Splitting their four games this past week, the Gulf Coast League Cardinals (32-20) held their two-game lead over the Nationals with four games left to play, seeking their fourth East Division in five years.
With their magic number now at three, they play a doubleheader Monday against the Mets in Port St. Lucie while the Nationals doubleheader against the Astros at Kissimmee was rained out.
After an off day Tuesday, the Cardinals bus up to Viera on Wednesday to play the Nationals, and then finish the regular season at home Thursday against the Astros.
With the Cardinals’ double-header split on Monday and the Nationals’ twin-bill rained out, the Cardinals have clinched the division with two contests remaining.
Here is the GCL playoff format: The division winner with the best record plays the division winner with the lowest record and the other two division winners meet in a one game semi-final. The winners meet in a best-of-three final for the Gulf Coast League championship.
The Cards will finish with the second-highest winning percentage and face the winner of the South Division, either the Red Sox or the Twins, in Jupiter on Friday. The three-game finals against the Braves (28-28) of the Northeast or Phillies (42-15) of the Northwest will be held Saturday through Monday.
The Week in Review
Last week, the Cardinals started slowly, losing to the Marlins on Tuesday for only the second time in 13 games. Oddly, both losses to the Marlins were shutouts. With scheduled days off on Monday and Thursday, and a rainout on Wednesday along with an 8-1 loss to the Nationals on Friday, the Cardinals’ lead had shrunk to 1/2 game. They had been outscored 12-1 in the two losses.
At Kissimmee on Saturday, the Cardinals wasted no time turning that around against the Astros. They jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first two innings on two-run doubles by Dennis Ortega and Dylan Carlson. It was Carlson’s 13th double, which tied him with four others for the league lead.
That was all the support 19-year-old Venezuelan right-hander Franyel Casadilla needed, as he allowed only one run on two hits and a walk over six innings to earn his team-leading fifth win. Right-handers Robbie Gordon and Jonathon Mulford held the Astros hitless the rest of the way.
The Nationals were idle, so the win pushed the Cardinals' edge to one game.
Sunday’s game was their season finale against the Marlins, who despite their 2-11 head-to-head record, had played the Cardinals tough all season and were 20-18 against the rest of the division. Except for one blowout, all the Cardinals’ wins over the Marlins were by three runs or less, with five of them by one run.
So it followed form when the game Sunday moved to the top of the eighth inning with the Cardinals leading 2-1. Starter Juan Alvarez, a 19-year-old Dominican right-hander, had given another solid performance, allowing one unearned run, the sixth appearance in his last eight that he did not allow an earned run.
When Alvarez issued his first walk with two outs to put a second runner on base in the seventh, left-handed reliever Colton Thomson needed only one pitch to get the third out.
But Thomson, 24, signed as a non-drafted free agent from the University of New Mexico, ran into some trouble in the eighth when he walked the first two batters. After a sacrifice bunt advanced both into scoring position, Thomson was ordered to intentionally walk the next batter to load the bases.
The next Marlins batter hit a pop up along the first-base line between home and first that first baseman Stefan Trosclair missed without touching it. The ball landed fair but then bounced harmlessly foul.
On the 10th pitch of that at-bat, Thomson issued his fourth walk, forcing in the tying run. But retired the next two batters to escape further damage.
Edwin Figuera, an 18-year-old Venezuelan, opened the Cardinals half of the inning with his second hit of the game, a ringing double into the left-field corner. Carlson then ripped a grounder past first that went for a triple, his team-leading 19th extra-base hit and extending his hitting streak to 10 games. Designated hitter Ortega, who has hit in 17 of his last 18 games, lined an RBI single to left for his second hit of the game.
After a pitching change, Trosclair tomahawked a tater to left, his team-leading fifth home run.
So before an out was recorded, the Cardinals had hit for the cycle to score break the game open with four runs. Though they loaded the bases again on two walks and a hit, they did not score further.
It didn’t matter. Thomson went back to the mound for the ninth with a cushion, but also an attitude.
He said later he felt the home plate umpire had squeezed him on some of those walks that cost him his second blown save. “I was pissed,” he said.
Perhaps Thomson should bottle that attitude because he struck out the side on nine pitches, all fastballs and all swinging third strikes, to earn his first win as a pro.
Stats WHIPping Into Shape
Allowing 27 hits and 13 walks in 35 innings this past week, the Cardinals pitching staff had a 1.14 WHIP, lowering their season WHIP to 1.34. Though that still ranks 14th in the 17-team GCL, it is a big improvement from the league-worst number the staff had for most of the season.
Their 3.17 team ERA in sixth best.
On offense, the Cardinals’ team batting average (.249) and on-base percentage (.329) slipped slightly, but maintained their ranking as fifth and fourth in the league, respectively. Though the slugging percentage (.349) also fell slightly, they moved up to sixth from seventh in the league.
Manager Steve Turco credits his bullpen, whose 20 saves are tied for the league lead, as the biggest reason for the team’s improvement after a 7-9 start.
In games decided by four or more runs, the Cardinals are 9-10 and are 5-4 in games decided by three runs, but are 18-6 in games decided by one or two runs.
“We’re not disposed to define roles here,” Turco said, “but we do have guys we can count on to close out.”
Major league catcher Brayan Pena played three games, two as DH and one at catcher, going 3-for-9 with a double and a home run with three RBI.
Since July 22, 19-year-old Dennis Ortega has 27 hits in his last 70 at-bats (.386). In that recent stretch, he has also drawn nine walks while whiffing 11 times. For the season, Ortega is the only player on the current roster with more walks than strikeouts, though Brady Whalen has eight of each. The catcher’s season average of .355 would tie him for the league lead if had the 13 more plate appearances to qualify.
Shortstop Delvin Perez, the 17-year-old from Puerto Rico who was the Cardinals’ first draft pick in June, picked it up at the plate this past week, going 4-for-11 with a walk.
Infielder-outfielder Luis Flores, a 19-year-old Dominican, is eight for his last 17 at-bats. Turco said that of the players on last year’s DSL team, Flores has shown the most improvement.
Center fielder Wayne Ynfante, called up Tuesday from the Dominican Summer League, where he hit .331 in 49 games, had a single in his first GCL game, but is 1-for-15 overall.
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