The Springfield Cardinals returned to Hammons Field following their road-trip through the Natural State during Week 4 of the 2017 Texas League regular season.
Finishing up their road-series with NW Arkansas (KC), the Springbirds dropped the finale last Thursday and headed back home, where they have compiled a 2-3 record against the Arkansas Travelers (SEA) and the Naturals. The last two games on the homestand will be covered in next week's edition.
This report covers the period from Thursday, April 27 through Wednesday, May 3.
April 27: Springfield 3 at NW Arkansas 4 - 11 innings
Jacob Wilson’s two-run homer tied it in the ninth, but Springfield fell in extras, losing to NW Arkansas, 4-3 in 11 innings. Gabriel Lino led the offense with a 3-for-5 performance, including a solo shot. The Cardinals squandered a strong seven-inning effort from Dakota Hudson, who gave up three runs (two earned). Blake McKnight took the loss via a walk-off wild pitch.
April 28: Springfield 8 vs. Arkansas 7 - 10 innings
Out goes an extra inning loss, in comes an extra inning victory with Springfield prevailing 8-7 over Arkansas on Friday night with Bruce Caldwell striking the game-winning single in the 10th. That was needed after the Cardinals bullpen (Pedro Echemendia and Corey Baker) blew a five-run advantage in the ninth. Oscar Mercado hit a grand slam, and Eliezer Alvarez was a triple away from the cycle. Matt Pearce went six innings of two-run ball in a no-decision.
April 29: Springfield vs. Arkansas - postponed
Saturday’s Game 2 was postponed due to rain. No makeup date has been set.
April 30: Springfield 11 vs. Arkansas 10
The Springbirds needed every bit of their big lead to overcome the Travelers, 11-10. Ace Jack Flaherty pitched five innings of one-run ball before Chandler Hawkins, and Trey Nielsen imploded for nine runs (five earned).
Five Springfield hitters had two hits apiece with six of the 14 total hits going for extra-bases. Bruce Caldwell and Jacob Wilson launched home runs while Eliezer Alvarez had a two-run double and Alex Mejia contributed two doubles for two RBI.
May 1: Springfield 7 vs. Arkansas 8
A nip-and-tuck affair was capped off by five Travelers tallies in the seventh inning as Arkansas claimed the series finale over the Cardinals, 8-7. Sandy Alcantara turned in his second quality start of the season, but the relief corps again faltered, giving up a three-run lead.
Alex Mejia went 4-for-5 with a double and a home run, finishing a triple shy of the cycle. Oscar Mercado picked up three hits in five at-bats.
May 2: Springfield 5 vs. NW Arkansas 6 - 12 innings
In the third extra-inning game of the week, Springfield mounted a late rally, scoring a combined four in the eighth and ninth, but came up short in the 12th. While the Cardinals offense had four players with multi-hit nights, the bullpen yielded four earned runs over the final six frames. Austin Gomber tossed the first six innings, allowing two earned runs.
Anthony Garcia paced the offensive attack with a 3-for-5 effort, including three RBI. Dickie Joe Thon, Eliezer Alvarez, and Oscar Mercado chipped in two hits each with a combined two RBI.
May 3: Springfield 1 vs. NW Arkansas 4
The Cardinals squandered another quality starting effort, falling to NW Arkansas by a final of 4-1 on a rainy Wednesday in Springfield. Before taking the loss, Dakota Hudson pitched 5 2/3 innings, allowing only three runs (two earned) with seven strikeouts. The Springbirds bats busted out for 10 hits with Oscar Mercado tallying three. Bruce Caldwell drove in the only run of the game for the home squad.
Dickie Joe Thon - Thon's game-tying shot in the ninth inning on Tuesday marks the biggest hit in the veteran’s Cardinals career. The versatile infielder has heated up with a four-game hitting streak, going 5-for-15 (.333) with one homer, two RBI, two runs and three walks during that stretch.
Anthony Garcia - After rejoining the club from Triple-A Memphis, Garcia has gotten right back into the swing of things going 6-for-18 (.333) with four RBI through his first four Double-A games this year.
Gabriel Lino - For the straight week, Lino appears on the "Who's Hot" feature. After seizing the full-time catching role, the backstop carries a .342 average with two homers and six RBI over his past ten games.
Jack Flaherty - The April Pitcher of the Month as named by The Cardinal Nation both was so dominant this month that over his first four starts, he led all of Minor League Baseball with a 0.33 ERA (27 1/3 innings) and entered his Sunday start on a 16 2/3 scoreless innings streak.
Despite his scoreless streak being snapped, Flaherty leads all of Double-A with a 4-0 record, 0.56 ERA, 32 1/3 innings hurled, and a 0.80 WHIP. Flaherty also ranks second in the Texas League with 28 strikeouts.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Cardinals organization agreed with TCN, naming him their April Pitcher of the Month as well.
Austin Gomber - Since his first start of the season, Gomber has recorded three quality starts, including a 2.99 ERA through 21 1/3 innings pitched as the No. 3 hurler in the rotation.
Jacob Wilson - After a semi hot-stretch at the plate, Wilson has seen the kitchen sink over his past ten games. The right-handed hitter's batting .131 (5-for-38) with 15 punchouts during that stretch.
Casey Grayson - Before his two-hit outburst on Wednesday, Grayson was hitting .172 over his previous ten games, with his average dropping from .250 down to .205 in the matter of a week.
The bullpen - The Cardinals relievers are struggling mightily at the moment. In just one week of action, the relief corps' ERA jumped from 4.35 last week to 5.13, entering Wednesday's action. The issues are evident, allowing too much square contact (124 hits over 128 innings) and being prone to yield the long ball (11 home runs against them already).
Another relief matter that can only be improved is the percent of inherited runners that score, which is currently a whopping 51 percent (18 of 35 inherited runners scored).
Springfield lead-off man Oscar Mercado has a propensity for getting on base.
So far through the young Texas League season, Mercado has reached base in all 21 games and isn't looking back.
The main reason? The 22-year old, who reworked his swing this past offseason, has collected a hit in 20 of his 21 games played.
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon at Hammons Field, Mercado accomplished a feat which hasn't been done by a Double-A Cardinals prospect since Charlie Tilson in July of 2015, tying the Springbirds all-time record for a hitting streak at 18 games with a fifth inning double.
"I have been staying consistent with what I was doing at the beginning," Mercado said. "Working on (my swing) every day. Even when you get your 0-for-a-couple at-bats, you are not trying to change things up. Just trying to keep with it and trusting it, which is what I'm doing."
Mercado will look to break the franchise's all-time record on Thursday, pending the weather.
First-half standings - Texas League Northern Division
Currently, NW Arkansas holds control of first-place in the division with a 14-10 record, but Springfield (12-12) trails by just two games with Arkansas (11-13) at three and Tulsa (10-14, LAD) back at four in the cellar.
4/28: OF Anthony Garcia to Springfield from Memphis - After being removed from the 40-man roster last Monday, Garcia, who cleared waivers from the roster at Memphis, was demoted to Double-A Springfield on Friday.
4/28: C Luis Cruz released - Cruz, who lost the everyday catcher role for Springfield to the hot-hitting Gabriel Lino over the recent road-trip through the Natural state, was given his official release by the organization last Friday afternoon.
4/28: C Jesse Jenner to Springfield from EST - In the corresponding move for Cruz, the Cardinals 2015 seventh-round pick will take over the backup catching duties for Springfield. Jenner, 23, had been playing in extended spring training.
5/1: OF Blake Drake to Palm Beach from Springfield - With the move of OF Garcia from Memphis to Springfield, the Double-A Cardinals had to make roster space. The corresponding transaction was the return of Drake to Palm Beach.
5/2: LHP Ross Vance to Palm Beach from Springfield - Vance was returned to Palm Beach on Tuesday, The lefty had been moved up on April 20 and tossed two scoreless frames in his Double-A debut. With Kevin Herget moving back to Springfield, Vance was bumped down.
5/2: RHP Kevin Herget to Springfield from Palm Beach - See above.
Andrew Morales - Morales remains at the Jupiter complex rehabbing an injury. Whether it is his shoulder is unconfirmed.
C.J. McElroy - McElroy is reportedly at the Jupiter complex rehabbing his still injured ACL. Awaiting word on his official status from a source close to him.
Jimmy Reed - Reed appears sidelined for a lengthy amount of time due aggravating the prior condition that required Tommy John surgery, rather than a new injury.
The Cardinal Nation Top 50 Prospect Watch
#6 Sandy Alcantara - As an individual unfamiliar to cold weather, Alcantara showed well in it on Monday, posting his second quality start of the year. The right-hander, who grew up in the consistently warmer Dominican Republic, seemed to have his velocity affected, maxing out at 95-96 mph while working primarily in the low-90s.
#7 Jack Flaherty - Cardinals officials lauded Flaherty for his ability to flat out pitch in the month of April, knowing how to spot and work the edges of the strike zone with his fastball. When he doesn't have his best fastball, the right-hander has found a way to induce enough soft contact by mixing and spotting his fastball.
"I have always liked his stuff," Springfield manager Johnny Rodriguez said, who also said Flaherty has been better than advertised. "I wanted to see him learn how to pitch and he's starting to take those steps forward."
Rodriguez elaborated on Flaherty’s strike-throwing ability.
"He doesn't actually pound the strike zone," the manager said. "What he does is command it. He commands the edges of the plate. He manages the zone. I wouldn't say he pounds it. I would say he manages the zone well.
"Out, out, in, in, out, down, and challenge. He manages the zone really well."
Rodriguez confirmed the reports of Flaherty sitting in the mid-90s being in the 92-95 range, calling it an "above-average" fastball. The skipper likes the progress of his curveball which has been the lagging pitch in his arsenal in the past.
"His curveball is just a good curveball," Rodriguez said. "He uses the curveball for effect to make his fastball better and he also throws a slider which keeps guys off balance and helps him induce soft contact."
#8 Dakota Hudson - Through his five starts this season, Hudson has worked into the sixth inning four times, posting a 4.13 ERA. The right-hander out of Mississippi State, has a 27-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 27 1/3 innings as the No. 4 starter for Springfield.
#14 Eliezer Alvarez - Alvarez enjoys hitting at Hammons Field. The 22 year old went 4-for-8 with two doubles, his first-career Double-A home run, three RBI and three runs in his two prior games on the homestand and is hitting .423 (11-for-26) through his eight home games overall.
The second baseman looks to get that translated on the road.
#15 Austin Gomber - See Who's Hot Above.
#20 Adolis Garcia – As soon as it was that mentioned Garcia was flashing surprising patience for a Cuban prospect with a free-swinging approach, the outfielder wore a golden sombrero on Monday and his strikeouts have vaulted. The punchouts are bearable if it comes with his plus raw power potential showing up more in games.
#40 Matt Pearce - Pearce got back to doing Matt Pearce things in his latest outing, hurling six solid innings of two-run ball. It will be interesting to see how if his slider will play as a swing and miss pitch at Double-A. If so, he could sneak in the back-end-of-a-rotation with plus pitchability despite fringy stuff.
#50 Trey Nielsen - Nielsen's second go-around of Double-A hasn't treated him entirely well despite his season-debut skewing his numbers. His latest outing, however, was a strong indication he is regaining form with two scoreless innings against NW Arkansas.
Sleeper: Oscar Mercado - The Cardinals 2013 second round pick, who is on pace to have more home runs than any time during his four-year professional career, attributed the uptick in power production to offseason work as well as playing in more hitter-friendly parks as opposed to the major-league equivalent Florida State League ballparks from 2016.
"Regardless, a lot has to do with me getting stronger this offseason," he added. "Obviously, I worked on adding a little drive to the baseball. I played in a league last year which ate me up pretty quick. I realized I had to get stronger. That's something I worked on a lot while trying to maintain my speed.
"As long as the speed is there, I think I am strong enough to drive the baseballs out of the park whenever I put a good swing on it."
Despite the walks filtering into his offensive profile, Mercado isn't too concerned about his inflated strikeout rate.
"Strikeouts will happen, "the aggressive hitter replied. "I think the fact I am taking a lot more pitches will factor into some strikeouts. Obviously, I'm at a higher level and pitchers know what they're doing a lot more, so I am going to strike out.
"I would like to lower that, but that is going to happen. I am not worried about it. If it correlates to the numbers I am putting up, I am not really stressing it."
On defense, Mercado has also seen time in left field with Adolis Garcia sliding over for reps in center. That said, he is looking to carry over the results from April to May.
"Just trying to stay positive," Mercado said. "Regardless of the results, I have always told myself, 'Just always stay positive.' That's the biggest thing. Not to get down on myself. Struggles will happen. I have struggled a lot throughout my career.
“As long as a stay positive and keep a good mindset, that is all I can really ask for."
Gabriel Lino - Entering Tuesday, Lino led the Cardinals with a .364 batting average before it dipped to .333 after a hitless night on Wednesday. That said, the Venezuelan catcher has flashed a lot of ability, including plus raw power and a strong arm behind the plate with good defensive tools. He is certainly one to watch with regular time and consistent at-bats.
Along with a rainout, Springfield went 2-4 this past week and conclude the current homestand on Friday night against NW Arkansas. The Springbirds then travel to face Tulsa for the first time in 2017 in a four-game series and hit the buses for a brief commute over to North Little Rock to face the Travelers, starting Wednesday.
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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