“If you play for the Yankees, you’ve got to get used to this” said Trenton’s interim manager Luis Sojo on Tuesday night after his team clinched the first half division title and a playoff spot. The minor leagues are all about development, but it also provides glimpses of how young players might handle a big moment. As the minor league season crosses it halfway point, two of the Yankees’ best pitching prospects have faced big moments and excelled.
It is not often that former Cy Young award winners are pitching in A-ball. Many fans wanted the Yankees to sign Dallas Keuchel, and there was a palpable level of disappointment when he landed with Atlanta earlier this month. Keuchel’s first start as a member of the Braves organization coincidentally came against the Yankees’ Low-A affiliate, the Charleston Riverdogs. The Riverdogs sent one of the Yankees’ top pitching prospects, Luis Gil, to the mound against the former American League CY Young award winning Keuchel.
Assigned to Charleston to start the season, Gil had taken a major step forward, emerging as the ace of the Riverdogs’ staff. The matchup with Keuchel provided him with a stage to show why he is now a highly regarded prospect. Immediately, Gil established that it was not just the Dallas Keuchel show, striking out the side, all swinging, in the first inning. Gil responded to his only challenging inning, after a walk and a single put runners on the corners, with another strikeout to escape the jam.
Unfortunately for Gil and the Riverdogs, Kuechel pitched a masterful game on the other side, and neither starter would factor into the decision. Gil finished the game with seven innings pitched, zero earned runs, three hits, ten strikeouts, and one walk. He struck out three of the last four hitters he faced, and needed only 86 pitches to navigate seven innings, knowing that he had no room for error. Luis Gil delivered on that night, as he has all season in leading the South Atlantic League in ERA at 1.81.
Gil is not the only top pitching prospect to receive a big game assignment and exceed expectations. Deivi Garcia turned just 20-years-old on May 19th, shortly after his promotion to the Double-A Trenton Thunder. Last season he rose up prospect rankings by registering 105 strikeouts in 74 innings pitched. The Yankees have challenged Garcia over the last two seasons with aggressive assignments in the minor leagues. His solid work at the lower levels earned him a one-game appearance with Trenton at the end of the 2018 season, and he showed tremendous poise in throwing five innings of no-hit ball.
It may feel like it is too early in the season to talk about clinching playoff spots, but that is just the situation the Thunder found themselves in Tuesday night. In the Eastern League, the winner of the first-half division title clinches a playoff berth. Trenton entered the night in a tie with Reading, Philadelphia’s Double-A affiliate. Luckily for Trenton, Garcia was tabbed for this assignment and up for the challenge.
With a playoff spot on the line Garica, struck out the first eight batters he faced, and only slightly let up after that. Before his night was done, Garcia had tied the Trenton franchise record with 15 strikeouts, which also matched the best single-game strikeout performance in all of minor league baseball this season. His performance led Trenton to a 6-0 victory. Managing Trenton that night was Sojo, who has had a few big moments of his own over the years, and he came away impressed, stating “You don’t see that too often, and especially to clinch the division.”
While a big game in the minor leagues will never answer the question of how a younger player will react to a major league environment, it is a positive sign when two of the best young arms in the system face down a tough assignment and thrive in that environment. Be sure to keep an eye on Gil and Garcia in the future, as they continue to face down every challenge thrown at them.