juan Herrera at nine. When the NL rules were in effect, Herrera batted eighth.
There were more transactions in the week than games played, a common theme for the S-Cards over the past month.
6/16: OF Nick Martini assigned to Springfield from Triple-A Memphis
6/16: OF Colin Radack assigned to High-A Palm Beach from Springfield
In the accompanying move for the activation of Carlos Peguero at Memphis, Nick Martini rejoined Springfield for the first time since last July. Over his first 20 at-bats, Martini has recorded just one hit with the S-Cards.
Radack, who had been in Double-A all season to date but was not hitting well, was bumped down in the chain of moves. In his first game back with Palm Beach, Radack had a pair of doubles and a single batting from the third spot in the order.
6/17: INF Mason Katz assigned to Springfield from High-A Palm Beach
6/17: INF Breyvic Valera assigned to Triple-A Memphis from Palm Beach
To replace injured Patrick Wisdom on the Triple-A roster, the Cardinals brought Breyvic Valera back from Springfield. In his three Texas League games since being returned last Monday, the 24-year-old went 2-for-8 with a walk, a stolen base, and two RBI.
Like Valera, Mason Katz made a U-Turn last Friday as the Cardinals returned him to Springfield. The 25-year-old had been reassigned to Palm Beach last Tuesday. While with the S-Cards, Katz has been productive in clutch situations. He is batting .345 (10-for-29) with a homer and 5 RBI between the two stops.
6/21: RHP Rowan Wick assigned to Springfield from High-A Palm Beach
6/21: RHP Josh Lucas assigned to Triple-A Memphis from Springfield
Rowan Wick received a deserving promotion to Springfield after dominating out of the Beach Birds' pen as a late-inning reliever, holding a microscopic 1.09 ERA in 24 2/3 innings pitched and converting six saves in eight chances. The right-hander has fanned a whopping 37 batters against just six walks this season.
In his Double-A debut, Wick threw a run-scoring wild pitch and walked a batter, but finished with a four-pitch strikeout on Tuesday night against Tulsa.
Josh Lucas was promoted to Memphis to strengthen its bullpen. Despite a 4.25 ERA, Lucas punched out 33 batters over 29 2/3 innings pitched for Springfield. He walked just six. The 6-foot-5, 215-pounder made his Triple-A debut on Tuesday night, posting a scoreless inning.
6/21: LHP Justin Wright assigned to Springfield from Triple-A Memphis
6/21 RHP John Brebbia assigned to Triple-A Memphis from Springfield
Springfield's bullpen was strengthened further by the return of a veteran minor league lefty, Justin Wright. The 26-year-old has spent time with Springfield in each of the last four years. Wright made his season-debut with Springfield on Wednesday night, inducing a double-play to end the seventh inning.
Due to Arturo Reyes's DL move, John Brebbia was promoted to Memphis on Tuesday afternoon. Brebbia was nabbed from Arizona in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft last December. With Springfield in 2016, the right-hander delivered a 4.09 ERA in 22 appearances (33 innings pitched). The reliever struck out 33 and walked four.
In his Triple-A debut, Brebbia yielded a run on three hits over 1 1/3 innings pitched.
The Cardinal Nation Top 40 Prospect Watch
#4 Luke Weaver - After notching a career-high in strikeouts in his debut, Weaver recorded another career-best with eight innings of one-run ball against NW Arkansas last Thursday. The slender righty commanded his fastball with good movement on both sides of the plate that helped the deception of his secondary offerings.
Tuesday night, Weaver held Tulsa to just two earned runs on five hits over six strong innings. He struck out five and walked one with his ERA actually increasing up to 1.37.
"I think it's just to get those scoreless innings and continue to improve and build off each outing," Weaver said earlier this month of his focus as he progresses. "There's always something (to learn from the previous outing). Just get with pitching coach and catcher to work on those little tidbits and get better."
#6 Harrison Bader - Bader erased concerns about his hand injury, returning to action on Tuesday with a triple in five at-bats. The outfielder recorded his second career two-triple game on Wednesday and now has three triples over his past three games - and four on the season, which puts him in a four-way tie for second in Texas League.
Despite slowing in June, Bader heads the circuit with a .308 average and is second with a .904 OPS, trailing only the Astros top prospect Alex Bregman.
#12 Carson Kelly - Speaking of average, Kelly is again creeping back up toward .300 and is currently seventh in the league with a .294 seasonal mark. The backstop is on pace to finish with career-highs in average, home runs, slugging, and OPS.
#15 Paul DeJong - DeJong went 5-for-15 (.333) with a homer and 2 RBI in five games over the week. However, he did strike out another seven times, giving him a whopping 82 whiffs this season, third in the Texas League.
On the defensive side, DeJong is a solid defender at the hot corner and a better athlete than you would think as a former catcher. He should stick there as he advances.
#22 Daniel Poncedeleon - As good as Weaver was on Thursday, Poncedeleon topped his outing, breaking a career-high with 8 1/3 innings. He baffled the Naturals with natural movement on his pitches.
On Wednesday, Poncedeleon gave up a score through his four innings before Tulsa tagged him for an additional three runs in the fifth before his departure. He issued four walks and struck out three on 94 pitches, 62 strikes.
#24 Trey Nielsen - After three straight moderate outings, Nielsen tossed six two-hit innings against NW Arkansas on Saturday night. He tied a season-high with eight strikeouts, walked two, and induced seven groundouts.
Nielsen will start Thursday against Arkansas.
#28 Rowan Wick - Wick's reliability was immediately tested in a high-leverage situation on Tuesday. Manager Dann Bilardello employed him with two outs and the bases-loaded and the converted catcher and outfielder threw a run-scoring wild pitch followed by a walk, but pitched out of the mess with a four-pitch strikeout.
In this outing, the big-armed right-hander was sitting 94-96 mph with a curve and change to boot. He threw the curve a few times but had trouble locating it.
#32 Anthony Garcia - Garcia went 6-for-24 (.250) over the past week with two RBI and a walk. The outfielder is hitting .305 with a homer and 11 RBI since rejoining Springfield.
#33 Michael Ohlman - Ohlman was just 3-for-19 (.157) with two RBI through six games this week. The catcher is hitting .275 with a dinger and 7 RBI over 16 Texas League games.
On Sunday, Springfield wrapped up the first half with a guaranteed playoff spot in September. The Cards logged a franchise-best with 41 wins over the first 70 games of the 140-game regular season.
To open the second half, the Cardinals dropped two tough games to Tulsa after the bullpen came undone in late-innings for a series split.
Next up is four games at Hammons Field against Arkansas before the start of the all-star break Monday through Wednesday. In the interim, the Cardinals will host the Texas League All-Star Game, set for Tuesday at 7:10 PM CT.
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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