At the end of the day, it matters very little how Rays 2013 first rounder Nick Ciuffo does in his pro debut down at the Rookie Gulf Coast League this season. If he does well, we’ll say “it’s a nice start, but he has to prove himself at higher levels” and if he struggles we’ll say “it was only his pro debut, he has plenty of time to develop.” But it’s just the distorted way that our minds work that we feel like we need Ciuffo to succeed to justify his selection, especially after years of Rays drafts that just haven’t worked out. With the GCL Rays playing the only games by a Rays affiliate, Ciuffo and the entire team took center stage, and Ciuffo gave Rays fans the type of temporary satisfaction we need to come back one more time with a 2-run single that turned out to be the difference in the game.
Rookie Gulf Coast League: GCL Rays 5, GCL Red Sox 4
In Rookie ball, so many of the traditional baseball distinctions are blurred beyond recognition. We’re so used to starters being the best pitchers, but so often in the GCL you see a reliever come in and not only pitch well but provide more length. And while talent is supposed to make the best players stand out, often the hitters who perform the best are the ones who are barely prospects at all coming as a senior out of college. But if there’s anyone who will defy the odds and dominate as we’d think they’re supposed to, it’s the early-round picks in the draft. Luckily for the GCL Rays, they feature fourRays’ top five picks in this year’s draft, and that makes things a lot easier to follow. Before that, though, let’s talk about the pitching performances in this one. Mario Fernandez, a 19 year old right-hander out of Venezuela, got the start but did not pitch well, going 3 innings allowing 2 runs on 5 hits, striking out 2 while walking 2 and hitting a batter. But then Andres Gonzalez, another 19 year old Venezuelan righty, came in and slammed the door, going the next 5 innings allowing no runs on 4 hits, striking out 4 while walking 1. And before you ask, no Gonzalez has not started a single game for the GCL Rays this season nor did he start any games last year (he was apparently injured). Just the type of thing you see in the Gulf Coast League. Gonzalez’s ERA is a pretty mediocre 4.08 on the season, but his strikeout to walk ratio is an insane 17-1 in 17.2 innings pitched. Yael Regalado got the save in this one but did it in about the ugliest way possible, entering with a 3-run lead before allowing 2 runs. How did the runs score? A walk, a weak single up the middle that advanced the runners to 2nd and 3rd after an ill-advised throw to 3rd, and a 2-run bloop double. That’s baseball, but more accurately, that’s GCL baseball. The offense, though, was a lot prettier to watch.
The GCL Rays scored a run each in the first three innings on an Erick Vasquez sac fly, a wild pitch, and a Jeremy Hadley RBI single. They were holding onto a 3-2 lead in the 6th when Nick Ciuffo stepped up to the plate with 2 outs and runners at 2nd and 3rd. And Ciuffo came through with the clutch hit the GCL Rays needed to pull away, drilling a 2-run single to make it a 5-2 game. Of course, Ciuffo proceeded to get thrown out trying to advance to second base 7-5-4-3-4 (I can’t make this stuff up!), but let’s conveniently ignore that in light of Ciuffo’s clutch hit, which made the difference in the game after Regalado’s “meltdown” in the 9th. Second rounder Riley Unroe had a big game himself, going 1 for 2 with 3 walks and a run scored. He’s hitting just .204, but his OBP is .317 and you have to love the plate discipline he has shown, managing a 14-9 strikeout to walk ratio. 5th rounder Kean Wong went 1 for 3 with a walk and a run scored. And then there was the fact that two players who entered the game with one combined stolen base, Taylor Hawkins and Vasquez, each stole two bases. Once again, that’s GCL baseball.