Stellar pitching helps Surprise top Mesa for AFL title
Rodriguez tosses three scoreless frames for Saguaros before 'pen finishes shutout
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As home-plate umpire A.J. Johnson called Steven Souza out on strikes for the final out of Saturday's Arizona Fall League Championship Game, the Saguaros converged in the middle of the diamond. They hopped the first-base dugout fence and raced in from the bullpen in right field to form a jumping mass of jubilation behind the pitcher's mound.
Surprise had defeated Mesa, 2-0, at Scottsdale Stadium, winning the franchise's first championship since 1995. But other than center fielder Tyler Naquin's spontaneous decision to take the official championship picture wearing Jorge Alfaro's catcher's mask, the celebration was rather low key. There was some Chipotle, but no trophy -- or Champagne -- waiting for the Saguaros in the clubhouse.
But none of it mattered to them.
"That experience I had right there was the best I've had in baseball so far," left-hander Tim Berry said.
"These kids wanted to win," manager Gary Kendall said. "It's all about development, but they wanted to win this ballgame."
Surprise had relied on its offense throughout the fall as it outslugged opponents en route to a West Division title. Its offense was the league's highest scoring, averaging six runs per game. But, Saturday, it was all about its pitching.
Left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, ranked No. 84 on MLB.com's Top 100 prospect list, set the tone for Surprise. The Orioles' No. 2 prospect threw three scoreless innings. He struck out four batters and allowed two hits. Following Rodriguez, five Saguaros relievers combined for six scoreless innings.
Mesa's best chance came in the sixth inning when it loaded the bases with one out against Berry, the Orioles' No. 6 prospect. Kris Bryant, who had been awarded the AFL MVP award before the championship game, came to the plate. He got ahead in the count 2-0, but after a visit from catcher Jorge Alfaro and pitching coach Steve Karsay, Berry escaped the jam.
Berry busted Bryant, the Cubs' No. 4 prospect, with an inside fastball and got him to pop out in foul ground to first baseman Travis Shaw. He then struck out C.J. Cron, the Angels' No. 2 prospect and AFL batting champion.
"It was such a bad start to the inning and such a big finish to the inning," Berry said. "I was just glad to get out of there with no runs on the board and give it to Noe [Ramirez] and they took it from there."
Ramirez, Keone Kela and David Goforth finished the game without further drama. The bases-loaded situation in the sixth inning was the only time all game the Solar Sox advanced a runner to third base.
Bryant went 0-for-4 Saturday and came away impressed with the Saguaros' pitching.
"Their pitching was incredible," Bryant said. "Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to the other team. They came through when they needed to."
Surprise scored its first run with two outs in the second inning. Henry Urrutia hit a line drive over Souza's head in center field and cruised into second with a double. Alfaro followed with an RBI single.
The Saguaros added an insurance run in the eighth inning. Jonathan Schoop, the Orioles' No. 4 prospect, led off the inning with a single and moved into scoring position on a sacrifice bunt and a wild pitch. Mookie Betts, the Red Sox No. 16 prospect, drove him in with a single.
Urrutia was the only Saguaro with multiple hits. He finished the game 2-for-3 with two doubles.
The AFL is typically dominated by hitters, but two runs were enough in the championship game. Naquin said the Saguaros pitching staff has been up to the task all season.
"Seems like our pitchers, they always step up in the big, big situation," Naquin said. "We have a great lineup, but if you look at our arms on paper, I'd put them above anybody else's."
The combination of the Saguaros offense and their strong bullpen allowed them to be one of the best teams in the league at coming from behind. While Surprise didn't need a comeback in the championship game, Kendall said he would most remember his team's perseverance game after game.
"A lot of our wins were come from behind wins where we were down by a lot of runs, four or five runs sometimes," Kendall said. "We just never quit.
"There's a bunch of winning players out there and that's probably what I'm going to remember the most."