Gulf Coast League Cardinals manager Steve Turco had seen it before. His club started the season with a 10-11 record, only to reel off seven straight wins and finish atop the East Division at 33-21. On Wednesday his team fell in an early hole in Game 3 of the GCL Finals, only to battle back to victory.
Edwin Figuera, Dylan Carson and Wadye Ynfante each scored during a three-run sixth inning to give the Cardinals a 4-2, championship-clinching win over the Phillies. The GCL title is the first by a Cardinals affiliate since St. Louis first put a team in what was originally called the Sarasota Rookie League in 1964.
"I believed in them even when we were down," Turco said. "I always felt like it was our destiny to go out and win things. I told them not to worry after that [2-0 deficit in the] first inning because I always felt like we could come back. It felt funny that it happened this way because it was apropos of the way we could fight and battle and claw our way back this whole year."
The game almost got away from the Cards quickly. Right-hander Juan Alvarez allowed singles to Daniel Brito and Josh Stephen with his first two pitches of the game, and a throwing error by Ynfante in center field allowed both Phillies to move into scoring position. Danny Zardon brought them home on the third pitch of the game with a single up the middle to put the Phillies in the driver's seat.
Alvarez didn't allow another tally for the remainder of his outing, finishing with two runs (one earned) on six hits with no walks and five strikeouts over 5 1/3 innings.
The Cardinals got on the board in the fourth when Ynfante brought home Carlson with a two-out single. They broke it open two frames later when they sent seven batters to the plate. Figuera, who had been hit seven times in 140 plate appearances, was plunked to start the inning and scored on a Dylan Carson force out. Carson moved to second on a walk to Stefan Trosclair and scored on a throwing error by shortstop Cole Stobbe. Ynfante, who also reached on the error, stole second and added an insurance run on a single by Starlin Balbuena.
That was enough of a cushion for left-handed reliever Colton Thomson, who signed with the Cardinals in June after going undrafted out of the University of New Mexico. The 24-year-old retired the final eight batters after giving up a single to the first batter he faced, finishing with three strikeouts over 3 2/3 scoreless innings to earn the save.
"We brought in Thomson, thinking we could get a couple more innings from him," 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."
Though the Phillies entered the postseason with the circuit's best regular-season record (43-15) and its best prospect in top overall pick Mickey Moniak, the Cardinals were also rich in talent and production. Delvin Perez and Carlson -- ranked No. 5 and 21 in the Cardinals system, respectively -- played their entire first pro seasons in the GCL after being taken in the opening round of this year's Draft. Catcher Dennis Ortega hit .357 in 36 games, which would have put him second in the race for the GCL batting title had he not fallen under the plate appearance requirement. Four of the team's five pitchers with at least 35 innings this summer ended the regular season with a sub-3.00 ERA: Anthony Ciavarella (2.09), Franyel Casadila (2.32), Mike O'Reilly (2.48) and Alvarez (2.63).
Though it will be increasingly difficult to repeat this summer's success higher up the chain, Turco believes the groundwork is being laid for his GCL squad to fit in nicely with a parent club that has qualified for the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons and has won the World Series twice since 2006.
"Coming through the Gulf Coast League, these are the first pro seasons for a lot of these guys," he said. "What we want them to do right away is represent the high standards and expectations this organization has for them. You're expected to have a winning mind-set. They're still learning what it means to be a Cardinal. But now they were going to have a chance in the playoffs to prove themselves in a big way, and they did just that."
Wednesday's title also represented the first of Turco's career, which spanned six years as a Minor League player from 1979-1984 and 15 seasons as a 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," said the 58-year-old skipper. "You figure I only have a couple years left, but I want to stay in the game as much as I can. I don't know if this day was going to come, but I'm so glad it did, thanks to the hard work these guys did."