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Kemp powers Phoenix to AFL title11/12/2005 7:06 PM ET
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
PHOENIX -- When two teams in a championship game sport .303 and .309 team batting averages, respectively, the last thing to expect would be a pitchers' battle.
But that's exactly what 2,011 Arizona Fall League fans got at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on Saturday, at least for the first 5 1/2 innings. Red-hot Dodgers outfield prospect Matt Kemp finally broke the ice in the bottom of the sixth with a home run to left. That opened the floodgates and allowed the Phoenix Desert Dogs to run away with a 9-3 victory over the Surprise Scorpions in the AFL Championship Game.
For much of the day, Kemp was the Desert Dogs' offense. The right fielder led off and went 4-for-4 with two homers, including the only two hits Phoenix had through five innings.
There were two outs in the top of the sixth when Kemp took an offering from Surprise starter Brian Bass and went deep down the line to left for the first run of the game.
"I was just looking for a ball to hit," Kemp said. "They were calling a lot of balls down low, so I went down and got one."
Kemp already had extended his hitting streak to 16 games in the first inning, but it was his homer that caused an explosion in the Desert Dogs' dugout in what was a surprisingly taut pitchers' duel. Kemp was arguably the hottest hitter in the league coming into this game, and he cemented that tag when he finished off the rout with a moon shot to straightaway center field during a five-run eighth inning.
"I'm just seeing the ball well," said Kemp, who brought his AFL average up to .408. "I'm just picking good pitches and swinging and connecting."
He wasn't the only Dodgers farmhand to connect. Third baseman Andy LaRoche had hit the ball well all fall, carrying a .352 average into the final. But he hadn't gone deep at all, somewhat shocking for a prospect who made the pitching-friendly Florida State League look like Coors Field for much of the 2005 season. He picked a perfect time to end the drought. With Stephen Drew on second base, thanks to a miscommunication by the Scorpions in shallow center field, LaRoche made them pay by going opposite field for his first fall homer.
"All the guys were saying I was saving for it today," LaRoche said. "He gave me a good pitch, I went with it and took it to right field. It felt good."
Few felt better than Desert Dogs manager Scott Little. The man who managed Kemp in Vero Beach all year in the Dodgers system felt particularly proud of his right fielder.
"Nothing Matt Kemp does surprises me," Little said. "He's a great kid, he's a competitor. He's just learning to play the game, so his (ceiling) is endless."
Little believes Kemp should've been celebrating his second ring, not his first.
"The saddest thing for me in Vero is that Matt stayed the whole time when he deserved to move up and be part of what was happening in Jacksonville," Little said. "He could've helped them win a ring there. For him to win one here, that's special."
It's possible none of it would've mattered -- Kemp's two homers, LaRoche's first of the fall, Braves catching prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia's rocket to left-center in that five-run eighth -- if Jamie Shields hadn't continued his run as arguably the best pitcher in the AFL.
"Shields has been awesome," Little said. "He's on the radar now. I had never heard of him (before the AFL). I saw him throw seven times. I'd take him any time. He's a joy to watch."
Shields certainly put on a pitching clinic when it mattered most, going 6 2/3 innings, allowing just one earned run on five hits and striking out five and without issuing a walk.
"He threw very well," Kemp said. "He came out and threw strikes and shut down one of the best teams I've ever seen."
Both Shields and Bass clearly didn't get the memo about the high-octane offenses, tossing up zeros until Kemp broke the ice. Bass ended his day having allowed three runs through six innings.
Shields one-upped him. The Devil Rays starter kept the Scorpions' lineup off-balance all afternoon. Using an off-speed pitch that has been there for him all season, he lowered his cumulative AFL ERA to 1.67, striking out 34 and walking only three.
"Right now, it was time to throw all my stuff at them," Shields said. "My changeup has been my out pitch the whole AFL. I'm not going to change the way I pitch, and it worked out well for me."
The Scorpions didn't go down quietly, scoring twice off closer Casey Daigle in the ninth before the Padres' Corey Smith popped out to allow the Desert Dogs to celebrate for the second consecutive season.
With no rest for the weary, many players from both teams will join USA Baseball for the week. Team USA actually has an exhibition game against Team Canada on Sunday. Some players, however, will finally get to go home and reflect on what's been a very long -- and successful -- season.
"It's my second ring so far," LaRoche said. "I couldn't have ended on a better note. It'll be a good carryover until next season."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.