Haniger backs Pena with Surprise slam

Brewers prospect hits go-ahead homer in AFL season opener

Mitch Haniger hit .264 with 11 homers and 68 RBI in the Minors in 2013. (Tom Hagerty)

By Danny Wild / MiLB.com | October 8, 2013 3:42 PM ET

Mitch Haniger watched Mickey Pena make a pretty good first impression in the Arizona Fall League on Tuesday. By the sixth inning, he added one of his own.

"It's definitely what you want, a good situation, bases loaded, I was looking for a pitch to drive and I got a good pitch to hit," said Haniger.

The Brewers outfield prospect hit a go-ahead grand slam and Red Sox lefty Mickey Pena pitched three perfect innings as Surprise held on to edge Peoria, 7-6, on Opening Day in the AFL.

Haniger, Milwaukee's first-round pick last year, gave Surprise the lead in the sixth inning when he knocked home Garin Cecchini (Red Sox), Ryan Rua (Rangers) and Joe Wendle (Indians) with his first career slam to left off Peoria reliever and No. 8 Padres prospect Adys Portillo. The left fielder, the Brewers' No. 12 prospect, finished 2-for-4 and scored a pair of runs.

"It was a 3-1 fastball, middle-in. I'd never faced him before," Haniger said. "I'm just trying to keep everything simple, play the game I've played all year. Just trying to hit the ball hard each at-bat and keep it simple."

Pena, who went 7-8 with a 4.29 ERA in 18 starts between two levels this past season, held the Javelinas off base in his AFL debut, striking out one while throwing 19 of his 28 pitches for strikes. The former South Atlantic League All-Star retired Padres' No. 14 prospect Cory Spangenberg to begin a perfect first, struck out slugging cleanup man Japhet Amador (Astros) to start a 1-2-3 second and retired the side in the third, getting Cheslor Cuthbert (Royals), Padres' No. 2 farmhand Austin Hedges and Pat Kivlehan (Mariners) to end his day.

Pena, though, wasn't too familiar with his new competition, not even the more heralded names on Peoria's lineup card. 

"Before the game, my pitching coach [Steve Karsay] gave me a list of all the players. I don't really try to focus on that too much, because at the end of the day, I'm still going to attack hitters the way I'd attack them," he said. "Hedges, I didn't even know he was a top prospect for the Padres, so I treated him like any other hitter, attacking the zone."

Pena did get a tip on Amador, a first baseman who joined Houston after shellacking Mexican League pitchers with a .368 average, 36 homers and 121 RBIs in 104 games. He appeared in just 10 contests with Triple-A Oklahoma City before heading to Arizona.

"He had 36 homers in the Mexican League, so that stood out for me," Pena said. "I treated it the same, pounded the zone, elevated the ball and it worked to my advantage."

Both Pena and Haniger are in a new environment with new teammates, cities, hotels and coaches. It can be overwhelming for younger players and exciting at the same time.

"It's always great meeting new players, especially this great competition, it's been a lot of fun," Pena said. "It definitely gets you going before the game, it pumps you up and it's something I've looked forward to. Opening Day in the Fall League, it's a great feeling."

"It's pretty cool. I'm becoming more talkative and started to become friends with some guys," Haniger said. "And it's nice to know a few of the Brewers players before I came out here, I'm living with two of them, so it's been real fun. It's definitely different, but I'm really enjoying it." 

Haniger, who doubled in Surprise's two-run first, was impressed with the Red Sox southpaw from his spot in left.

"He's real impressive. You can tell how he mixes pitches, he knows how to pitch," he said. "He goes inside, outside, keeps the hitters off balance and that helps him."

Pena said he used the same stuff that brought him success this past season with Class A Advanced Salem and Double-A Portland.

"I just go back to this season and really not trying to do too much, especially with the butterflies I had like in my Double-A debut," Pena said. "I was really pumped up, but I'm staying within myself and that helped me. Attacking hitters, keeping it as simple as possible -- it's no different from any other league. It's the same mound distance, just different hitters and better competition. Going into that first start, I was telling myself, 'Don't do too much, just go out and compete.'"

He said the talent level in Arizona is noticeably better than what he saw back on the East Coast.

"Just their caliber, you can tell they're a notch above everyone else, a lot stronger and smarter at the plate," he said. "They're really attacking the ball, so I was keeping it low and that's something that was part of my game plan going into today. Some of these guys have Major League time, that's what stood out the most for me."

Pena and Haniger professed to have similar goals in Arizona -- stay healthy and consistent.

"I think just having quality starts every game and staying within myself. At the end of the day, it's a game of failure. Staying consistent is key to me, as long as I keep attacking hitters, everything will turn out well," Pena said. "Definitely keep working hard and hopefully have a good outing every fifth day. And staying healthy, most importantly."

"Just to have good at-bats, swing at good pitches, hit the ball hard every time, help my team win," Haniger said. "There's a lot of good players out here, I think we can be a real good team." 

Jason Adam, the Royals' fifth-round pick in 2010, started for Peoria and allowed three runs on six hits and a walk over three innings. Portillo (0-1) suffered the loss after allowing four runs on one hit and a pair of walks in one inning.

Cuthbert homered for Peoria, while Aaron Altherr (Phillies) and Jorge Bonifacio (Royals) each drove in two runs. 

Danny Wild is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow his MLBlog, Minoring in Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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