In the 21st season of a St. Louis Cardinals team in the Gulf Coast League, they finally won their first championship, defeating the top-seeded Phillies 4-2 Wednesday in the final game of a best-of-three series.
As hot as the Cardinals were in August, going 18-8 to capture their fourth East Division title in five years, the Phillies were even hotter. They were 22-5 in the season’s final month to claim the Northwest Division flag with a total of 43 wins, 10 more than the second-seeded Cardinals.
In the one-game semifinals, the Phillies edged the Braves 4-3 while the Cardinals downed the Red Sox 6-2, breaking through into the finals against the team that had beaten them in their three previous semifinal appearances.
Completing his eighth season as the GCL Cardinals’ skipper and 15th as a short-season league manager in the St. Louis organization, Steve Turco said he preached to the team, as he does every season, that the team making fewer mistakes usually wins.
Though the Phillies outhit the Cardinals 24-16 in the best-of-three game finals and each team was charged with four errors, the Phillies made more crucial mistakes and the Cardinals capitalized on most of them.
In Game 1 of the finals, held in Jupiter, Franyel Casadilla, Anthony Ciavarella and Jonathon Mulford combined to blank the Phillies on seven hits as the Cardinals won, 3-0. Left fielder Dylan Carlson’s one-out triple in the first inning scored shortstop Delvin Perez and Dennis Ortega, both of whom had walked, to put the Cardinals up 2-0. The Cardinals added another run in the fifth when second baseman Edwin Figuera was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded and no outs.
The Phillies’ regular center fielder, Mickey Moniak, their best prospect and the top overall pick in the June draft, started as the designated hitter because of a strained hamstring and was replaced after two at-bats, never to return in the series.
The loss of Moniak did not seem to bother the Phillies in Game 2 as they came from behind to win 3-2 in Clearwater on Tuesday.
The Cardinals once again jumped out to a lead with a pair of first-inning runs.
Figuera singled with one out and Ortega was safe on an error when his grounder was booted. Carlson then singled to score Figuera. Ortega scored on first baseman Stefan Trosclair’s ground out.
Figuera left the game after that half inning because of a minor bone contusion suffered in a collision.
Cardinals starter Mike O’Reilly held the Phillies scoreless until the fifth inning, when they broke through for three runs against him and reliever Will Changarotty.
The Cardinals had several scoring opportunities, including loading the bases with one out in the ninth, but were unable to plate the tying run.
Down to One
In Wednesday’s decisive game, also at Clearwater, the Cardinals fell behind 2-0 in the first inning when starting pitcher Juan Alvarez, a 19-year-old Dominican right-hander, allowed singles on his first three pitches of the game. Along with a throwing error by center fielder Wadye Ynfante, that gave the Phillies two runs.
A quick trip to the mound by pitching coach Gio Carrara helped Alvarez settle down.
Alvarez, who earned his postseason start by going 4-2 with a 2.63 ERA in 48 regular-season innings, scattered only three more hits, pitching into the sixth inning. He struck out five without walking anyone.
“They got their two runs, but I felt all along like we were going to get back in this,” said Turco, whose team was 19-7 in regular-season games decided by two runs or less.
The Cardinals cut the Phillies’ lead in half with a run in the fourth when Ynfante singled after two-out walks to Carlson and Trosclair, but that was the only damage they could manage in five innings against the Phillies starter, 6-foot-10 left-hander Kyle Young.
With Young replaced by right-hander Luis Carrasco in the sixth inning, Figuera ignited the Cardinals’ rally that proved decisive by again getting hit by a pitch. The 19-year-old Venezuelan infielder had won the starting second base job with his defense – he made eight of his 10 errors filing in at shortstop, the other two in 18 games at second -- but finished strong at the plate, posting a .306 average in 22 August games after hitting only .232 through July 31.
Figuera reached base seven times “taking one for the team” in 140 plate appearances during the regular season, second to Trosclair’s eight. Figuera “is very adept at being hit without being hurt,” Turco said.
Figuera took second on a wild pitch, and third on Dennis Ortega’s ground single that skipped passed the Phillies shortstop into left field. Carlson’s grounder to the second baseman forced Ortega at second, but pushed home Figuera with the tying run.
After Trosclair drew his second walk, Ynfante hit a grounder back to the Phillies pitcher, who got the force of Trosclair at second. The shortstop’s relay to first trying to double up Ynfante was wild, allowing Carlson to score the go-ahead run.
Ynfante stole second, then Starlin Balbuena blooped a single to right to score him with an insurance run.
In the bottom of the sixth, Alvarez hit a batter with one out, so Turco turned to reliever Colton Thomson, hoping the lefty could to shut down the Phillies the same way he had shut down the Red Sox three days earlier in the semifinal.
“We brought in Thomson, thinking we could get a couple more innings from him,” Turco said.
Thomson allowed a single to the first batter he faced, then mowed down the next eight batters.
Turco said to pitch the ninth he normally would have used right-hander Jonathon Mulford, the team saves leader who had pitched two innings to preserve the shutout and earn a save in Game 1, “but Gio (Carrera) said no.” Turco said his veteran pitching coach persuaded him to stick with Thomson.
“I was worried about his pitch count, but Thomson was throwing so well, he was so in command,” Turco said. “He just continued to be so much in control that we figured he should stay out there. He did just what we needed him to do in a big game like that.”
Thomson retired the side in order in the ninth to earn the save. Combined with his perfect five-out hold in the semifinal against the Red Sox, Thomson finished the postseason with six strikeouts over 5-1/3 scoreless innings.
“They swung through his (Thomson’s) fastball a lot at 86 to 88 miles an hour,” Turco said. “Nothing was hit very hard.”
With all of the high-round draft picks and talented Caribbean players on this season’s squad, it was the 24-year-old signee out of the University of New Mexico – the only non-drafted free agent signed this year to play for the GCL Cardinals – who earned series MVP honors.Thomaon finished strongly after earning The Cardinal Nation's August Relief Pitcher of the Month award for the entire system.
The title was the first of Turco's career, which includes six years as a Minor League player from 1979-1984 and 15 seasons as manager in the New York-Penn, Appalachian and Gulf Coast Leagues between 1993-99 and 2009-16 -- all in the Cardinals system.
“It feels great, like a monkey off my back,” Turco said. “But it wasn’t my championship, it was their (the players’) championship. They did a heckuva job.”
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