The Marauders didn’t get a chance to break out the most specific part of their scouting report until the seventh inning of Friday’s Florida State League Championship Series opener at McKechnie Field.
That was when Tito Polo, who spent almost all of the second half with the Pirates’ Class A Advanced affiliate, wound up on first base with no one in front of him. He was a threat to steal in a close game, so the Marauders tried to pick him off.
During the two months Polo spent playing for Bradenton, no opponent tried to pick him off three times. The Marauders would send him after two pick-off attempts. That insight helped Yeudy Garcia cap his most impressive start of the season, an 8-1 victory against Tampa.
He turned to first once. Polo retreated to the bag. He threw over a second time. The outfielder darted back again. The scouting report said his lead should be bigger, so Garcia threw over again. Polo was caught.
Garcia hopped off the mound and pounded his fist, first into the air, then into his glove and finally against his chest. The hunch had paid off and Garcia was through seven innings for just the second time all year.
“No one’s ever picked on him three times all year,” manager Michael Ryan said. “Him being here, if they picked twice he was going next pitch. That was what we figured, so we put the pick on again, used that to our advantage a little bit.”
The play punctuated the most dominating stretch of Garcia’s outing. He finished with six strikeouts — all six came among the final eight he faced. The only blemish on him was a solo home run by Tampa’s Kevin Cornelius to lead off the seventh.
He spent the week leading up to Game 1 — he lasted pitched Saturday on the penultimate day of the regular season — focusing on his secondary pitches. He figured he would need either his changeup or slider to win in the postseason.
It didn’t take him long Friday to realize his slider wasn’t working. It became a waste pitch early as he searched for command and leaned on pitching to contact with his fastball.
“I was working for the first game for the finals, in preparation, for using my changeup at least, sometimes slider,” Garcia said. “It was very important for me today throwing my fastball for a first-pitch strike.”
With some early help from corner infielder Connor Joe, who homered for the second straight game to give Bradenton a 1-0 lead in the second inning and finished with two more RBIs, Garcia could survive early hiccups, like a single on the second pitch of the game or a double with one out in the third. It wasn’t until the fourth that Garcia, Pittsburgh’s No. 12 prospect on MLB.com, tossed a perfect inning and not until the last batter of the fifth that he finally recorded a strikeout.
Still, his efficiency overwhelmed the Yankees in what will likely be the final start of Garcia’s season. He threw 67 strikes in 89 pitches and didn’t walk a batter.
“His mindset going into the game was really good,” Ryan said. “Before there were some starts where he would just maybe try to coast through the first inning. Today he was absolutely ready from pitch No. 1 and the Game 1 start I think gave him some adrenaline.”
And it ended with a chance to showcase his savvy.
The Marauders made a point of picking on Polo all game — they twice tested his arm on balls hit to right field and scored both times — and let Garcia, a close friend of Polo’s, get his chance, too. It gave him, Ryan said, “the icing on the cake,” for an excellent year, which saw him finish the season with the fifth best ERA in the FSL.
“They’re really good buddies,” Ryan said, “so it’s the competitive nature in both of them.”
Who: Tampa at Bradenton
When: Saturday, 6:30 p.m.
Where: McKechnie Field
Probable pitchers: Luis Cedeno (0-0, -.--) vs. Austin Coley (12-10, 4.65)
Online: Live streamed via Bradentonmarauders.com and TuneIn app.