The Gulf Coast League Cardinals (2-4) opened defense of their East Division crown rather inauspiciously on Monday, taking a 14-1 pounding from the Nationals. The Cards’ opening day starter, Sandy Alcantara, a 19-year-old Dominican making his first regular season appearance on U.S. soil, had enough trouble getting outs – he allowed 10 hits and three walks in 2-1/3 innings – without the defense making four of their five errors for the game behind him.
Despite the drubbing, the Cardinals came back to win the series with back-to-back 4-3 wins Tuesday and Wednesday. Orlando Olivera, the Cardinals’ 38th-round pick out of Missouri Baptist College, got three hits and two RBI in his Tuesday pro debut as the designated hitter.
In the week’s second series, however, the still-undefeated Marlins swept the Cardinals. Though the Cardinals outhit the Marlins 28 to 23 for the series and made one fewer error, the Marlins outscored the Cardinals 16-7.
Though the Cardinals stood fourth in the league after Week 1 with 53 hits, they were last in walks with eight and 12th among the league’s 16 teams with 16 runs scored, with half those runs scoring without an RBI. And they were one of only two teams without a home run so far.
In the pitching stats, the Cardinals staff’s 4.67 ERA ranks 15th, in no small measure because of their 3.6 walks per nine innings. Last season, the GCL Cardinals’ 2.25 walks per nine innings was the best in all of affiliated baseball.
Following the same schedule format as last season, the Gulf Coast League plays Monday through Saturday only within their four-team Eastern Division, with the Cardinals facing the Marlins, Mets and Nationals. The Cardinals will play three-game series against two opponents each week.
Unlike series played at higher levels where teams stay overnight when they travel, GCL series are home-away-home or vice versa, so each team usually has three home and three away games each week. 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.
For the uninitiated, the GCL is the bottom rung of affiliated pro ball on U.S. soil.
Based on their listed hometowns, the 31-man Opening Day roster had 16 players from the United States, 13 from Latin America and two Canadians. Of those born in the U.S., five are from Florida and one is from Missouri. Of the Latin Americans, eight are from Venezuela and three are from the Dominican Republic.
This is not the first go-round with the GCL Cardinals for 10 players, including lefty reliever Max Foody, who missed two years due to injuries after making eight ignominious appearances in 2012.
Once again, the Cardinals assigned their first-round draft pick, outfielder Nick Plummer from Brother Rice High School in Detroit's northern suburbs, to start his pro career in the GCL. Plummer got off to a slow start in the first week, going 2-for-18, though he did draw three walks.
The team lost its first player after two games when infielder Michael Polcyn retired. Polcyn signed earlier this month as a non-drafted free agent from NCAA Division III Ripon College in his hometown of Ripon, Wisconsin. Polcyn, who was two-time Midwest Conference North Player of the Year at Ripon, voluntarily retired Wednesday after going 1-for-7 in the first two games, with an automatic double on Monday his only hit.
GCL Cardinals manager Steve Turco said he didn’t try especially hard to talk Polcyn out of retiring because the 22-year-old seemed to have his mind made up. Turco said, however, that if Polcyn regrets his decision and wants to come back, the door would be open.
Two players who were catchers in their first tour in the GCL – 22-year-old Rowan Wick and 23-year-old Gerwuins Velazco -- are trying their hand at pitching now. They are encouraged by the success of Sam Tuivailala, who was a shortstop as a teammate of Velazco on the 2011 GCL squad but now is doing well at the closer at Triple A Memphis with a couple of major-league callups under his belt.
Wick, the Cardinals’ ninth-round pick in 2012, hit 20 home runs last season in 74 games between the New York-Penn and Midwest Leagues, so he was reluctant at first to switch to pitching.
He said he thought he would miss hitting and playing every day. “Pitching is boring,” Wick said. “I don’t know if they gave me enough of a chance as a hitter.”
But Wick was hitting .198 with three homers after 33 games with the Palm Beach Cardinals in Class A Advanced this season when Farm Director Gary LaRocque pulled the plug on him as a hitter. Wick said LaRocque reminded him of Tuivailala and said pitching was Wick’s best chance to reach the majors.
“I would want to think they have my best interests in mind,” Wick said.
For now, he is working on improving his fastball command. He isn’t trying to throw curveballs yet. “I don’t want to hurt my elbow,” he said. “I’ve played around with other stuff, but it’s not there yet. I wouldn’t want to use it in a game.” The native of North Vancouver, Canada, said, “Day games (in the 90-plus-degree Florida heat) kill me,” so he is eager to do well enough to move up the ladder quickly.
In his first pitching appearance Saturday, Wick entered in relief of Alcantara at the bottom of the sixth with game tied 2-all. He promptly walked the first batter. After a pop out, the runner stole second. Then Wick got the second out on a fly to left field. Wick then uncorked a wild pitch before giving up an RBI single for what proved to be the decisive run, after which Foody replaced him. Wick took the loss.
In six minor-league seasons as a catcher, Velazco compiled a respectable but not outstanding .255 batting average with nine home runs in 269 games. Pitching “is a very big change, but now I like it,” Velazco said through an interpreter, Cardinals Assistant Director of International Scouting Luis Morales.
Velazco, who started pitching at age 15, said he is excited about the change. He said he is concentrating on “controlling my secondary pitches (curveball and changeup) and doing a good job so I can go back to higher levels.” With a fastball that sits at 91-92 mph, Velazco said his curve is ahead of his changeup, which “is not as good in games as it is in the bullpen.” He said he needs to do better at controlling his arm action and arm velocity on the changeup.
Velazco is working on throwing strikes, but also controlling his emotions on the mound. “You need to let go as a pitcher and trust your catcher,” he said.
In four innings over two appearances, Velazco yielded two earned runs on six hits, but he fanned four without walking anyone.
Turco said he was impressed and pleased with Foody’s two strong relief outings. Over four innings, Foody allowed three hits while fanning eight without allowing an earned run. More importantly, Foody didn’t walk anyone. In 2012, Foody allowed 26 hits and 16 walks in 16 innings while compiling an 11.57 ERA.
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