The Springfield Cardinals compiled a final regular season record of 75-65 in 2016 and opened up their Texas League championship push with a 9-6 loss to NW Arkansas in Game 1 of the best-of-five game North Division finals series that featured a battle of the bullpens.
The winner will advance to the Texas League Championship and play the victor of Midland (OAK) and Corpus Christi (HOU), battling for the South Division title.
This report covers the period from Thursday, September 1st through Wednesday, September 7th.
Thursday, September 1st, Springfield 5 at Arkansas 9
A comfortable four-run lead vanished in a late offensive barrage against the Springfield pen, resulting in a 9-5 loss to the Travelers. J.C. Sulbaran struck out nine through seven, giving up just one run on three hits and three walks. That all changed in a nightmarish eighth when Robby Rowland and Justin Wright combined for eight runs on five hits, three walks.
The S-Cards managed eight hits with Harrison Bader and Blake Drake garnering two each. Bader went 2-for-5 with a solo shot and two strikeouts. Drake singled twice in four at-bats, knocking in one.
Friday, September 2nd, Springfield 5 at Arkansas 0
Starting pitcher Ian McKinney did his job for six strong innings without allowing a run. Rowan Wick and Blake McKnight combined for three scoreless innings of relief.
On the offensive side, Paul DeJong was 3-for-5 with two runs scored. Luke Voit was 2-for-5. Blake Drake was 2-for-5 with a run driven in. Jonathan Rodriguez was 3-for-3 with a RBI.
Saturday, September 3rd, Springfield 11 at Tulsa 2
With the playoffs looming, the S-Cards polished off the bats, plating 11 runs on 16 hits as they routed fourth-place Tulsa, 11-2 in the final series-opener of the regular season. Top-to-bottom, each hitter in the lineup recorded at least one hit, including starting pitcher Johnny Walter, who had a RBI single. Blake Drake, Jacob Wilson, and Jesse Jenner combined to go 9-for-15 with four doubles, a home run, and 4 RBI.
Walter went six solid innings, giving up one earned run on four hits in his first Double-A win.
Sunday, September 4th, Springfield 3 at Tulsa 2
The playoff-bound S-Cards clinched the final series of the regular season with a 3-2 victory at Tulsa. Corey Baker battled Drillers’ starter Isaac Anderson to a draw through five, giving up just three hits and three walks. Paul DeJong launched his 22nd home run to open the sixth, giving Baker the win.
DeJong’s long ball was one of his three hits in four at-bats. He was the only Springfield player with more than one hit. Harrison Bader accounted for the other two tallies, blasting one over the left field wall with Blake Drake (walk) aboard.
Monday, September 5th, Springfield 10 at Tulsa 4
Springfield ended the regular season on a high note as they won the final four games of the schedule, including a three-game sweep of the Drillers in Tulsa. Springfield put on a hitting show Monday, collecting 17 hits. Vaughn Bryan went 2-for-5 with two stolen bases while Harrison Bader slammed his 16th home run and picked up three RBI.
Starter Austin Gomber lasted four innings, striking out five and giving up two runs, one earned.
Wednesday, September 7th, Springfield 6 vs. NW Arkansas 9 (Game 1 of TL North Division Championship)
Springfield showed fight and perseverance in the opening game of the Texas League North Division Championship, but NW Arkansas pounded out 16 hits while plating nine runs to take the opener of the best-of-five game series.
Game 1 starter Daniel Poncedeleon had a laborious two innings of work, allowing four earned runs on three walks before Trey Nielsen covered three innings behind him. Robby Rowland served up the would-be go-ahead homer and suffered the loss.
Luke Voit paced the offense with a 3-for-5 night, collecting a RBI. Vaughn Bryan had a 2-run RBI triple while Harrison Bader and Allen Staton recorded two-hit games. In his first full rehab game, St. Louis shortstop Aledmys Diaz, who batted second and played short, was 0-for-4 with a sac fly.
St. Louis' first-round pick in this past summer's draft, Dakota Hudson, was thrown right into the fire, tossing a perfect inning of relief in his Double-A debut.
Entering Wednesday night's Texas League playoff game opener, the vast majority of Springfield's recent contributions had come from Paul DeJong, Blake Drake, Jesse Jenner, Jonathan Rodriguez, and Jacob Wilson over the past ten (regular season) games. The group went a combined 56-for-146 (.383) during that stretch.
Among the five mentioned, only three were in Wednesday's postseason lineup for Springfield against NW Arkansas. DeJong, Wilson, and Jenner were held 1-for-10 by the Naturals pitching staff in the 9-5 loss.
Harrison Bader - An integral piece of the team's success in the first half, Bader will now be relied on to solidify the middle of the order against NW Arkansas in the playoffs for the next week. He hit safely in four of the last regular season games this past week, going 5-for-16 with three big flies and 7 RBI.
Trey Nielsen - Since coming off the DL on August 26th due to fatigue, Nielsen pitched 8 1/3 innings of two-run ball before giving up an earned run over three innings on Wednesday in relief.
J.C. Sulbaran - Sulbaran punched out nine batters through seven innings in his final regular-season start last Thursday. Springfield will count on the 26-year old to get them back on track in his scheduled start against NW Arkansas in Game 2 on Thursday.
Ian McKinney - Despite being removed from the roster on Tuesday, McKinney showed promise after a lackluster Double-A debut. The young lefty spun six four-hit innings against Arkansas on Friday night.
Daniel Poncedeleon - Poncedeleon struggled in Springfield's playoff opener, allowing four earned runs over two adventurous innings on Wednesday night.
Ronnie Shaban - Shaban, who was TCN's 2015 Springfield Reliever of the Year and has 20 saves in 2016, coughed up a three-spot in his lone inning of work against the Naturals on Wednesday night. Those results will need to turn around if the Cards are to remain in games late.
Voit racking up accolades
The unforgettable season for Springfield first baseman Luke Voit continues.
After hitting .366 with 12 RBI, Voit was named August Player of the Month for the Texas League, the Cardinals, and Double-A baseball; the latter selected by Minor League Baseball. Not only that, his .297 regular-season average warranted him the Texas League batting title; lowest mark in the circuit since 1906.
“I honestly didn’t think I was going to do it at the beginning of the season,” Voit told reporters. “It’s a really cool accolade; something I’ll always remember, especially doing it at home and being a Cardinals fan growing up.”
Voit was the first Springbird to claim the honor since the late Oscar Taveras in 2012, who hit .321.
As expected, Diaz begins rehab
Aledmys Diaz (slight fracture of right thumb) started his rehab for Springfield, playing at shortstop and hitting second for the S-Cards in the Texas League North Division Playoffs at Hammons Field. Diaz, who worked out at the stadium Tuesday after traveling up from Palm Beach, logged a full nine innings and went 0-for-4 with a sacrifice in his first full rehab game.
In the field, Diaz was tested several times up the middle, including a full extension dive up the middle. On another, the Cuban, who told reporters before the game his throwing has lagged behind his hitting, fielded a scorched grounder and threw to first from one knee for the out. In his final chance of the game, Diaz ranged up the middle to his right and made a low throw to first, but retired the runner.
The plan is for him to receive an off-day Thursday. Diaz is expected to resume rehabbing on Friday in NW Arkansas. He could stick with Springfield for the third game, but will be re-evaluated after two complete contests.
First-rounder Hudson shines in AA debut
In one of the more intriguing minor league moves this season, Dakota Hudson was promoted to Springfield on Wednesday. Hudson, one of the top college hurlers in the 2016 draft, has dominated since turning pro despite being limited to relief duties.
The big-armed right-hander, who owns 0.68 ERA in 12 games between Rookie-level GCL Cardinals and High-A Palm Beach, fanned a batter in a perfect 1-2-3 inning in his Double-A (playoff) debut against NW Arkansas. Hudson hit 98 mph on the stadium gun and threw 12 pitches total, 8 for strikes.
It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals utilize him ahead, perhaps in a Michael Wacha-like role like back in the championship season in 2012.
On Tuesday, Springfield welcomed back a group of players recently promoted to fill in at Triple-A Memphis. Among those returned were Ronnie Shaban, Matt Pearce, and Texas League mid-season all-stars Josh Lucas and Bruce Caldwell. The S-Cards also shored up their bullpen with another power arm in Dakota Hudson.
To accommodate these moves, the club sent Johnny Walter, Ian McKinney, and Blake McKnight back to High-A Palm Beach. In addition, Jonathan Rodriguez was placed on the temporarily inactive list.
Chris Perry - Perry's injury still remains unknown, but it appears it is nothing serious.
Casey Turgeon - Turgeon remains out with a pulled muscle in his side. No timetable was set for his return.
Mason Katz - Katz was shut down with leg problems and will miss the remainder of the minor league season. He is expected to be healthy and ready next spring.
Andrew Morales - Morales, who last appeared in a rehab game on August 16th, is no longer assigned to the GCL squad. No update on his shoulder, but an official said he is "probably back rehabbing and working at the Cardinals' Jupiter facility." I suspect he has had another setback which ended his season.
Chris Thomas - Underwent elbow cleanup surgery in late June.
Jimmy Reed - Reed is four months removed from Tommy John surgery. The lefty told The Cardinal Nation's Paul Ivice he expects to start playing catch in September and is on schedule to be ready for spring training in 2017.
C.J. McElroy - McElroy suffered a torn ACL in June. There have been no updates on his rehab.
The Cardinal Nation Top Prospect Watch
#4 Harrison Bader - With the presence of the athletically gifted Vaughn Bryan, Bader has moved out of the lead-off spot and has since been hitting third in the order in his return. After a sluggish intro to Triple-A, Bader has slowly reestablished his footing with the S-Cards, hitting safely in eight of his last ten games, including the one playoff game on Wednesday.
#12 Austin Gomber - Gomber continues to progress well after a finger issue proved difficult to heal. The big lefty struck out five and allowed two walks in four innings in Monday’s season-finale at Tulsa and could potentially draw a start due to his handedness in the playoffs - which would cause a matchup problem for the opposition.
Gomber also was added the Cardinals Arizona Fall League contingent, to join the Glendale Desert Dogs.
#15 Paul DeJong - DeJong has one of the Springfield hottest bats' at the moment, hitting .382 (13-for-34) over his past ten games, including Wednesday's playoff game. He has four multi-hit games during that stretch. The third baseman’s power could be a real game changer in the Texas League playoffs.
#27 Daniel Poncedeleon - Poncedeleon struggled in Springfield's playoff opener, allowing four earned runs over two adventurous innings on Wednesday night.
#28 Trey Nielsen - Since moving to relief/long relief, Nielsen has excelled. He has given up just three earned runs over 11 1/3 innings since making the conversion to the bullpen from starting and could be a versatile asset as a long man or swingman option for manager Dann Bilardello if they are to go deep in the playoffs.
#34 Matt Pearce - Pearce could be a huge piece of the puzzle that Springfield welcomed back on Tuesday - should he start on Friday night at Arvest Ballpark in Springdale, Ark. The righty befuddled the Naturals on August 23rd, striking out career-high 11 batters in eight innings of work.
#37 Rowan Wick – The Texas League has caught up to Wick of late. He is not likely to receive any significant innings in the playoffs for Springfield. Keep your eyes open for him come Arizona Fall League time, however.
#41 Luke Voit - Voit entered the season as an unheralded prospect, but finished as the Texas League batting champion (.297) and ranked third in on-base percentage (.372) and runs scored (70). He also smacked 19 homers and drove in 74.
"He's put himself and his name on the map," manager Dann Bilardello told reporters. "Not that it wasn't before, but probably in a little bit bolder letters now. Good for him, and that's what players are supposed to do."
Game 1 at Springfield 6, NW Arkansas 9, Sept. 7
Game 2 at Springfield, Sept. 8 at 7:10 p.m. CT (J.C. Sulbaran scheduled starter for Springfield)
Game 3 at Northwest Arkansas, Sept. 9 at 7:05 p.m. CT (TBA)
Game 4 at Northwest Arkansas (if necessary), Sept. 10 at 2:05 p.m. CT (TBA)
Game 5 at Northwest Arkansas (if necessary), Sept. 11 at 2:05 p.m. CT TBA)
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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