Springfield, Mo. – Jordan Walker was tardy on a first-pitch slider from Corpus Christi reliever Jojanse Torres and Cards’ manager Jose Leger worried it spelled doom for a key at-bat.
Springfield rallied from an early six-run hole to tie Wednesday’s game against the Hooks, and with one out in the ninth inning and speedy Masyn Winn at first base, Walker needed to advance the winning run into scoring position.
“The slider did fool me a little bit, it did,” Walker said. “I was actually looking slider, but it came a little bit faster than I thought.”
Watching from the third-base coaches’ box, Leger thought if Walker is late on Torres’ breaking ball, he’ll be further behind a fastball.
On the mound, Torres thought the same thing.
He fired a heater on the inner half of the plate, but Walker’s bat was right on time and the slugger from Decatur, Georgia crushed a 432-foot home run that sailed over the trees beyond the Hammons Field scoreboard to give Springfield a thrilling 10-8 win.
Walker’s walk-off blast and the party that greeted him at home plate were a first for St. Louis’ top prospect. He had never hit a walk-off home run at any level until Wednesday night and he gave his bat a little flip before rounding the bases.
“Unreal, to be honest, I don’t know how to describe the feeling,” Walker said. “It was just excitement; it all went as a blur after I hit the ball.”
“He got the MVP chain at the end,” Leger said. “He’s special, man. I mean, this kid just turned 20. He’s got so much power, he’s so much fun to watch, so athletic.”
“He was so happy, and the clubhouse was happy too.”
Walker has reached safely in 15 of the last 16 games with three home runs, five doubles and seven RBIs during that span.
Springfield sits in the cellar of the Texas League North Division, but the Cards have won four of the last five games and Leger hopes Wednesday’s come-from-behind heroics spark something special.
“You overcome a six-run deficit, it’s always fun. It’s like a boost that it gives a team. Having games like that can turn your season around – it could, right?”
If the answer to that question is yes, the Cardinals will need more gems on the mound, like starting pitcher Gordon Graceffo delivered on Tuesday night.
Graceffo dazzled in the series opener, holding Corpus Christi to just three hits – all singles – in seven shutout innings. The former Villanova Wildcat struck out six and induced nine groundball outs, including two double plays, and the Cardinals won 3-0.
“First pitch of the game, I let up a hit and then got the double play,” Graceffo said. “I was like, alright we can settle-in now.”
“I felt good when I started throwing pre-game. Just mixing my pitches and hitting my spots. My catcher Pedro Pages had a great game plan for us.”
In the seventh inning, Springfield clung to a 1-0 lead when Hooks’ catcher Luke Berryhill led-off with a base hit and brought powerful Yainer Diaz to the plate.
Pages picked Berryhill off first base, then Diaz and Graceffo battled to a full count.
Graceffo painted a fastball on the outer edge of the plate and Diaz swung through it for Graceffo’s sixth punchout, prompting a fist-pump from the six-foot four-inch hurler.
“That pickoff – that was big because it’s a close game,” Graceffo said. “Diaz is a great hitter. It was nice to be able to execute.”
Graceffo’s windup starts with an exaggerated step backwards that builds forceful motion toward home plate, an approach he developed during workouts with pitching coach Silvio Censale during COVID lockdown after his sophomore season at Villanova was cancelled.
“We worked on that to improve my momentum going down the mound and to speed up my arm. I’ve kept it ever since and it’s worked really well,” he said.
For a groundball pitcher like Graceffo, Winn’s defensive skills at shortstop are a security blanket.
Winn was involved in both double-plays Graceffo induced and another one after he gave way to the bullpen. Prior to Thursday’s game, Winn and Walker were on the infield during scorching afternoon heat, taking grounders from Jose Oquendo.
“Masyn is a good tool to have as a manager,” Leger said. “It’s about placement, we give them those cards to make sure they are positioned right. He’s done that – he’s been paying attention, putting his work out there defensively. He’s played really good defense for us since he got called up.”
Springfield’s pitchers aren’t the only ones glad to see Winn at Double-A.
“When I heard he was coming up, I was really excited,” Walker said. “I called him and everything, to make sure I wasn’t reading it wrong. We click well together on the field, it’s just really nice to have him here.”
Andy Carroll is a freelance sports writer living in the Ozarks with his wife and four great kids. He loves St. Louis, toasted ravioli and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @carroll_sgf and Instagram @andycarroll505