WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. • Although his demotion to Class AAA Memphis could prove to be as short as it was sudden, Cardinals outfielder Stephen Piscotty understood the message.
“It was a shot in the arm,” he said. “And I needed it.”
With access to an extra spot on the roster for the MLB Little League Classic at Bowman Field, the Cardinals pivoted Sunday morning from speedster Magneuris Sierra to former everyday outfielder Piscotty. He served as the 26th man for that night’s game, though the Cardinals expect to keep Piscotty in the majors and return another player to the Triple-A Redbirds.
Piscotty would join a crowded outfield that has featured strong performances from Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham as the team won 10 of 13 games. John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, suggested that the team must “go with the hot hand” in the outfield.
Piscotty started Sunday, a move manager Mike Matheny conceded was a “nod” to his work in the minors – and his recent upswing in production there.
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“We acknowledge what you did,” Matheny said. “We’ve never, never swayed from our opinion of Stephen. It may have felt like that to him, but it’s not the case.”
Sent to Memphis at the end of a four-for-31 (.129) spiral, Piscotty played eight games and hit .313 with a .781 slugging percentage. He homered in his first at-bat after the demotion, and he added three more to go with six walks and seven RBIs. Piscotty said it was a matter of going to the minors and “simplifying,” and also finding and fixing the kinks in his swing without at-bats costing against the big-league standings.
“I think being able to play some games in a lower-stress environment, to really get back to basics,” Piscotty said. “I have been able to get in that routine of playing every day.”
The Cardinals had both Sierra and Piscotty travel to Pittsburgh in preparation for Sunday’s Classic. The team originally planned to have Sierra join the team as a speed option off the bench, but Fowler’s sore back led the front office to reconsider. Piscotty was brought to Pittsburgh in case Fowler’s soreness lingered and the Cardinals needed an everyday outfielder. Fowler started, and the Cardinals still brought Piscotty on the charter flight to the site of the Little League World Series.
Sierra returned to Class AA Springfield.
Each team had access to a 26th man, as in a doubleheader, under an agreement negotiated by the players’ union to approve the Classic. The extra spot also protected the teams because immediate travel to Williamsport would have been tricky.
Pham, a booster rocket for the Cardinals’ offense this season, did not start Sunday, and it’s not clear if Piscotty’s presence on the roster will lead to more of a rotation. Piscotty, who singled and walked Sunday, won’t serve as a righthanded-hitting option at first, a spot manned for now by rookie Luke Voit and also handled by outfielder Jose Martinez.
Piscotty learned of his demotion at the ballpark in Kansas City, when he arrived Aug. 7. His season has been complicated by stops on the disabled list and his mother’s ongoing illness, and the option took time to measure. He declined comment at the time because the Cardinals had not yet made the move official.
“Obviously you don’t want to get sent down,” Piscotty said. “It’s all about winning, and I get it. My thought process going into it was I need to get better and catch fire.”
As Major League Baseball intends to expand its special-event games to historic, symbolic, and international locales, the Cardinals are open to tagging along. The Cardinals’ participation in Sunday’s Classic was their first regular-season game at a park other than a big-league stadium since going to Hawaii in 1997, and that was close to the time that the club declined a chance to play a series in Japan.
They’ve been homebodies since, strengthening a regional brand.
“If it arises that we have the opportunity to say we’d like to participate in these, the answer is yes,” Mozeliak said. “I look at a team and the opportunity to build your brand and expand your brand outside of your city and your region — I think that is important.”
The commissioner’s office would like to return in 2018 to Williamsport for a second Classic, and it will probably include the Philadelphia Phillies and a division opponent. In the coming years, Commissioner Rob Manfred and the union have agreed to take the game overseas to Asia and Great Britain, along with the possibility of other international sites. The Cardinals have previously let the commissioner’s office know of their interest in going to Cuba, should Major League Baseball return there as it did during spring 2016.
Manfred said Sunday that he sees two or three of these spotlight games a season, and that he would hope that the Classic in Williamsport would be semiannual.
“We think baseball is a growth game,” Manfred said. “In order to grow the game, we think it’s really important to take our games to places where we don’t ordinarily play. … I think optimum is in the 2-3 range. Obviously you don’t want to do it so often that it’s no longer special. Going to Mexico City is done for an entirely different set of baseball reasons than coming to Williamsport.”
IT’S GOTTA BE THE SHOES
As part of the Players’ Weekend event throughout baseball, players had the chance to sport colorful bats, nicknames on their jerseys, and an assortment of other accessories to flash their personality. Pham got approval for a special pair of cleats in time to wear them during the Classic. The shoes were decorated by two cancer patients at St. Louis Children’s Hospital: Lamarion, 7, and Chloe, 5. Each colored and glittered and decorated one of the shoes.
The idea came to Pham only after a few of his teammates bragged about the stylish kicks they intended to wear for Players’ Weekend. Pham had forgotten. His Adidas representative offered him a pair of white shoes – to decorate on his own.
He offered them to a hospital he’s visited.
“For my lack of preparation I ended up coming with something pretty cool,” said Pham, who had another pair decorated by his 7-year-old nephew, Clayton.
Bucs infielder Josh Harrison had Little Leaguers sign his shoes that he intended to wear during the games of the Players’ Weekend. Several of the players in the Classic used yellow bats, and some Cardinals, like rookie Paul DeJong, had bats decorated like Cardinals’ ringtail stirrups.