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VOL. 132 | NO. 100 | Friday, May 19, 2017

On Redbirds’ Wings: Memphis Triple-A Team Off to a Flying Start

By Don Wade

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They already had won 10 straight games – a franchise record for the Memphis Redbirds. In winning their 11th consecutive game, at Iowa more than a week ago, the Redbirds used an eight-run ninth inning to wipe out a two-run deficit and take the game 15-9.

The Memphis Redbirds jumped out to a 25-15 start, including a franchise-best 11-game winning streak. As of May 17, they were in first-place in their division by six games.  (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

This doesn’t happen in baseball, not on fields with regulation dimensions and in a game played by grown men. But it happened for the Redbirds, who have been doing a fine impersonation of eagles as they soar above the competition.

Even after losing back-to-back games at AutoZone Park this week, the Redbirds had won 15 of their previous 18 games. Going into their May 18 game, the last before starting an eight-game road trip, they owned a 25-15 record and had a six-game lead over second-place Nashville in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) American Southern Division.

“What’s fun is this is a young bunch,” said team broadcaster Steve Selby, who is perched high above the field in the press box home and away. “They’ve got a lot of raw abilities. They’re a little streaky, but what they’ve proved over the first month and a half, they’re never out of a ballgame. If you fall behind, you don’t say, `Oh, here we go again.’ It’s who’s going to do it today? Because it’s not been one or two guys. It’s like three or four different guys every day. So it keeps it pretty fresh.”

Keeping it fresh in Triple-A is not easy. Let’s face it: Every player is here with the primary goal of getting to the big leagues for the first time, or returning to the majors and never seeing the likes of Memphis, Nashville and Albuquerque ever again.

Yet, it’s a team game and winning is not achieved singularly. Everybody knows that. And everybody understands that winning is more fun than losing. But once a team starts losing a lot of games, the whole concept can get twisted.

That’s called human nature.

“That’s part of it,” first baseman Luke Voit said of what happens to losing teams in the minor leagues. “But end of the day, you want to be a good teammate, too. It’s a bad look for guys that just care about themselves. The vibe in the clubhouse, everyone’s negative, start getting selfish.”

Which is not what the Redbirds have going on now.

“We’ve had a great locker room,” Voit said. “It’s like we’re a fraternity.”

Minus the worst of the “Animal House” images.

“This team is worried about today, which is great. That’s how you win,” said outfielder Chad Huffman, a 32-year-old who has played professionally since 2006 and every game in the minors except for his nine games with the New York Yankees in 2010. “Yeah, everybody wants to get to the big leagues. But that being said, if you’re thinking about the big leagues you’re not thinking about today.

“PCL travel is really tough, but winning kind of heals everything. Boosts everyone’s morale. We play for each other instead of playing individually, which is what you want in a team.”

First-year Redbirds skipper Stubby Clapp has something to do with all this wining, of course, but he talks like he’s the recipient of a gift. Doing his job is a lot easier when the Redbirds score more runs than the other guys do.

“When the kids have confidence, they come in the next day ready to work,” Clapp said. “And when they’re ready to work, they absorb and they apply. That’s about as easy as you can make it. When the confidence level is down, each individual is a different grind on how you can help them to get better.

“The whole coaching aspect has been more a psychological challenge than teaching them mechanics. When you’re rolling like that, they’re hungry. When they’re 0-for-15 and you say, `Try this,’ and it doesn’t work, they’re gonna be looking at you like that’s not the fix. It’s psychological warfare.

“Any one of these guys, in my eyes, can play in the big leagues tomorrow,” Clapp continued. “I try to treat them as so. I think they treat each other that way. And that’s how the playing time is allocated. Everybody knows they’re a part of this whole thing, and for St. Louis.”

Tougher times will come. It happens to every team at every level in baseball. And everyone associated with the team knows there is, say, a five-game losing streak in their future.

“Winning makes it easier on the players, easier on the fans, and easier on the broadcasters,” Selby said, saying of his job: “If you got a team that’s gonna lose 80 games, it’s hard to come up with positive nuggets for three hours. But you don’t want to be negative about your club, so what do you talk about? We give a lot of out of town scores.”

So far, fans listening to games in other PCL cities are noticing that Memphis team is usually on top when its score is given. The aim is for that to continue, to get to August in good position to push to the postseason.

The Redbirds are on track to do that, but it’s also not job one for Clapp and his staff. Clapp had 23 big-league games and five hits in his time with the Cardinals. When he looks at his players today, even as well as they’re playing, he wants more.

“I take a lot of pride in being able to help and put these guys in a successful position,” the manager said. “Because I want those guys to have a thousand times better career than I did in the big leagues.

“That’s the ultimate goal.”

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