The first games of the 2014 Gulf Coast League season came on June 20, but for most involved, the process began long before that.
There's Spring Training in February. There's extended spring training starting for everyone who doesn't get assigned to a Class A team or higher. There's the Draft in June that expands the pool of players likely headed to the GCL. The rosters are set in the middle of June, players start to jell for the first time as teammates and finally, the games get going.
And for each club involved, this all happens in the same complex in the same city in the same simmering Florida spring and summer heat.
Basically, GCL Red Sox manager Tom Kotchman admitted he could use something cold Monday, the final day of the Rookie-level circuit's season. His players were happy to oblige.
Behind homers from shortstop Javier Guerra and Michael Chavis and a strong start by Jake Cosart, the Red Sox took home the Gulf Coast League title with an 8-1 victory over the Yankees 1 squad in a decisive Game 3 on Monday at the Yankee Complex in Tampa.
"When you've had a long summer, and especially in this heat, it's fun to get a nice ice bath," said Kotchman, shortly after being doused by his players.
In many ways, the Sox, who were the youngest team in the GCL this season, relied on the same factors in the playoffs that helped them capture the GCL South Division title with a 36-24 record during the regular season.
First, there was the pitching. The Red Sox staff collectively led the 16-team circuit with a 2.83 ERA during the season and turned to 2014 third-round pick Jake Cosart, brother of Marlins hurler Jarred, to make the start Monday. He didn't disappoint, setting a career high with five strikeouts while allowing just one hit over three frames.
The 20-year-old right-hander, who returned to the Yankee Complex mound after having pitched there during his time at Seminole State Community College, dialed up his fastball to 97 mph -- a first, according to his skipper -- and mixed in a curveball to great success.
"He's been at 96, but I haven't seen 97 from him in a game," Kotchman said. "But you get in a game like this when you know you won't be pitching in a game again this season, and that's when you can let loose a little. All you have to do is keep your emotions under control and he did that.
"He's got good bloodlines, and having some familiarity with that mound I think was a plus. You still have to execute, though. He's a two-pitch pitcher, and both of those two pitches were great today."
Cosart exited the third with a 2-0 lead before the Sox bats took over in a big way. Boston's GCL affiliate relied on big-time production from its infield, particularly its left side before getting to Monday's pivotal matchup. No. 6 Red Sox prospect and third baseman Rafael Devers, 2014 first-rounder Michael Chavis and Javier Guerra, whom Kotchman called the "best shortstop I've worked with in 35 years," had each played major roles in guiding the club's position players during the season, and the latter two came through once more on Monday.
Guerra's solo homer kickstarted a four-run fifth inning for the Sox and gave him two long balls in four postseason games after clubbing only a pair in 51 regular-season contests. Known primarily for his defense at shortstop -- he had just a .672 OPS during the season -- the 18-year-old Panama native's playoff power is just the latest thing he can add to a growing resume. He went 8-for-19 with two homers, two doubles, four RBIs and five runs scored in four postseason contests.
"When you have games like this when, you're playing just one game, you want someone you can trust," Kotchman said. "I definitely trust him because, as good as he is on the field, he is better off it. Those two attributes are so desirable. And he's not content with this. This is just a stepping stone. For now, it'll be a nice ride back to Fort Myers, but it's only the start."
Left-handed reliever Luis Ramos allowed one run on three hits over four innings to keep the Yankees at bay, and Chavis clubbed a two-run insurance homer to give the game its final score. Right-hander Yankory Pimentel sealed the win with two scoreless innings, and all that was left was the celebration of the Minor Leagues' first championship of the 2014 season.
Celebration and perhaps a little self-reflection on a long summer, too.
"These kids came from everywhere, all different countries and backgrounds," said Kotchman, whose team won three road playoff games en route to the title. "When we started, our biggest thing was just making sure that we get the guys to the park on time. They have to get acclimated to this experience, to pro ball. Throw in the heat factor and around August, their minds start to wander.
"But the bottom line is these guys had to execute when they came to the field. Winning a championship isn't easy. Winning one game isn't easy here. Now, we're giving kids a trophy, and that's a big testament to everyone involved in that process."
Castillo's second game: Rusney Castillo went 0-for-3 from the top of the lineup in his second official game in the Red Sox system after signing a seven-year deal late last month. He recorded his first RBI when he took a bases-loaded walk on four pitches in the second inning.
The Cuba native also made his first start in center field, after having played DH on Sunday, and fielded only one ball -- a line-drive single in the third. He exited for a defensive replacement after five innings and is expected to head to playoff-bound Double-A Portland or Triple-A Pawtucket for his next Minor League assignment this week.
"He's got a very powerful compact body," said Kotchman, who will go down as the 5-foot-9 slugger's first stateside manager. "He hit a ball [in the fifth] the opposite way that he just missed and he knew he just missed. He's got power to right-center, I mean legit plus power, that you don't see. When he hits the ball, it's very impactful."