The Gulf Coast League Cardinals (30-24) won their first four games this past week, extending their season-long win streak to eight and opening a two-game lead over the Marlins, but then lost Friday and Saturday to the Marlins.
They outscored the Nationals 27-6 in sweeping three, but the Marlins forged an 11-9 edge in runs scored. In perhaps a bit of fortunate happenstance for the Marlins, major-leaguer Jarred Cosart made a rehab start Saturday, limiting the Cardinals to two singles and a walk over four scoreless innings.
With each team having six games left in the season, the Cardinals are tied with the Marlins for first place in the GCL East Division. Four games back, the Mets are virtually eliminated. The Nationals are eight games behind and have all but clinched last place.
In a tie for the division title, there would be a one-game sudden death playoff to determine the winner, with a coin toss to decide the home team.
The division-winner would play a one-game semifinal on the road, almost certainly against the defending GCL champion Red Sox, who have the league’s best record (38-16) at this point. The Red Sox came to Jupiter last season and knocked out the Cardinals in the semifinal. The finals will be a best-of-three.
While teams have played two three-game series each week up till now, the final week’s schedule has three two-game series so each team plays all three others. As if the schedule-makers anticipated the drama, the Cardinals finish the regular season against the Marlins in what could be decisive games.
The expected rotation for the final week:
• Monday at Mets – Ian Oxnevad (1-1 2.05) and Jake Woodford (1-0, 2.39)
• Tuesday vs. Mets – David Oca (7-1, 1.91)
• Wednesday vs. Nationals – Junior Fernandez (3-2, 4.40)
• Thursday at Nationals – Derian Gonzalez (3-4, 3.52)
• Friday vs. Marlins (10 a.m. in Roger Dean Stadium) – Sandy Alcantara (3-4, 3.55)
• Saturday at Marlins (10 a.m.) – Jake Woodford and Ian Oxnevad
The Cardinals outhit their opponents 55-44 for the week, but still fell to third in the GCL in team batting average (.258) after leading the league most of the season. One more hit (460) and they would have been tied with the Marlins for the league lead in hits, though they held on to the league lead in runs (258).
In the percentage categories, the Cards are third in batting average (.258), third in on-base percentage (.333) and tied for second in slugging (up to .352 from .342 in the week), but second in OPS (.685).
Dylan Becker had the hot bat this week, going 11-for-23 with six RBI to raise his season average to .308. Allen Cordoba was 8-for-23 with a home run and five RBI, while Dylan Tice was 8-for-25 with two home runs and seven batted in.
Nick Plummer continued to improve at the plate, going 7-for-19 with four walks and three RBI. Since hitting bottom with a .150 average after going 0-for-4 on Aug. 4, Plummer is 18-for-58 (.310) with two doubles, three triples and his first home run, and added eight walks to his league-leading total (33).
Though manager Steve Turco has batted Plummer in the leadoff spot in all but two of the 46 games he has played, and Plummer has a decent on-base percentage (.371), he is hitting 288 with at least one runner on and .186 with the bases empty.
Cordoba, whose .339 batting average currently is tops in the GCL, is hitting .464 with runners on base.
The Cardinals are staying in the pennant race because of their starting pitching.
The Cardinals were 10-12 with a team ERA over 4.50 when David Oca won the second game of a July 18 doubleheader to snap a five-game Cardinals losing streak. Since that turning point, the team is 20-12, and the starters have a 2.62 ERA and 1.20 WHIP while averaging 5-2/3 innings per game. It has been a remarkable turnaround from the first month or so, when the team ERA was among the worst in minor-league baseball.
The biggest difference has been the emergence of lefties Oca, Ian Oxnevad and Jacob Schlesener and right-hander Jake Woodford, the latter three coming out of this year’s draft.
Junior Fernandez, an 18-year-old Dominican right-hander, has picked it up lately, too. Since the July 18 turning point, he has a 2.25 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 32 innings, with seven walks and 37 strikeouts.
On Thursday, Fernandez needed only 80 pitchers, 57 of them strikes, to get through seven innings in the Cardinals’ 7-1 win over the Marlins. He allowed one run on three hits while walking one and whiffing six, mostly on fastballs that sat at 96 mph and touched 98.
This past week, the starters threw 79 percent of the staff’s 53 innings, exceeding the previous season high of 73 percent the week before. In 42 innings, the starters had a 2.36 ERA, allowing 31 hits and 12 walks while whiffing 35.
Now the rotation is performing at the GCL level much like the big-league team’s starting five. “We don’t really miss a beat with anyone we’re throwing out there,” Turco said.
With the starting pitching not only improving but going deeper into games, the bullpen has been able to tighten up, allowing a 3.59 ERA and 1.29 WHIP over the past three weeks.
In August, Tice Twice As Nice
Dylan Tice, the smallest guy on the team – tied at 5-foot-8 with catcher Stephen Zavala – carries one of the biggest bats, and right now one of the hottest.
A switch-hitter who can play multiple positions, the 22-year-old was glad to be drafted (36th round) by the Cardinals. “They (the Cardinals) like to use all kinds of guys and they don’t discriminate by size or anything,” Tice said. “Of all the teams that were interested, that was the best situation for me, a winning franchise not on the West Coast.”
As Tice has begun to produce more at the plate, he is playing more.
The infielder from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is hitting .280 in 20 August games with three home runs and 14 RBI after hitting .250 with one homer and seven RBI in 15 games in July.
Although Tice is naturally a right-handed hitter, he said he began switch-hitting when he started high school.
Now, he said, he normally hits better left-handed because he gets so many more at-bats from that side. This year, though, he is hitting .417 in 25 at-bats against lefties with a 1.023 OPS, while posting a more pedestrian .255 with .690 OPS in 110 at-bats against right-handers.
Tice said he needs to work on making hard contact more consistently, but that entails many factors -- “A little bit of everything”: refining his swing, seeing pitches longer, better pitch selection, recognizing pitches earlier and using all fields.
Though Tice said he mostly played shortstop in high school and at West Chester University, where he is one semester short of a degree in public health management, he is comfortable playing second base and occasionally third.
“I’m probably more suited to second base,” Tice said. “I have quick hands but my arm isn’t as strong as most third basemen have.”
Tice said he had been to Florida only once before, with his college baseball team for a spring training trip in March to Clearwater. “I wasn’t quite used to this in Pennsylvania,” he said.
Though he is still trying to adjust to Florida’s midsummer heat and humidity, Tice said he is enjoying his debut pro season. “It’s always more fun when you win, and this is a group of guys that wants to win,” he said.
Coming and going
Yeison Medina was activated from the restricted list after serving his 50-game suspension announced last September after a positive test for a banned stimulant, but which did not begin until the start of this GCL season. Medina, 22, threw a perfect inning against the Marlins in his season debut Friday. Last season in the GCL, Medina was 4-1 with a 1.64 ERA in 19 relief appearances.
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