The Gulf Coast League crowned the first champion of the 2017 Minor League season Wednesday, and it happened on a nail-biter.
The GCL Yankees East got a ninth-inning RBI single from Jhon Moronta and dominant relief from Luis Rijo to win, 5-4, over the GCL Nationals in Game 3 of the best-of-3 championship series at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
Box score >>
"That was a big league game," laughed manager Luis Sojo, who won three World Series titles -- all with the Yankees. "The only thing I told them was that we've got to control our own destiny. Everybody has to do their job, do the little things, make the pitches, make the defensive plays, make the catches and we'll have a good season. They did that all year, and they did that today."
Much like the first two games of the series, the two sides traded punches early. Yankees catcher Carlos Gallardo opened the scoring with a three-run double in the top of the second inning, but the Nats took the lead with a pair of runs in both the second and third, thanks to some unforced miscues. Both runs in the second came on bases-loaded walks by Yankees starter Tony Hernandez and reliever Woody Bryson, and the Nats moved ahead when a throwing error by shortstop Jose Devers allowed Yasel Antuna and Kelvin Gutierrez to score.
But Rijo, who was pitching on his 19th birthday, took over with two outs in the third and shut down the rally, along with just about any hope for the Nationals the rest of the way. The 19-year-old right-hander, who posted a 3.50 ERA with 55 strikeouts in 54 innings during the regular season, retired all 16 batters he faced for 5 1/3 perfect innings of relief.
"His command was unbelievable," Sojo said. "His breaking ball was working early. His fastball today was harder than I've ever seen it. I don't know if he was pumped up because of the playoffs or because of his birthday, but you could see it. His command, though, was right there, and once I saw that, I knew it could be our day."
Rijo's heroics out of the bullpen allowed the Yankees offense to take over in the later innings.
Complete playoff coverage >>
Third baseman Jose Carrera tied the score at 4-4 with a solo homer -- the game's only long ball -- in the seventh off Nationals left-handed reliever Jose Jimenez. Moronta also played the role of hero when his one-out single to right in the ninth scored Devers.
Semple, who finished with a 1.00 ERA, 22 strikeouts and only one walk in 18 frames during the regular season, faced a rough bottom of the ninth as two singles and his own error loaded the bases with two outs, but the 2017 11th-round pick out of the University of New Orleans struck out Antuna swinging to end the threat, the game and the series.
"When their best player [Luis Garcia] got the one-hopper to left field and nobody scored, I knew things would be OK," Sojo said. "Semple can throw strikes and command his breaking ball pretty well. But I'll be honest with you, he got ahead against Antuna and I thought we were in business, but I wasn't expecting his 0-2 pitch to be right there on the corner. He was the guy for us all season, and today was no exception."
Video: GCL Yankees East wins the GCL Finals
Wednesday's series win marks the 12th time a Yankees affiliate has been crowned champion of the Gulf Coast League but the first since 2011. The club's manager has high hopes for what his club can achieve once it leaves the complex next spring.
"This is what being a Yankee is all about," Sojo said. "They started their careers in a good way, but I told them all to get used to this. Being a Yankee is about winning championships and competing every time you're out there. I enjoyed every moment I had as a player, but this was special to me too. I know all the sacrifices and adjustments these kids made to make this happen. They did the job."
The game was moved up two hours to a 10 a.m. ET start time due to concerns about Hurricane Irma.