The Gulf Coast League Cardinals (34-25) battled to the last day of the regular season to win their third East Division title in four years, but in the playoffs it was déjà vu all over again.
The Cardinals lost for a second consecutive year in the one-game semifinal to the South Division champion Red Sox, who are also the defending GCL champs. Last year the Cardinals were home team against the Red Sox, who this year earned the right to stay home at JetBlue Park in Fort Meyers by virtue of their 41-17 record, best in the GCL. The Red Sox pitching staff’s incredible 2.28 ERA led the league by a wide margin.
The Cardinals had five singles and four walks off two Red Sox pitchers on Sunday, but were able to get two hits in an inning only once, in the third inning when they plated their only one run.
The Red Sox actually had fewer baserunners – six singles and one walk – off starter David Oca and three relievers, but scored two runs in both the third and fourth innings, in part because they had two hits in each of those innings.
The first rally by the Red Sox was set up by the Cardinals’ only two errors of the game, which came on the same play. After Oca hit Yoan Aybar with a pitch, Devon Fisher hit a comebacker to Oca, who tried for a force at second, but threw the ball away. Both runners moved up another base when left fielder Carlos Torres overran Oca’s errant throw. The Red Sox scored one run on a ground out. The second, and eventual winning run, came in on a single.
The Cardinals loaded the bases with two outs in the fifth on two walks and an error, but with lefty-swinging Nick Plummer coming to bat, the Red Sox brought in left-handed Enmanuel De Jesus to replace right-handed starter Anderson Espinoza. Plummer lined out to first.
The Cardinals never got another runner into scoring position against De Jesus as their 2015 season came to its close.
The final week leading to that playoff game, which began with the Cardinals and Marlins tied for first place, brought a new brand of drama each day.
On Monday, the Cardinals blasted the Mets 15-5, but the Marlins beat the Nationals to keep pace.
On Tuesday, with the Marlins losing to the Nationals, the Cardinals trailed the Mets 3-0 on three unearned runs, but fought back for a 4-3 victory in 11 innings to gain a one-game edge.
The bottom of manager Steve Turco’s batting order did the heavy lifting as Bryce Denton, Joshua Lopez, Jonathan Rivera and Andrew Brodbeck – batting sixth through ninth, each had two hits among the team’s 10 for the day. With two outs in the seventh, Denton walked and advanced to third on an opposite-field double by Lopez. Rivera followed with perhaps the biggest hit of his career so far, a triple that brought the Cardinals within one run.
Relievers Ronald Medrano and Gerwuins Velazco kept a tight lid on the Mets’ offense while the Cardinals scraped back. In the ninth, Denton led off with a triple. He had to hold on Lopez’s ground out to the pitcher, but Rivera came through again, with a grounder past the pitcher to the second baseman on which Denton scored the tying run. In the 11th, Denton led off with a pop out, but Lopez singled and advanced to second when Rivera walked. Brodbeck then hit a walk-off double.
On Wednesday, the Marlins beat the Mets, but didn’t gain any ground because Riley Drongesen made his only hit in eight at-bats in the GCL count. Drongesen’s opposite-field, two-out single in the 7th inning drove home Denton with the only run of a 1-0 win over the Nationals.
On Thursday, the Marlins took a 13-3 drubbing from the Mets to fall 1-1/2 games behind the Cardinals, whose game against the Nationals in Viera was rained out
That meant the Cardinals needed to win only one of the two remaining games against the Marlins to clinch the division title.
Nothing comes easy, though.
On Friday, playing in the main Roger Dean Stadium, Cardinals starter Derian Gonzalez struck out the first two Marlins batters in a scoreless first inning. In the bottom half, Nick Plummer led off by reaching base on an error. Allen Cordoba’s sacrifice bunt was so well placed that he beat it out for a single, but Plummer was thrown out trying to get to third, deflating a potential rally.
The Marlins then ripped five consecutive hits starting the second inning, and after Gonzalez got two outs, they knocked him out with two more hits in a five-run rally. Each time the Cardinals scored to make it closer, the Marlins added more runs until the skies opened up with a downpour that flooded the field, giving the Marlins a 9-5 win and making the last game decisive.
On Saturday, the start went to Sandy Alcantara, the hard-throwing 19-year-old Dominican right-hander who had allowed 11 runs, nine of them earned, on 10 hits and three walks back on June 22.
Throwing out that rough Opening Day performance, Alcantara posted a 2.03 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 62 innings over his next 11 starts. That includes six shutout innings in which he allowed four hits and a walk while fanning eight to earn the win in the 4-0 clincher against the Marlins. The Cardinals offense, meanwhile, scored all their runs in the third.
Brodbeck started the rally with a walk and moved to second when Plummer blooped a single over the shortstop’s head. The runners moved to second and third on Cordoba’s sacrifice bunt. A single by Dylan Tice scored Brodbeck with the icebreaker, then Plummer scored when Bladimil Franco was safe on an error. Becker’s single scored a third run and the fourth scored when Denton reached on another Marlins error.
Junior Grows Up
Though Junior Fernandez, a hard-throwing, 18-year-old right-hander, was born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, he came to Florida at age 13. He lived in the Kendall area of south Miami and played junior varsity baseball at Felix Barela High School his sophomore year, but then broke his left wrist playing basketball in gym class. Fernandez finished high school at St. Lucie West Centennial in Port St. Lucie, but did not play baseball there. After high school, the Fernandez returned to the Dominican for a year “to get out of the draft” so he could sign last July as an international free agent with the Cardinals for a $400,000 bonus.
In the 2014 Dominican Summer League, Fernandez posted an unimpressive 0-5 record, allowing 29 hits and 12 walks in 28 innings while whiffing 13.
He struggled at the start of this season in the GCL. In 13 innings over his first four starts, Fernandez allowed 17 runs (14 earned) on 26 hits and six walks while fanning 14.
“I wasn’t feeling comfortable with myself,” Fernandez said Wednesday after his final start, in which he shut out the Nationals for six innings, allowing three hits and two walks with seven strikeouts. Fernandez said he wasn’t confident with his curveball, so pitching coach Cale Johnson had him switch to a slider. He also added a two-seam fastball, so with the four-seamer and a plus changeup, he had four solid pitches.
After Fernandez signed, his fastball topped out at 94 last year in the DSL. As he has gained strength and improved his mechanics, his fastball now touches 100 and sits around 97.
“We also worked on my rhythm and the mechanics of my feet, so I was locating every pitch,” he said.
The better command and location has allowed Fernandez to pitch inside more effectively with his two-seamer and focus on “early contact to get weak ground balls,” though he is also piling up more strikeouts.
The better results are obvious: In his last seven starts covering 38 innings, Fernandez posted a 1.89 ERA and 0.97 WHIP, allowing eight earned runs on 28 hits and nine walks while whiffing 44.
Editor's note: The Cardinals rewarded Fernandez Monday with a promotion to the first-place Palm Beach Cardinals of the A-Advanced Florida State League.
Allen Cordoba went 6-for-9 in the last three regular-season games to push his batting average to .342, as he become the second consecutive Cardinals player to win the GCL batting title, after Magneuris Sierra last year. Cordoba also led the GCL in hits with 69, four more than the runner-up, teammate Bladimil Franco, who finished fourth in average at .322.
Dylan Becker, who hit .208 with six walks, 10 strikeouts and six RBI in his first 19 games, was the team’s hottest hitter down the stretch. Starting with the second game of the Aug. 10 doubleheader, Becker went 23-for-61 (.377) with seven walks and only two strikeouts while driving in 10 runs.
Nick Plummer led the league with 43 runs scored and 39 walks.
David Oca led the GCL with seven wins, was second in ERA (1.70), tied for third in WHIP (1.08) and was one of only two pitchers with two complete games. (Editor’s note: Oca and catcher-turned pitcher Gerwuins Velazco were promoted to State College at the conclusion of the season.)
Sandy Alcantara led the league in starts (12) and innings pitched (64-1/3). Oca was second in innings (63-2/3), Derian Gonzalez was fifth (55-1/3) and Junior Fernandez tied for eighth (51). Fernandez also tied for second with 58 strikeouts, while Oca and Gonzalez tied for fourth with 55.
Team offensive rankings
The Cardinals led the GCL in runs scored (297), RBI (239), triples (22) and fewest strikeouts (345). They were second in hits (508), third in batting average (.260), on-base percentage (.336) and OPS (.690), and fourth in slugging percentage (.354). They also were fourth in doubles (83) and tied for fifth in home runs (19).
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