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Surprise, Mesa square off for AFL title11/15/2013 8:28 AM ET
By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com
The finishing school for some of the game's best prospects is nearly, well, finished, but there's just one small piece of business that needs to be taken care of first.
An Arizona Fall League champion must be crowned.
For that very purpose, Surprise will take on Mesa at 3:10 p.m. ET at Scottsdale Stadium to determine which collection of prospects deserves the title of AFL champion.
For the last six weeks, each side has combined Minor Leaguers from five different organizations to form one unit in an attempt to improve their individual skills and stock while stringing together team wins at the same time. Of course, the results were both quite good.
Surprise (18-12-1), which is made up of prospects from the Brewers, Indians, Orioles, Rangers and Red Sox organizations, captured the West Division crown on Monday, allowing the squad to coast through the final week of the regular season. Meanwhile Mesa, with prospects from the Angels, A's, Cubs, Nationals and Tigers systems, was neck-and-neck with Salt River in the East Division and needed to win its final six contests to finish 19-11-1, half a game ahead of the Rafters.
"This is what we play for," said Angels No. 2 prospect and Mesa first baseman C.J. Cron. "Losing still sucks, no matter where you are in this game. When we all first got together, we decided, 'We're here. We might as well win it all.' Winning is just more fun."
The story has been much the same on the other side.
"It's always great to play with guys who are this good at the game," said No. 16 Red Sox prospect and Surprise second baseman Mookie Betts. "It was cool to see how everyone joined in the beginning and started developing those good bonds and good chemistry. Things really came together, and obviously it showed on the field."
Each team carries one of the best Fall League offenses into Saturday's championship. Surprise led the regular season in most hitting categories, including runs (186), average (.277) and OPS (.790). Red Sox first baseman Travis Shaw (.361/.452/.705), Orioles outfielder Henry Urrutia (.377/.434/.551) and Rangers catcher Jorge Alfaro (.386/.438/.500) have been bright spots on the Saguaros side.
The Solar Sox tied their upcoming opponents with 30 homers and finished third in most other categories, although it should be stated that their 172 runs were miles beyond fourth-place Glendale at 130. Mesa, in particular, boasted two of the best hitters in the Fall League: Cron and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant. Cron won the league batting title (.413) and finished second in both homers (five) and RBIs (20) and could therefore have a claim as the league's yet-to-be-named MVP. His biggest competition is Bryant, who led in slugging (.727) and OPS (1.184).
The Angels prospect, in particular, credited the Mesa lineup for his uptick in production.
"I'll tell you what -- it helps to have guys like [Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler] and Bryant batting around you," Cron said. "With the way we're stacked, anything they try to do against one of us, they know another good hitter is coming up next. … Hitting is contagious, and once we get going, it's hard to stop us. It's been like that all season."
Orioles left-hander and Surprise starter Eduardo Rodriguez, who posted a 5.52 ERA with 16 strikeouts and six walks in 14 2/3 innings, will be charged with holding back that attack on Saturday. Mesa will counter with Cubs right-hander Dallas Beeler, who went 4-1 with a 2.49 ERA in six AFL starts.
As a staff, the Solar Sox have proved to hold the advantage with an AFL-best ERA of 3.23 compared to the 4.70 number put up by Saguaros hurlers. They also won the regular-season series, capturing four of the seven games played between the two sides.
Though regular-season numbers provide a primer for what to expect come Saturday, experience can be crucial, and that's something both Cron and Betts can boast, albeit from different sides. The Angels prospect's Double-A Arkansas squad took San Antonio all the way to a fifth game in the Texas League Championship Series before bowing out. A one-game, winner-take-all playoff format is different than the one he saw in the Lone Star State, but Cron is still grateful to have some familiarity with playing in a big game.
"All the experience helps," he said. "It's one thing to think about being in a meaningful game, but it's another to be actually in it. Having played in a few gets you a little more prepared.
As for Betts, who ranks third in the AFL with eight steals, Saturday's championship game presents the perfect ending to a season that already saw him break out with the bat and on the basepaths in the lower levels of the Red Sox system and win a Carolina League title with Class A Advanced Salem.
"This would just be the cherry on top," he said. "Winning in the season is great. Doing that and then winning here would be even better. You just have to be thankful for the opportunity. Some guys never make it to a game like this, whether it's in high school, college, the pros, whatever. It's really something special."