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VOL. 129 | NO. 171 | Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Redbirds Prepare for Playoffs Appearance

By Don Wade

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First-year Memphis Redbirds general manager Craig Unger grew up a St. Louis Cardinals fan and he spent the last five years working in the team’s front office. He even wears a huge World Series ring from the team’s 2011 championship.

The Memphis Redbirds begin a best-of-five playoff series in Omaha on Wednesday, Sept. 3. Game 3 will be Friday, Sept. 5, at 7:05 p.m. at AutoZone Park.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

So as the Redbirds were homing in on a playoff berth as the season wound down, things felt natural.

“We’re in the hunt,” Unger said last week as the Redbirds were wrapping up the last regular-season homestand of the season. “It’s always better to win than lose.”

The Redbirds clinched the Pacific Coast League’s American Southern Division title over the weekend. The regular season ended Monday and the Redbirds finished 79-64. They open a best-of-five playoff series at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday at Omaha, the PCL’s American Northern Division champs (76-67).

Game 2 of the series will be at 7:05 p.m. Thursday at Omaha’s Werner Park and Game 3 will be at 7:05 p.m. Friday at AutoZone Park. If Games 4 and 5 are necessary, they would be played at AutoZone Park on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets start at $6 for bluff seating and may be purchased over the phone at 721-6000 or at the AutoZone Park box office at the corner of Third Street and Union Avenue.

The winner of the Memphis-Omaha series will play the winner of the Pacific Conference Las Vegas-Reno series in another best-of-five series to determine the PCL champion. This is the Redbirds’ fourth PCL playoff berth and they won the PCL championship in 2000 and 2009.

Such a pursuit appeared unlikely on July 3 when the Redbirds were in last place in the division and 6.5 games out. Then they went on a 40-15 tear.

“You always think anything is possible,” Memphis manager Pop Warner said. “We went on a pretty good run. I’m pretty proud of the guys.”

Such runs at the Triple-A level always happen amid the inevitable roster turbulence of giving the major-league club what it needs when it needs it. A few days ago, the Cardinals recalled infielder Pete Kozma, but while in Memphis he was slick in the field and even showed some surprising pop with the bat.

“Kozma’s defense up the middle was huge for us,” Warner said. “He saved us quite a few times.”

A Triple-A starting rotation always is in a state of flux, but everyone from Carlos Martinez (now back with the Cardinals) to Tyler Lyons, John Gast and Marco Gonzales contributed.

Tim Cooney, who won a franchise-record 14 games for Memphis, starts Wednesday in Omaha. Zach Petrick, a seven-game winner, goes Thursday. Friday’s pitching plans in Memphis are up in the air, although Warner has read the same media reports from St. Louis as everyone else: The Cardinals might send right-hander Michael Wacha down to make a rehab start here Friday.

“I haven’t heard anything from our front office,” Warner said.

But he did say he was told that players who are still here will remain here.

“They said we’ll have what we have until our season is over,” he said.

That would include first baseman Xavier Scruggs, who led Memphis with 87 runs batted in (fifth in the PCL) and hit 21 homers with a batting average of .286.

“Ever since we’ve been winning more, guys have been getting to the park earlier, having a good time here, staying later after the games,” Scruggs said. “The team has jelled big time. Everybody loves each other. This is a great clubhouse and it’s a testament to these guys’ mind-set. They’re here to work. We don’t have any big egos in here.”

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