Manager Josh Johnson has seen his Gulf Coast League Nationals team accomplish a lot in 2017, starting with the first day of the season when his squad scored eight runs in the top of the ninth inning to defeat the Mets, 9-7, on June 27. Now his club is just one win away from its biggest accomplishment yet.
Behind three-hit performances from Luis Garcia, Kelvin Gutierrez and Israel Pineda, the Nationals defeated Yankees East, 7-5, in Game 1 of the best-of-3 Gulf Coast League Finals on Monday. A Game 2 win on Tuesday would give the Washington affiliate its third title in the circuit, all of which have come since 2009.
"The biggest thing was these kids never quit," Johnson said. "They never go away from their approach or their makeup. They do a great job of rebounding from failure and staying strong mentally, and that's what helped us today. It's been the same way all season long."
The Nats, who won the GCL East Division with a 34-22 record and defeated the Twins in a one-game semifinal, struck first Monday with four runs in a wild top of the third inning. Ten Nationals came to the plate with three reaching on singles, two on walks and two on errors. In fact, the home side committed four miscues in the third, causing all but one of the Nationals' four runs to be unearned.
Yankees East, who won the Northeast Division and punched their Finals ticket by beating the Phillies, scored two runs in the third and then tied the game in the fifth on a two-run homer by GCL end-of-season All-Star and 2017 fourth-rounder Canaan Smith. The clubs traded runs in the sixth before Garcia broke the deadlock by doubling to lead off the seventh and scoring on a single by Gutierrez. Yasel Antuna scored the insurance run on a crazy 5-4-3-2 double play to end the frame -- a play in which Gutierrez was thrown out at home to end the threat.
Despite the defensive miscues by the other side, Johnson said his team deserves credit for seeing the job through Monday.
"It's one of those things where we've dealt with so much craziness during the season that we've come to expect the unexpected," said the skipper, who played in the Nats system from 2010 to 2015. "There was a lot of madness out there, but [after the sixth], you could see we were trying to get back to basics."
Garcia, Gutierrez and Pineda were the big offensive contributors, providing nine of the Nats' 14 hits in Game 1. Pineda, the only non-ranked Nationals prospect of the trio, went 3-for-3 with a double, an RBI, a run scored and a walk. Garcia, the No. 9 Washington prospect, doubled, scored twice and stole a base, while Gutierrez (No. 12) had an RBI, a run scored and a steal of his own.
"They used the whole field," Johnson said. "They stuck to the approach we preach. They were prepared from the first pitch, ready for the fastball and applied our philosophy perfectly. My thanks to all of our hit guys who work with these kids, because there were hits everywhere. We're ready for the fastball, adjusting to the breaking ball when it comes. They apply what we teach, and that's all we can ask."
Gutierrez opened the season with Class A Advanced Potomac but is rehabbing an ankle injury that has kept him out of the Carolina League since June. The Nationals could get another, even higher-profile rehabber in No. 41 overall prospect Juan Soto for Game 2. Johnson said the 18-year-old outfielder, who has missed time with an ankle injury as well as a hamate surgery, is still with the GCL club and could return to the lineup, pending team medical approval. The 2016 GCL MVP went 2-for-3 with a double in Sunday's semifinal victory.
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Regardless of the help his club could receive Tuesday, Johnson noted the energy he could feel from the players now that they stand one win away from a trophy in what the first professional season for most of the players.
"Everybody's very proud right now," he said. "However, we all know not to get ahead of ourselves. We're not satisfied yet. We're happy, excited, all of that. But we won't underestimate them either. That's a great, quality club on the other side. We can't take anything for granted. ... Now, I won't tell them to change anything either. We should enjoy the moment and cherish the opportunity, especially these first-year guys. But we'll do that by respecting each other and working arm-in-arm to get things done."
Nationals reliever Nick Lee allowed one of two inherited runners to score but got the win after allowing a hit and walk over two frames. Connor Zwetsch earned the save after striking out two in two scoreless innings. Carlos Rodriguez suffered the loss for Yankees East, giving up three earned runs on seven hits in 3 1/3 frames.