Following a 4-2 road-trip to open the young season, the Springfield Cardinals returned to their stomping grounds at Hammons Field this past week.
After dropping the Games 1 and 2 of the first homestand against the Frisco Roughriders (TEX), the Springbirds responded by claiming the final three of four contests, including two of three against the Midland Rockhounds (OAK) to finish the homestand with an even 3-3 record.
Through the second week of action, Springfield has brought the lumber to the field, pacing the Texas League with a collective 105 hits and .744 OPS. On the pitching side, expected to be their strength, the Cardinals rank fourth of eight clubs with 3.95 ERA and 1.35 WHIP.
Manager Johnny Rodriguez likes the mix of young and experienced players from what he has seen four series into 2017.
"It's a good mix," Rodriguez said. "We should be fine. They know how to go about their business. I'm just going to maneuver them to do it right and then I'm going to stay out of the way and put them in the right place.
"I'm going to put them in the right position, and hopefully they execute. This is a nice group, a nice mix of young players with veteran players," Rodriguez said.
This report covers the period from Thursday, April 13 through Wednesday, April 19.
April 13: Springfield 1 vs. Frisco 7
On Opening Night at Hammons, the home faithful saw the wild, erratic side of precocious righty Sandy Alcantara. Alcantara, who had a whopping six wild pitches, allowed seven earned runs on six hits through an abbreviated 3 2/3 innings as he suffered his first Double-A loss on Thursday night.
Adolis Garcia launched his first affiliated home run, a no-doubt solo shot to left field.
April 14: Springfield 2 vs. Frisco 7 (10 innings)
The Cardinals offense had 10 hits, but they produced only two runs, a pair of Jacob Wilson solo homers, as Springfield lost to the Frisco RoughRiders at home on Friday night.
Austin Gomber pitched 4 1/3 innings, surrendering two runs on four hits. Pedro Echemendia followed with 2 2/3 scoreless frames before giving way to Blake McKnight.
McKnight’s turn on the mound was ugly. He relinquished five runs on six hits in three innings. After Wilson's second long ball had tied the game in the home ninth, all five crossed the plate against McKnight in the 10th.
April 15: Springfield 6 vs. Frisco 5
The RoughRiders came to within striking distance via four-run eighth inning, but the Cardinals edged their intra-division opponent, 6-5 on Saturday night.
Dakota Hudson cruised through six innings, giving up only one run on three hits to earn his first Double-A win. Herget, who recorded the final two outs in the eighth to bail out the imploding Trey Nielsen, returned to pitch a scoreless ninth to earn his second save of the season.
The Cardinals got on the board in the second on an Eliezer Alvarez RBI double followed by a sac fly off the bat of Gabriel Lino. A solo home run by Adolis Garcia increased the lead by one. One-sackers by Nick Martini and Garcia set up a three-run home run by Bruce Caldwell.
April 16th: Springfield 4 vs. Midland 9
A late surge against the S-Cards’ bullpen transformed a tight contest into a blowout in Springfield’s 9-4 loss to Midland on Easter Sunday.
Matt Pearce was charged with his second loss in two starts, yielding three runs on four hits and four walks over five. A five-run eighth inning against relievers Jimmy Reed and Pedro Echemendia put the game out of reach.
Nick Martini was the only Springfield player with more than one of the team’s five hits. His two-run long bomb with Eliezer Alvarez aboard brought the home team within one after three innings. Oscar Mercado accounted for the other run production, blasting a two-run homer.
April 17th: Springfield 3 vs. Midland 0
A masterful start from Jack Flaherty spearheaded Springfield to a 3-0 shutout victory over Midland on Monday night.
For his third start of 2017, Flaherty turned in one of his finest outings, fanning nine batters, walking one and giving up two hits over a career-high 7 2/3 scoreless innings.
The right-hander’s support started with a Nick Martini solo blast. Oscar Mercado and Gabriel Lino added an RBI each to round out the three-prong attack.
April 18th: Springfield 5 vs. Midland 3
A four-run first inning keyed Springfield to a 5-3 triumph over Midland in the rubber-game matchup on Tuesday.
Alcantara bounced back, tossing 5 2/3 solid innings of three-run ball to earn his second win in three starts. He struck out four and walked two. Blake McKnight collected his first save with a perfect ninth.
Bruce Caldwell led the way for the offense via a 2-run single with Jacob Wilson and Alex Mejia chipping in RBI doubles. Casey Grayson went 2-for-4 with an RBI single.
April 19th: off day
Springfield leaves Thursday morning for an eight-game road-trip, starting with a four-game series at Little Rock, Ark.
Oscar Mercado - For the second time in as many weeks, Mercado lands on the "Who's Hot" feature. Through 10 games to start off the year, the right-handed hitter has hit safely in nine (13-for-37), pacing Springfield's offense with a .351 batting clip including three multi-hit games.
Jacob Wilson - Don't look too deeply into his .257 average because Wilson is starting to heat up at the dish. The versatile position player, who has seen time at third, first, and left field, went 8-for-17 (.470) this week through five games.
Watch for Wilson to have a big offensive year as he dealt with vision issues last year which led to a career-low .223 average. Over the offseason, the right-handed corrected this with new contacts.
Jack Flaherty - Another week, another dominating appearance for Flaherty. The top prospect has given up just one run in just over 21 innings of work for the Springbirds. Flaherty is 3-0 with a 0.42 ERA through his first three starts, posting 19-to-2 strikeout to walk ratio.
Dakota Hudson - Springfield's No. 3 starter debuted with a so-so start in his first Double-A start last week against Midland. On Saturday, Hudson was outstanding, lowering his ERA from 3.18 to 2.31 over 11 2/3 innings pitched.
Corey Baker - Speaking of outstanding, Baker has been just that as the pitching staff's multi-purpose reliever. The veteran right-hander has yet to allow a run through four outings in 2017 and has picked up two saves.
Dickie Joe Thon - The son of former MLB All-Star shortstop Dickie Thon, the 25-year old has struggled so far with Springfield, going 3-for-his-first-18 at the plate.
Trey Nielsen - Coming off the DL last Thursday, Nielsen lasted only one out in his season debut in relief Saturday. The sinkerball pitcher was beaten for four earned runs on five hits.
Blake McKnight – The local product out of O'Fallon, Mo and Evangel standout, has had his troubles at Double-A in the early going. On Friday, the righty gave up five earned on six hits over three innings.
First-half standings - Texas League Northern Division
Currently, Springfield sits atop the division with a 7-5 record and a full game lead over the Tulsa Drillers (6-6, LAD) and Arkansas Travelers (6-6, SEA). The NW Arkansas Naturals (KC) have a 4-8 record, three games in the cellar.
4/13: RHP Trey Nielsen activated off 7-day DL - In the corresponding move for Daniel Poncedeleon's promotion to Triple-A Memphis last week, Nielsen was activated off the disabled list on Thursday.
With the rotation set, the righty will settle into the bullpen as he did during the 2016 Texas League playoffs.
4/17: LHP Jimmy Reed placed on 7-day DL - Reed, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, pitched for the time since 2015 in his season debut on April 7, a scoreless two-inning outing against Frisco. Since then, the lefty has yielded a combined six earned runs in 4 2/3 innings pitched.
4/19: RHP Tyler Bray to Springfield from High-A Palm Beach - In the corresponding move for Reed, Bray was called up from Palm Beach. Bray, a right-handed reliever, had a 3.18 ERA over five games (5 2/3 innings) for the Beach Birds in 2017. He struck out 10 batters and walked just two.
4/18: RHP Kevin Herget to Triple-A Memphis from Springfield - With Mitch Harris landing on the disabled list at Memphis, Herget received the call to the fill the void left in the bullpen.
As Springfield’s temporary closer, the right-hander collected two saves, posting a 3.00 ERA over three appearances (six innings).
After all these moves, Springfield remains down a player on the active roster. You can read more about them in the inset article.
Andrew Morales - No new update.
C.J. McElroy - No new update.
Jimmy Reed – There is talk of Reed aggravating the prior condition that required Tommy John surgery, rather than a new injury. His DL stint may be a result of overwork.
The Cardinal Nation Top 50 Prospects
#6 Dakota Hudson - In his first start of 2017 last week, Hudson pitched much better than his performance indicated. During the right-hander’s start Saturday against Frisco, he flashed the big, raw stuff which allowed him to be a first-round pick last summer.
Hudson has the stuff to overpower, but his hard cutter/slider, which tended to bore in on hitters and cause weak groundouts, helped him cruise through six innings.
Manager Johnny Rodriguez was impressed.
"A lot of cutters that actually had a lot of angle," Rodriguez said with a slight chuckle during his postgame interview. "He's got a solid cutter. Competes. He's got an easy delivery. It comes out of his hand well. There's not a lot of things going on with him. His delivery's just getting after it.
"He had a solid cutter today. Back-to-back quality outings. He gets away with his cutter. If you sit back, he's got a good fastball, and he can flip a breaking ball over too. He's definitely got the makings of a real solid starter in the big leagues, barring injury which I don't see as it's not a high-risk delivery.
"It's a low-risk delivery. Pretty easy. He's a very mature individual and has a lot of mound presence in him," Rodriguez concluded.
The 22-year old, who threw 50 of his 90 pitches for strikes, was in and out of the zone all night, but for a different reason.
"With the cutter, that's going to happen," Rodriguez said. "He's going to have those days where it runs in and run out. The two-seamer will go here. The cutter will no doubt there. He'll be around the plate; it's just got to be close enough to get the swings at and get soft contact which is what it is... soft contact."
#7 Jack Flaherty - Through his first three starts, Flaherty has been nothing short of impressive as Springfield's ace hurler right now. The right-hander, who was sitting 92-94 mph while maxing at 97 mph on the hot stadium gun, dominated mostly with the masterful location of fastballs that hitters were unable to make optimal contact against.
Although the pitch was there when he needed a swing and miss, his fastball command was so sharp he showed little of his signature changeup. That said, Flaherty mixed in his slider and curveball for strikes as well to give him four usable pitches for the third straight outing.
"Flaherty's gains on fastball from the end of 2017, a 50 grade that have held and perhaps improved," according to one scout. "With 60 changeup, 55 slider, and 50 control, fastball gains pushes his ceiling up."
#8 Sandy Alcantara - As mentioned last week, Alcantara's biggest area to emphasize at the Double-A level is commanding the strike zone. His latest two starts indicate he has been fairly erratic, but that's all a part of the plan.
The organization prefers to test players by having them enter a league below the average talent level and having them adapt as the season goes on. Pay attention to how Alcantara does more in June and July than April and May.
The tall, long-limbed, righty was comfortably 97-99 mph on his fastball on Tuesday. He was also employing plenty of off-speed stuff as well.
#9 Austin Gomber - Due to lagging control and an inflating pitch count, Gomber has had two uncharacteristic starts to open his season, falling short of five innings both times out. The big lefty will make his next start against Arkansas on Thursday.
#16 Eliezer Alvarez - Alvarez is the other case on the Springfield roster of being tested by entering a league below the average talent level and adapting as the season goes on. Over the past week, the second baseman showed signs of catching up to the level, recording two multi-hit games as well as his first RBI.
Rodriguez sees improvement in Alvarez, too.
"He's getting better on defense with his backhand," he said. "That's where he struggled - with his backhand. He's made nice plays and has got a plus-plus arm. I'll say an 80-arm pretty much.
"He's got some pop. He drives the ball well to left field. He's not a pull guy. More center to left-center. He loves Robinson Cano, who is his idol. As long as he learns to be on time, he is going to be fine. A five-tool player, who has a chance to play in the big leagues."
#34 Matt Pearce - Springfield's No. 5 starter, who was arguably Palm Beach's top pitcher in the same rotation as Gomber and Flaherty last year, has lost his first two decisions for Springfield.
The question remains whether his underwhelming stuff and zone-pounding approach can hold up at this level as his fly ball tendencies had previously benefited from the home run-suppressing ballparks of the Florida State League.
Soon to join rankings: Adolis Garcia - While the organization has eased him into action after sitting out of live baseball for six months, Garcia is quickly adapting and gaining his timing at the plate.
"He's got what I call a long, quick through the zone swing," Rodriguez said. "It's a lot of things going early, but I think the more he plays, the more his timing is going to come back. It's been a lot of time without playing with that type of swing - which is a high-maintenance swing - which means he has to swing and has to play."
The Cuban's swing produced two home runs over the past week, a solo shot and two-run homer.
"He is starting to catch up to certain fastballs," Rodriguez added. "That's what I like. He is starting to look good."
The 24-year old, who will hit in the three-hole regularly now, the biggest challenge will be to learn the game of baseball as the game in the United States is more cerebral than Cuba.
"He just has to learn the game," Rodriguez said. "He comes from high-competitive Cuba, but there's no learning. You're playing against guys, who are good and you are challenged every day. Now he's seeing that these guys are real good. Every day you got a pitcher coming out that's challenging you."
Sleepers: Oscar Mercado - With a reworked swing and newfound position in center field, Mercado has re-emerged as a prospect. The only open question is compiling a longer period of offensive success. Read my feature on him (see inset).
Blake Drake - With his hitting inconsistent, Drake appears to have been leapfrogged by Mercado on the outfield depth chart. Though he could easily reclaim his spot with one big week at the dish.
After the 3-3 homestand, Springfield opens up intra-division play on Thursday with the first of four against Arkansas at Dickey-Stephens Ballpark followed by a four-game series with NW Arkansas Naturals to open this coming Monday, April 24.
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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