With the Mets returning to the Gulf Coast League this year, the Astros were moved to the North Division, allowing the four-team East Division to employ the same strangely symmetrical schedule it used last season. Sundays are off days, which would make Branch Rickey's father happy. From Monday through Saturday, each team plays two-game home-and-away sets against its three opponents. The Cardinals will play the Nationals or Mets on Monday and Tuesday, the other of those two teams on Wednesday and Thursday, then they always play the Marlins on Friday and Saturday.
For the uninitiated, the Gulf Coast League is the bottom rung of professional ball in the United States. Though you'll see an occasional early round pick out of the First-Year Player Draft, the rosters are mostly filled with a combination of later-round signees, mostly fresh out of high school, and Caribbean players making their debut on U.S. soil.
The Cardinals play most of their home games at noon on a back field of the Roger Dean Stadium complex in Jupiter. Admission is free, but there's no beer or hot dogs.
Based on their listed hometowns, the 31-man Opening Day roster has 11 players from the United States, eight from Venezuela, five from the Dominican Republic, three from Puerto Rico, two from Colombia and one each from Nicaragua and Panama.
The GCL Cards set out to defend their first division title with 10 players returning from last season's roster -- five position players and five pitchers, though one of those pitchers, 19-year-old Max Foody, starts the season on the Disabled List.
Of the others – left-hander Javier Machuca and right-handers Fidencio Flores, Juan Caballero and Kender Villegas – Flores was clearly the most effective last season, though Cardinals instructors were concerned that he wore down too quickly from a workload of 40.1 innings in 12 appearances, half of them starts. The 160-pound Nicaraguan allowed only seveb earned runs last season, but gave up four in 2-2/3 innings of relief in this season's opener, a 7-0 loss to the Marlins.
Juan Perez, a Venezuelan who won't turn 18 for a few more weeks, started the game and took the loss, though he deserved a better fate because all three runs scored off him were unearned due to an error by another Venezuelan, shortstop Leobaldo Pina, who turns 19 next week.
The four returning position players – Rafael Medina, Dutch Deol, Jhohan Acevedo and Jacoby Almaraz, plus rehabber Anthony Garcia – all were in the starting lineup, but went a combined 1 for 16 with two walks. The only offensive highlight was from yet another Venezuelan, 18-year-old catcher Jose Godoy, who had three of the Cardinals' five hits, all singles.
With a win over the Marlins on Saturday, the Cardinals traded shutouts with their Jupiter neighbors in the short first week.
Rehabbing right-hander Jordan Swagerty allowed one hit in the first of his two innings, and that was all the Marlins could muster. Another rehabber from a higher classification, Zack Russell, threw one inning, then the GCL team's regular No. 2 starter, 20-year-old Dominican Isaac Silva, struck out six in four innings while earning his first victory on American soil.
Jonathan Escudero and Juan Caballero each threw a hitless inning to finish up the 5-0 whitewash.
Though he went 2-for-5 in the two games, Medina had both of the Cardinals' RBI without a hit, the first on a sacrifice fly the Marlins turned into a double play, then another on a ground out. As is typical in the GCL, the Cardinals other runs scored on passed balls and balks.
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