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Texas League playoff baseball returned to Hammons Field for the first time in seven years on Tuesday night and it was a tough one for the home team, their offense as dismal as a steady rain over downtown Springfield.
The Double-A Cardinals, red-hot with the bats in a frenetic final stretch to win the Texas League North second half, managed only six hits in a 3-1 loss to the first-half champion Arkansas Travelers in front of 2,787 fans.
The best-of-three series continues on Thursday in Little Rock, with a third-and-deciding game, if needed, there on Friday. The opening outcome was not what the Cardinals were looking for, especially their core trio of veterans who have been leaders over the past two seasons.
Winning is more than an added bonus for Antico, Pages and Redmond
The common notion that winning is secondary to developing young players in minor-league baseball is all well and good, but catcher Pedro Pages, outfielder Mike Antico and first baseman Chandler Redmond might argue the point.
Those three have had tremendous individual seasons, but failed to earn promotions within the Cardinals’ system. Pages and Antico both are 25 and Redmond is 26, teetering on the edge of old age in a sport looking for rising prospects.
There’s no telling if Pages, Antico and Redmond will make it to the big show, but winning is more than an added bonus to them.
“Not a lot of us have played in the playoffs,” Pages said prior to the game. “It’s a big moment for us, but at the end of the day, we’re just here to have some fun, take every moment in and just enjoy it.”
Added Antico: “A huge message for us this week is to just have fun. We had a long season, a lot of at-bats, a lot of games, trying to make the playoffs. Now that we’re here, we just want to have fun. We want to play as loose as we can at this point and enjoy it.”
Redmond, the Texas League home-run king with 31 and Springfield’s career RBI leader with 194, wants to take it a step further.
“The fun, it’s in the winning,” Redmond said. “We want a championship.”
Manager says veterans have made big impact on this team
Whether that happens or not, Springfield manager Jose Leger said there’s no doubting the impact that Pages, Antico and Redmond have made on the younger players on the roster — some who have graduated to higher levels, such as St. Louis Cardinals Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn.
“Big time,” Leger said. “It’s hard to keep guys like that who have had a successful year and they don’t get the promotion. You know how it is in the minor leagues, you start with one team and finish with a different team.
“Being able to have the core of those guys who have led this team, and who were here last year too, that has been huge.”
Base-stealing duo has given offense a spark
Antico, a New Jersey native who finished his college baseball career at Texas, has Springfield’s single-season base-stealing record with 52. He and 22-year-old center fielder Victor Scott II give the Cardinals arguably the best stolen-base duo in all of baseball.
Scott, who has 45 steals with Springfield after swiping 50 in the first half of 2023 at High-A Peoria, said he and Antico talk about their craft every day. They compare techniques and study opposing pitchers. They challenge each other and push each other to be better.
“It brings a table-setting atmosphere,” Scott said of his partner in crime. “If I bring the plates, he brings the silverware. It adds a fun element and everybody gets on the edge of their seats when me and Mike are going back and forth with stolen bases and hits and homers and all the above.”
Scott added that Antico, Redmond and Pages have been a calming presence on younger prospects when it comes to the mental side of baseball.
“Just keeping our mindsets right, not letting us falter over a bad game, or a bad at-bat, or a bad play in the field,” Scott said. “Just keeping our spirits up so we can continue to perform.”
Antico one of the most-improved players in the Texas League
Antico has more than speed going for him. As one of the most-improved players in the Texas League, he entered the playoffs with 18 home runs after hitting only six in 2022. He’s been solid in the outfield, playing all three spots.
“We’ve seen the stolen base success rate, the ability to play all three positions in the outfield, bunting, running and 18 homers,” Leger said of Antico. “That goes a long way. That’s why he’s been all over the lineup, contributing.”
Added Antico: “The goal is always to get better every year. I think I did that and a lot of guys did that, too. It was a great year.”
Pages, a steady catcher, has added power to his bat
Pages also has shown a notable uptick in power in 2023, with 16 home runs after hitting 10 a year ago when he spent 44 games with Triple-A Memphis. Known as a solid defensive catcher, his improvement at the plate in terms of power should earn him a shot at playing at a higher level next season.
Leger said Pages deserves a lot of credit for all aspects of his game, but especially an ability to work with a pitching staff that’s shown improvement throughout the season despite losing some key arms to Memphis.
Asked which he takes more satisfaction from, a home run in a key spot or helping a pitcher excel, Pages said he will always go with catching.
“Hitting comes and goes, but catching, as long as I can work with my pitcher that day and he goes out and executes, I take pride in that,” Pages said. “If he has a good day, then I’ve had a good day.”
Redmond in the Texas League MVP conversation
Redmond, a candidate for Texas League MVP alongside Thomas Saggese, who spent a month in Springfield before being promoted to Memphis, said he’s tried to impress on his young teammates how special winning in postseason play can be. The players got to celebrate the North Division title clincher on Sunday in San Antonio with a champagne bath afterward.
Redmond said he wants another in a few days, though that challenge became tougher after the series opener.
“I don’t think some of the young guys realize how special getting a ring is,” Redmond said. “I was fortunate enough to get one (in Rookie League) with Johnson City in 2019. It’s awesome and one of the first things I show newcomers to my house. I have a game room and I show them that Johnson City ring. I hope I get to add one to it.”
Texas League North Playoffs (best-of-three)
Game 1 — Arkansas 3, Springfield 1
Game 2 — Springfield 6, Arkansas 4
Game 3 — Springfield at Arkansas, 6:35 p.m. Friday