What's that saying? Pitching wins championships? If anyone needed more proof of that, they needn't look further than Saturday's Arizona Fall League championship game.
"Their pitching was incredible," fourth-ranked Cubs prospect Kris Bryant told MLB.com. "Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to the other team."
Behind three impressive innings from Orioles left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez and strong performances out of five relievers, West Division winners Surprise captured the AFL title with a 2-0 victory over East Division leader Mesa at Scottsdale Stadium.
In a game that featured only 10 combined hits between two of the best hitting teams the AFL had to offer, Orioles and Saguaros left fielder Henry Urrutia proved to be an offensive bright spot, going 2-for-3 at the plate with two doubles -- the only extra-base hits of the afternoon -- and a run scored.
Rodrguez, Baltimore's No. 2 prospect, struck out four and scattered only two hits in his three scoreless frames. It was the first zero-laden outing for the 20-year-old southpaw during the Fall League. He had posted a 5.52 ERA in five AFL starts (14 2/3 innings) entering Saturday's winner-take-all matchup, although he had struck out 16 in the same span. He was 10-7 with a 3.41 ERA in 25 starts between Class A Advanced Frederick and Double-A Bowie during the regular season.
The Saguaros first got to the Mesa staff in the second inning when top Rangers prospect Jorge Alfaro followed up Urrutia's first two-bagger with an RBI single before being thrown out at second while trying to take an extra base.
The run was charged to Cubs right-hander and Solar Sox starter Dallas Beeler, who was impressive in his own right. The 6-foot-5 hurler allowed just the one run on two hits and a walk while striking out five in his five frames on the mound.
The Solar Sox had their best chance to put runs on the board in the sixth inning. After struggling against Rodriguez and Brewers right-hander Tyler Cravy (two innings, one hit, two strikeouts), the East Division champs managed to load the bases with one out against Orioles southpaw Tim Berry. Jett Bandy (Angels) walked, Addison Russell (A's) singled and Devon Travis (Tigers) reached on an error by the pitcher.
"I had to bear down. It was moving a little fast for me at first," Berry admitted to MLB.com. "I left some pitches up and I wasn't really commanding my offspeed stuff. When it gets to that point where it's bases loaded, everything goes out the window. You've just got to get outs. That's the only thing that matters."
Baltimore's No. 6 prospect stood strong against the biggest bats of the Sox lineup, getting Bryant to pop out in foul territory for the second out of the frame.
"I was 2-0 to Bryant and we had a meeting and we talked about what we wanted to do, fastball in, and I just looked at the glove and executed it," Berry said. "That's when it turned to go my way."
Bryant agreed, saying, "They came through when they needed to."
Berry struck out Angels prospect C.J. Cron to exit unscathed.
"It was unreal," Berry said. "It was such a bad start to the inning and such a big finish to the inning. I was just glad to get out of there with no runs on the board."
It was smooth sailing from there for the Saguaros. Noe Ramirez (Red Sox) struck out the side in the seventh and Keone Kela (Rangers) tossed a perfect eighth. Second baseman Mookie Betts, who already won a Carolina League title this season with the Salem Red Sox, tacked on an insurance run with an RBI single in the bottom of that frame.
Brewers right-hander David Goforth tossed a perfect ninth that included a called third strike on Steven Souza (Nationals) that sent his Surprise teammates streaming toward the mound in celebration.
"That experience I had right there was the best I've had in baseball so far," Berry said of winning the title. "All the O's guys that got invited here are great players. I was learning from them and hopefully they were feeding off me. It was a good six weeks. Watching Eddie [Rodriguez] go out there every time was something special as well."
The impressive pitching performances from both sides in Saturday's championship came as a bit of a, well, surprise. The Saguaros averaged a league-best six runs per game in the AFL regular season, and the Solar Sox weren't far behind at 5.5, good enough for third. If anything, it was Mesa, who led the league in team ERA at 3.23, that seemed more likely to dominate on the mound compared to Surprise, which sported a 4.70 mark in the regular season.
Of course, that circles back to another popular baseball championship axiom. That's why they play the game.
Before the game, the league announced that Bryant, who led the Fall League with six homers and a 1.184 OPS, had won the Joe Black Award as the AFL MVP, and Surprise third baseman Garin Cecchini (Red Sox) had won the Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award.