Top 10 Moments of 2013

Hello, everyone.

Since we’re now about a month removed from the end of the season, it’s time to get this thing back up and running. The 2013 campaign was a very successful one, as the RedHawks won their division, piled up 82 wins, and at one point had a 17-game home winning streak.

Now it’s time to take a look back and count down the top 10 moments of the season, at least in my opinion.

10) Facing–and beating–Chris Carpenter

Plenty of Triple-A players have big league experience, and rehabbing big leaguers are also commonplace in Triple-A. However, it’s not too often you have a chance to face a former Cy Young Award winner in a minor league setting.

The RedHawks did just that when they squared off against St. Louis Cardinals great Chris Carpenter in Memphis on July 20. AutoZone Park was rocking that night, with a packed house of around 15,000 red-clad Cardinals/Redbirds fans on hand. In six seasons of broadcasting games in the Minors, it is easily the closest thing to a Major League setting I have ever experienced.

Led by Robbie Grossman’s five hits and Jake Buchanan’s six scoreless innings, the RedHawks won that night, 8-1. Carpenter, who has been plagued by nerve issues that causes numbness throughout his body, allowed four runs and nine hits over 3.1 innings. He did not pitch again in 2013, and there’s a chance it might be the final time he pitches at all.

Robbie Grossman notched three hits off Chris Carpenter, en route to a 5-for-5 night.

Robbie Grossman notched three hits off Chris Carpenter, en route to a 5-for-5 night on July 20.

9) Ruben Sosa’s Mad Dash

Every season, at every minor league level, it seems every team gets significant contributions from a completely unexpected source. Ruben Sosa was one of those players for the RedHawks this season. The 5′ 6″ dynamo became a fan favorite due to his size, speed, all-out hustle, as well as his local ties since he played at Western Oklahoma State and Oklahoma City University.

After a rash of injuries at the beginning of the season, Sosa joined the team from extended spring training and made an immediate impact in his first action on April 7 in Memphis.* He scored the game-tying run as a pinch-runner in the ninth inning on a close play at the plate and then ripped a double in his first at-bat above A-ball in the 11th.

Although his first stint with the team was brief before heading to Low-A Quad Cities, he was summoned back to Oklahoma City in late June when the RedHawks had some defections to the Astros during a week in which they were slated to play three doubleheaders in six days. Most figured once the team got past that grueling stretch he would be on his way. Instead, he took advantage of his opportunity and stuck with the team the rest of the year.

The most exciting play he was involved in occurred during a day game in Omaha on July 24. The RedHawks were trying to bounce back after the most heartbreaking day of the season. Down 4-2 heading into the top of the 8th, the RedHawks had already rallied for five runs when Sosa stepped up to the plate. He sent a deep drive to right-center field that went to the wall. Once RedHawks manager Tony DeFrancesco saw how far into the outfield second baseman Christian Colon was to receive the throw, he decided to send Sosa home. Sosa beat the relay, collecting the RedHawks’ first inside-the-park home run since April 13, 2010 and the first one ever hit at Omaha’s Werner Park. The guys in the dugout were ecstatic, and the RedHawks went onto win, 11-4.

(*Side note: Memphis’ starting pitcher that day was Michael Wacha, who you might know from his recent exploits displayed here and here. Wacha’s line from April 7: 4 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 4 BB, 0 K; 85 pitches. As you can see, anything but remarkable. Granted it was the first Triple-A action for a guy barely out of college, but it’s almost unthinkable now given what he’s been doing of late.)

8) Cody Clark Finally Gets the Call

After grinding out 11 seasons in the Minors, catcher Cody Clark made his way to the Major Leagues on August 23. His career has almost always been spent as a backup catcher: Someone who never put up huge numbers at the plate, but was a tremendous asset to have to work with pitchers as well as have in the clubhouse. Due to his lengthy career, and the fact his father has been a longtime staple around college baseball, he seemingly knows everyone. Several players, both in and outside of the Astros organization, have told me he’s the best teammate they’ve ever had.

I remember talking with him in Tucson in mid-August when Tucson catcher Chris Robinson, who essentially has had an identical career, got his chance to go up. Cody was so happy for him, and a little over a week later, it was his turn.

Granted I’ve only known Cody for a few months, but I’m not sure he’s ever had a bad day. Consider the circumstances right before he got promoted: Due to a number of injuries in Corpus Christi, he actually got sent down to Double-A, a level he hadn’t played at since 2009. His time with the Hooks was brief, as just three days later he was suiting up for the Astros.

I got to recently catch up with Cody when the Astros played in Arlington at the end of September. It was awesome seeing him in an Astros uniform, and it was very apparent he was thrilled with the opportunity he had waited so long to get.

Cody Clark

Cody Clark

7) Bats go Bonkers Against Colorado Springs

The RedHawks welcomed the Colorado Springs Sky Sox to town on August 3 by steamrolling them, 24-5. The 24 runs tied a club record, but set a new mark for the most runs ever scored at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.

The team got off to a hot start, scoring five runs in the first inning, including a grand slam by Jon Singleton:

Colorado Springs would cut the lead to 8-4 in the sixth, but the RedHawks tallied 16 runs over their final three at-bats, including a seven spot in the eighth. Brandon Laird finished with seven RBI and George Springer scored five times.

The offensive explosion was aided by the Sky Sox, who committed five errors, which led to an incredible 14 unearned runs! There’s no way to tell if that’s a record, but I imagine if it’s not, it’s gotta be close.

6) Martinez Magic Versus Memphis

The RedHawks were limping a bit toward the postseason after clinching the division. On September 1 they were on the brink of losing a third-straight game to Memphis, as well as losing for the fourth time in five games since clinching.

With Memphis leading 4-0 with none on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Redbirds were one strike away from clinching the American Northern Division and ensuring a date with the RedHawks in the playoffs. Folks in the Memphis dugout were all leaning on the railing, and they were all primed to start celebrating.

Facing an 0-2 count, Che-Hsuan Lin fouled off a pitch before taking the next two pitches for balls. He then doubled to keep the game alive. Carlos Perez stepped up next, and with a 2-2 count, he singled.

After Memphis made a pitching change, Jimmy Paredes ripped a double to the gap to make it 4-1 and bring the tying run to the plate. Jose Martinez sent a deep drive down the left field line, which was ruled fair for a three-run homer:

The Redbirds were incredulous, but video replay clearly showed it was a fair ball.

Still tied 4-4 in the 11th, Martinez came up to the plate again, this time with the bases loaded and a chance to win it. He crushed one that landed on the warning track in the deepest part of the park, but officially went down as just a single.

The comeback had huge implications to say the least. Omaha would win later that night to keep their playoff hopes alive. The RedHawks beat the Redbirds the next day to finish the regular season, and Omaha also won, sending the Storm Chasers to the postseason.

We know the rest from there: Omaha swept the RedHawks, beat Salt Lake for the PCL Championship, and then beat Durham for the Triple-A National Championship. And it was one pitch away from never happening.

Scoring four times with none on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth is impressive, but it wasn’t even the biggest comeback of the season…

5) The Comeback of All Comebacks

One of baseball’s all-time adages is, “You never know what you’ll see at the ballpark.” It speaks to how when you play 144 (or 162) games per year, year after year, you’re going to see eventually something out of the ordinary. And although most of the school kids on hand for the field trip game on May 8 against Tacoma probably won’t remember or appreciate what happened, it will probably be something they will never witness again.

Down 6-0 with the bases empty and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the following happened:

-Marc Krauss single

-Jason Jaramillo RBI double

-Andy Simunic walk

-Che-Hsuan Lin walk

-Cody Clark RBI single

And then Jonathan Villar did this:

The RedHawks scored in the 10th on a throwing error to win, 7-6. It was something else.

4) Springer’s Chase for 40/40

George Springer didn’t join the RedHawks until late June, but his two-month stay in Oklahoma City was a memorable one. He had hit 19 home runs and collected 23 stolen bases with Double-A Corpus Christi at the time of his promotion.

He swatted his 30th homer on August 9 in Las Vegas and swiped his 40th–and 41st–base on August 22 in Round Rock. The next night he hit his 37th homer, and the chase was on with 10 games to go. With a chance to do something that had not been done since 1956–and had never been done in affiliated minor league baseball–everyone had their eyes on Springer. Milb.com even created a whole section dedicated to him.

Unfortunately he stayed at 37 home runs, but it shouldn’t take away from what an amazing season he had. He joined Darryl Strawberry and Ruben Rivera as the only two minor leaguers over the past 40 years to hit at least 30 homers and steal 40 bases in a single season. He was just one of two players in the Minors to collect 100 RBI and score at least 100 runs. The only other player to do that was fellow Astros farmhand Andrew Aplin, but Aplin did in a very hitter-friendly home park in Lancaster, within a hitter-friendly Cal League.

There were four players in the Majors who also reached the 100/100 mark: Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis (former RedHawk!), Paul Goldschmidt, and Adam Jones. So that’s the top two AL MVP candidates, a top NL MVP candidate, and a perennial All-Star. Pretty good company to be in, but you also have to consider Springer did it in just 135 games. None of those guys had reached 100/100 by the time Springer’s season was over.

You could argue Springer did reach 40/40 after all. He hit two homers in the Texas League All-Star Game and one more in the PCL playoffs. It’s not like he was facing inferior competition in either instance. I’m not trying to argue against the way official stats are recorded, but it is something to consider.

I think one of the best representations of what kind of player George Springer is lies in the fact he was voted “Most Exciting Player” in both the Texas League and Pacific Coast League in this year’s annual Best Tools Survey conducted by Baseball America. He college coach has gone on record to say that he is a “six-tool player” due to his love and knowledge of the game.

George Springer provided a lot of great moments, but his inside-the-park home run on July 27 against Iowa is one my favorites. I went back and timed his run. He clocked in at 13.7 seconds. Billy Hamilton, the anointed “fastest man in baseball”, circled the bases in 13.6 seconds during an inside-the-park home run earlier in the year.

I told George about that the next day in a joking manner. Although he took the ribbing in good stride, I could also tell he was making a mental note that he needed to work to find a way to shave 0.1-0.2 seconds off his time so he could lay claim as the fastest in the game.

Now I can’t tell you how his skills will translate at the Major League level. He might not threaten to go 40/40, but I would be shocked if he doesn’t have a long, successful career. He’s too talented, too hard of a worker, and too much of a respected person for that not to happen.

3) Wojo’s One-Hit Wonder

The RedHawks game on July 7 in New Orleans was rained out. Little did we know at the time, it was a twist of fate that set the stage for one greatest performances in team history.

With his start pushed back by one day, Asher Wojciechowski took the mound the next night and proceeded to face the minimum during a one-hit shutout against the Round Rock Express.

It was the first nine-inning shutout by a RedHawk since 2009 and stands as the only time in team history a pitcher has faced the minimum during a complete game. And he did it on the road, against a pretty good team.

Wojo retired the first 15 hitters before Mike Olt led off the bottom of the sixth with a sharp single. After a strikeout, he erased the runner with a double play. Manny Ramirez–yes, that Manny Ramirez–gave him a scare with a flyout to the warning track in left field to start off the eighth. Joey Butler stepped up next and drew a walk, although each of the four balls could have easily been called strikes. On the very next pitch, Wojo coaxed a double play off Aaron Cunningham’s bat to end the inning.

He worked a 1-2-3 ninth, etching his place in team history. Wojo went the distance by using just 97 pitches, and he retired the side on nine pitches or less five times. Outside of Olt’s single and Manny’s deep flyout, there really wasn’t another ball hit well all night.

Asher Wojciechowski delivers the final pitch of his shutout in Round Rock on July 8. (Photo courtesy of Jan Opella)

Asher Wojciechowski delivers the final pitch of his shutout in Round Rock on July 8.
(Photo courtesy of Jan Opella)

For someone who has never seen a no-hitter or perfect game in person, it’s the most impressive pitching performance I have been a part of. It’s definitely a game I’ll always smile about when I go back look through my old scorebooks.

My scorebook from Wojo's one-hitter. Pretty close to as clean as it gets.

My scorebook from Wojo’s one-hitter. Pretty close to as clean as it gets.

2) Edge of Seventeen

“Just like the white-winged dove sings a song, sounds like she’s singing…”

Between July 26 and August 20, the RedHawks played 17 home games. They won every single one of them. It started with a 12-game homestand July 26-August 6. I would have been happy with 9-3 and downright thrilled with 10-2. But 12-0? The 12-game winning streak smashed the previous team record of nine, done several times throughout the years.

Not only did they sweep the homestand, they did it with relatively little drama. They didn’t trail for a full inning until the 11th game and never faced a deficit of more than one run. Most games followed this simple script:

A) Score first.

B) Never relinquish lead.

C) Win.

D) Take ride on Party Train.

(If the RedHawks ever win a PCL title, I will definitely wear those studded overalls.)

After a tough West Coast road trip that saw the team go 2-6, they returned home to take on division rival Albuquerque in a pivotal five-game series. The Isotopes entered that series three games behind the RedHawks in the standings for first place, but they would gain no ground. The first game had a playoff-like atmosphere as the RedHawks squeaked by, 3-2.

The next night the RedHawks would trail for more than one inning (gasp!) after falling behind 1-0 early, but they took the lead for good in the fourth inning. The followed “the script” in games three and four to bring the home winning streak up to 16, but number 17 was filled with drama.

The RedHawks led 4-3 heading into the seventh, but the Isotopes scored twice to take the lead. Up to this point, the RedHawks had never trailed in any game during the win streak past the sixth inning.

Still down by a run in the ninth, Carlos Perez led off the inning with a walk. After a sacrifice bunt and a strikeout, Jose Martinez came to the plate. With the team down to its final strike, “Captain Clutch” laced an RBI double into left field to tie the game. The game stayed alive for George Springer, and what happened next caused me to go all Gus Johnson:

(The angle in the video really doesn’t do justice as to how great of a slide it was by Martinez.)

It would be the final win of the streak before it came to an end on August 26 against Nashville, but what a way to cap it off. The RedHawks ended up going 47-26 at home, including 10 walk-off wins (but no walk-off homers). They are an astonishing 92-52 (!!) at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark over the past two seasons.

1) Division Champs…Again

Unlike other full-season leagues within the Minors, the playoff structure in Triple-A is modeled after the Majors. We don’t play halves. If you wanna get to the postseason, you have to be the one atop your division after the 144-game grind.

Despite more roster changes than normal for a Triple-A team, the RedHawks won with the interchangeable parts they were given. They went into the All-Star Break five games above .500, but went on a post-break blitz to the tune of 31-16. They ran away with the division by six games after being 4.5 games out of first at the break.

The clincher was on August 27 against Nashville. Making a spot start, Eric Berger pitched brilliantly, allowing one run and two hits over five innings and retiring 11 of the final 12 batters he faced. The RedHawks held a three-run lead in the sixth before hanging on for a 5-4 victory. It was time to celebrate in Bricktown.

The best and worst day of the year for a clubhouse manager.

The best and worst day of the year for a clubhouse manager.

It was the seventh division title in team history and the first under the Astros affiliation. Since joining the PCL in 1998, only Sacramento has won more division titles than the RedHawks.

The playoffs did not turn out the way anyone would have liked but it does not diminish the team’s fabulous season. 2013 provided a lot of great memories, and these were just 10 of the best.

That’s all for now, but I can tell you the next post will take a look at some of the year’s more unusual moments, both on and off the field.

Thanks for reading.

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