Photo by Kimberly Contreras

2016 Arizona Fall League championship preview

The Mesa Solar Sox square-off against the Surprise Saguaros on Saturday to determine the 2016 Arizona Fall League champion. Kimberly Contreras previews the title match.

It’s ok to say that the Mesa Solar Sox “backed into” the Arizona Fall League Championship Game. It’s the truth. For the better part of the 6-week season, Mesa and Salt River were either tied or played hot-potato with the lead in the three-team East Division. During the final week of play, when the two met on Tuesday in Mesa, Salt River had a one-game lead. Every player understood the implications of the game and played accordingly. Tied at three in the bottom of the 9th, the game headed to extras. The Rafters scored two in the top of the 10th but Mesa came storming back. Cleveland Indians’ right fielder Bradley Zimmer drove a double to center field that scored fellow Tribe prospect shortstop Yu-Cheng Chang to tie the game, and Blue Jays pinch runner Anthony Alford to win the game, 6-5. The win gave Mesa their share of the division lead. Again. But they were still alive, and that’s what they focused on.

Salt River only had to win one of the last two games to clinch the title. On Wednesday, Mesa was silenced by the St Louis Cardinals’ Austin Gomber, falling to the Glendale Desert Dogs, 10-0. The win for Glendale helped keep their hopes alive in the West, going into the final day of the season. Wednesday night featured Salt River at Scottsdale. The Scorpions matched up against New York Yankees pitching prospect James Kaprielian. To the delight of the Solar Sox -and their fan-base – Kaprielian was brilliant, as was fellow Yankees hurler Nestor Cortes. Scottsdale won, 4-0. Still, going into the final day of the schedule, Mesa’s season was out of its hands: if Surprise beat Salt River on Thursday, Mesa would advance. If both Mesa and Salt River lost, then Mesa would advance based on win percentage. 

On Thursday, all eyes (and devices) were on the matchup in Surprise; especially for those of us in Mesa. When I spoke to Mesa manager Ryan Christenson before the game, he was his usual peaceful, focused self. He stated the obvious that Mesa future was out of their hands. Honestly, I knew better. I told him the planets were aligning to ensure they would play on Saturday. He just smiled and replied modestly. As usual.

I also reminded him about a conversation we had before the team’s first workout in early October. I told him then, that I have a window of time on November 19th, between my daughter’s graduation from college (10am in Glendale) and the celebration/party I’d be hosting at 5pm, and the Fall League Championship game (1pm in Scottsdale) would fit in nicely. Just as he did in October, he smiled. I knew Mesa would win. Besides, every team he’s managed has gone to the post-season.  

Mesa was down, 3-0, early on Thursday. More importantly, Salt River was riding a 2-0 lead halfway through their game against Surprise, facing Boston Red Sox 20-year-old phenom pitcher Michael Kopech. But as it turns out, that was all Kopech and the Surprise relievers would allow. In the bottom of the 5th, the Saguaros scored 3, and then one more in the 6th, to defeat the Rafters 4-2. With one final win, both division champions were determined; Surprise secured the West and Mesa took home the East. 

As the game in Surprise went final, Mesa scored two runs in the bottom of the 8th to tie Scottsdale at 6.  Neither team scored in the 9th, and since the outcome would be non-impactful to the season stats or championship determination, the game was called after nine innings of play. Scottsdale’s coaching staff and players, including Tim Tebow, cleaned up, did their interviews and were gone in a flash. 

As happy as the team (and staff) from Mesa was to be the champs and to play for the title on Saturday, it would be unrealistic to expect any of them, especially the coaches, to not be even a little envious of their Scottsdale counterparts who get to go home – wherever that may be – and start the off-season with their families. The life of a minor-league coach or manager, like that of a minor-league ballplayer, is not easy or glamorous or even remotely, adequately compensated. But at least when the prospects reach the big leagues, there is the reward of a large paycheck for the years of sacrifice. Sadly, the same is not true for the field staff.  So, if those on the coaching/training staff aren’t *as excited* about spending three more days in Arizona, who can blame them? But make no mistake: if they’re here, they plan to win. 

If you aren't in the Phoenix area, the 2016 Arizona Fall League Championship game can be viewed on Saturday on MLB Network or streamed live on MLB.com. You also have the option to listen to everyone’s favorite, Mike Ferrin, on the radio (my personal favorite option) on Sirius 209, XM 89, MLB Network Radio, at 1pm AZ / 12pm PST. 

It seems fitting that Mesa and Surprise contend for the title. They started the season together with Surprise winning 11-2 behind Kansas City Royals prospect Josh Staumont, who last pitched on Monday. I wouldn’t be surprised to see manager Carlos Febles bring him in when appropriate. The next time the two teams matched up, Mesa threw a combined no-hitter on November 1st.  

Surprise will start Royals left-hander Eric Stout. He saw action in nine games this fall all as a reliever, for a total of 13 innings. He never recorded more than six outs in any outing. Stout faced Mesa on October 24th for one inning, and he allowed one hit (a triple to catcher Danny Jansen) and hit one batter, Cubs' prospect Victor Caratini, before Miami Marlins' prospect Yefri Perez hit into an inning-ending-double-play. Mesa won, 7-2.

Here’s a quick look at who you’ll see from the Mesa Solar Sox as they set to face the visiting Saguaros:

Starting Line-up: 

A's: Franklin Barreto, 2B, RHB

Hit .375 vs. LHPs. Played shortstop and second base for the Solar Sox. His six doubles are second most on the team, and tied for third most in the league.

Indians: Greg Allen, RF, Switch

Hit .300 against left-handers, .255 vs right. Led the league in stolen bases (12) until the final game of the season, when the Mets’ Champ Stuart tied him after he stole home against Mesa. Allen hit three home runs (two in one game), and committed 0 errors. 

Cubs: Ian Happ, LF, Switch

Slight edge against left-handed pitching. Walked 10 times, with a .417 OBP. Played second base or DH in all but the last game, when he played left field, as he will do in the championship game.  

Marlins: Brian Anderson, 3B, RHB

Hit .348 off left-handed pitching. League leader in home runs (5). Took a groundball to his face at 3B on the first game of the fall at Surprise; homered his first game back. Tough kid. Finished with an 866 OPS

Indians: Bradley Zimmer, CF, LHB

Hit .319 vs. right-handed pitching. Won the pre-season Bowman Hitting Challenge. League leader in runs scored (25). Tied for first in walks (19). Finished the fall with eight stolen bases, seven doubles, four home runs, an OPS of 935, and committed 0 errors.  

Blue Jays: Juan Kelly, 1B, Switch

Hit .324 vs. right-handed pitching. Averaged more than one hit per game. Committed 0 fielding errors. 

Cubs: Eloy Jimenez, DH, RHB

Hit .474 vs. left-handed pitching. Finished the season with three home runs in 15 games, with an OPS of 814 OPS.

Blue Jays: Danny Jensen, C, RHB

Hit .295 vs. right-handed pitching, .255 vs. left-handers. Hit two triples (one off Surprise’s Stout), .350 OBP.

Indians: Yu-Cheng Chang, SS, RHB

Hit .368 vs. right-handed pitching. Finished the season with five doubles, .400 OBP, 844 OPS.

BENCH:

Watch for Blue Jays speedy outfielder Anthony Alford to be used in a pinch-run spot. The former defensive back at both Southern Mississippi and Ole Miss is fearless on the bases.  

A's Yairo Munoz (“Y” pronounced as “J”) has had a good fall (including three doubles and two triples). Look for him to replace a middle infielder if needed.

Marlins’ switch-hitting outfielder Yefri Perez who’s batting .356 against right handed batters, RHB outfielder Dexter Kjerstad to pinch hit against left handed pitching (.286) 

Pitchers: 

A's RHP tandem: Dylan Covey followed by Frankie Montas

RHP Dylan Covey: six games, 24.2 IP 

Team won five of the six games he started. One loss, against Glendale, he left with the lead. 

Surprise’s line up might remember these two: Covey and Montas no-hit the Saguaros for eight innings on November 1.

Covey is coming off an injury that ended his 2016 season as a member of the Midland Rockhounds in May. HIs final regular AFL outing on Monday, November 14, against Glendale, was rough from the first pitch. But he did what you want your leaders to do: he fought back, kept his team in the game. He had a tough inning, but visibly gathered himself, then took the mound and got out of the inning. Came back out for another inning, gave up a lead-off double, but left the runner stranded. Worked through, battled, gave his all. His heart and confidence make him an ace in my book. I look for him to prove why he should have been added to the 40-man roster.

RHP Frankie Montas – six games, 17 IP  

Credited with the win of the combined no-hitter against the Saguaros on November 1.

Yes, he throws triple-digit gas. We know that. But he can also pitch – as evidenced by his 0.53 ERA. Didn’t have an earned run until his last start on Monday against Glendale. His slider is good, too. 

I hope to see A's RHP Sam Bragg in relief. Bragg has had a breakout AFL season: 13.2 IP, with a 1.98 ERA. Right-handed batters hit .104 off him. Simply spectacular. Plus, when he gets to the mound, he turns his back to the press box so we can see his name and number. That gesture alone makes him an MVP to the folks in the press box.

Unfortunately, we probably won’t see two members of Oakland’s representatives, including 2B Max Schrock, who injured a hamstring, and RHP Trey Cochran-Gill, who pitched on Thursday against Scottsdale, making him unlikely to be available on Saturday. The strike-throwing righty, acquired from the Mariners for Evan Scribner, has good stuff, good command and a winner’s mentality. A's fans will like what they see. 

Coaches and Staff:

Take note of this wonderful field staff and wish them all the best:

Manager Ryan Christenson - A's

Pitching Coach (and one time Oakland left-handed reliever) Vince Horsman – Blue Jays

Assistant Pitching Coach Brian Lawrence – Cubs

Hitting Coach Paul Phillips – Marlins

Hitting Coach Larry Day – Indians

Trainer Matt Beauregard – Indians

Trainer Shane Nelson – Cubs

Strength and Conditioning Terrence Brannic - A's

 

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