The Detroit Tigers are limping to the finish line in this 2018 season, with another top five draft pick in their sights. Down at the lowest levels of the minors, however, there is cause for celebration as first-year manager Brayan Pena’s Gulf Coast League Tigers West squad captured the hardware on Wednesday, exploding for eight runs in the first three innings to eliminate the top seeded GCL Cardinals.
The Tigers ran away with the Northwest Division, posting a 37-16 record, 7-1/2 games better than the second place Phillies West team. In the semifinal, a one-game “do or die” format, the Tigers knocked off the GCL Red Sox on a dramatic walk-off wild pitch to advance to the best-of-three championship series against the Cardinals. Remarkably, the Tigers took game one of the series at home in Lakeland on another walk-off wild pitch. They would need to win one of two on the road in Jupiter to put the title in the bag.
Despite getting 13 hits in game two, the Tigers were just one for nine with runners in scoring position and were pounded 11-5, forcing a decisive, winner-take-all game on Wednesday. The Cardinals headed into the contest riding an eight-game winning streak, but the GCL Tigers struck first with some two-out bingo in the first when Eliezer Alfonzo hit a two-out RBI single and Ildemaro Escalona followed with a two-run double.
Leading 3-1 in the third inning, the Tigers loaded the bases when Escalona delivered the next big blow, a bases clearing triple. Justin Childers, a 33rd round pick out of Ohio Dominican, added a two-out RBI double and came around to score on a Moises Bello base hit. Chavez Fernander, a 35th round pick and native of the Bahamas, capped off a stellar first summer in professional ball by flipping 5 1⁄3 innings, allowing just one run on four hits, striking out nine, and walking just two to earn the win. The relief trio of Jake Baker, Maddux Conger, and Michael Gizzi held the Cardinals in check and the Tigers won by a final of 9-2.
Looking at the Gulf Coast League stats, it’s easy to see why the Tigers West squad had so much success. They led the league with 40 home runs and a .786 team OPS. Four players who played in 20 GCL games or more for the Tigers posted an OPS above .875, including Vinny Esposito (.950), Wenceel Perez (1.006 - now with West Michigan), Hector Martinez (1.008), and 2018 second round pick Parker Meadows (.876). Youngsters like catcher Eliezer Alfonzo, an 18-year old Venezuelan native who torched the Dominican Summer League before being promoted to the GCL in late July, provided additional depth. Finally, 2018 fourth round pick Kingston Liniak, along with Matthew Jarecki, nephew of West Michigan Whitecaps Vice President Jim Jarecki, came over from the Tigers East squad to bolster the playoff run.
If the hitting was good, the pitching and defense were outstanding. The GCL Tigers allowed just 3.5 runs per game, fewest in the league. The 21-year-old Fernander led the charge, posting a 1.40 earned run average, with 39 strikeouts and just eight walks, in his 38 2⁄3 innings of work. Garrett Hill, 22nd round pick out of San Diego State, fanned 46 to just ten walks in his 37 2⁄3 innings pitched. Young Dominican natives Xavier Javier and Alfredo Silva (now with Connecticut) were also top performers. Michael Gizzi, a 35th round pick in this year’s draft, anchored the back end of the bullpen, with a 1.84 earned run average, 23 strikeouts, and just three walks in his 13 appearances.
Congratulations to Brayan Pena and the entire GCL Tigers squad. For Pena, 36, who just six months ago was still playing professional baseball himself, there is no better way to kick off a managerial career than with a championship.