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Arizona Fall League - also known as "Major League Baseball's "Finishing School" - held it's third annual Rising Stars game at Surprise Stadium (Spring Training home of the the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals) in Surprise, Arizona last night. The Rising Stars game is sort of an All-Star game made of an All-Star league. Many of the AFL's participants are among the top prospects in their respective organizations and are in Arizona for 6 weeks to refine their skills, showcase their talents for scouts before the winter meetings, learn a new position or just continue to build on their regular season success heading into the winter.
The league's six teams are comprised of 8 prospects from 5 MLB teams each. Three AFL teams - Mesa Solar Sox (Braves, Cubs, Marlins, Phillies, Tigers), Peoria Saguaros (Cardinals, Mets, Nationals, Padres, White Sox), and Scottsdale Scorpions (Angels, Astros, Giants, Pirates, Red Sox) - form the American Diviion and the other three teams - Peoria Javelinas (Brewers, Mariners, Rays, Reds, Yankees), Phoenix Desert Dogs (Athletics, Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Twins) and Surprise Rafters (Dodgers, Indians, Orioles, Rangers, Royals).
Last season the league - and therefore the Rising Stars teams - was aligned by East and West (or "Streets and Avenues" as I preferred) but each season the MLB teams are rearranged somewhat in order to fill each of the team's rosters with the players sent by the MLB franchises.
The National Division won the game over the American Division by a final score of 7-6 thanks to a bases loaded walk issued by Detroit Tigers/Mesa Solar Sox' prospect reliever Casey Fien to Cincinnati Reds/Peoria Javelinas' prospect LF Drew Stubbs on a full count with one out.
The ending was fitting considering the National Division's unusual late game comeback.
New York Yankees/Javelinas pitcher Phil Hughes got the start for the the National Division and promptly got smoked in the second inning by two long Home Runs by San Diego Padres/Peoria Saguaros LF Chad Huffman and Boston Red Sox/Scottsdale Scorpions]] CF Josh Reddick in the second inning to give the American Division a 4-0 lead.
Atlanta Braves/Solar Sox pitcher Tommy Hanson was the starter for the American Division and he was very impressive. He has been the most dominant pitcher in the AFL so far this season. He pitched 3 innings on this night allowing no hits, giving up only two walks and whiffing seven hitters. His pitches were moving, his fastball was popping and he clearly established himself as a star for the future. Hanson's name has been dnagled in many a trade rumor including the most recent offer by the Braves for Padres' hurler Jake Peavy. The scouts were paying heavy attention to Hanson.
After the starting pitchers exited the game, a wave of relievers held the game in check as the American Division maintained it's 4-0 lead until Toronto Blue Jays/Phoenix Desert Dogs catcher J.P. Arencibia swiftly deposited the first pitch he saw from [[Chicago Cubs/Solar Sox pitcher Rocky Roquet onto the outfield berm in left-center field to get the National Division on the board at 4-1.
In the top of the seventh, Josh Reddick led off with a double, moved to third on a ground out and scored on an error by Pittsburgh Pirates/Scorpions 2B Shelby Ford to extend the American Division's lead.
After coercing Seattle Mariners/Saguaros 18 year old phenom shortstop Carlos Triunfel into popping out, the wheels came off. Hinshaw surrendered a walk to J.P. Arencibia, a single to Cleveland Indians/Surprise Rafters 1B Beau Mills, another walk to Cleveland Indians/Rafters DH Wes Hodges before hitting Kansas City Royals/Rafters RF Joe Dickerson with a pitch to push across the second run of the game for the National Division.
Hinshaw was relieved by New York Mets/Saguaros' 6'5" 250lb righty Eddie Kunz who promptly allowed a sac fly, and a walk sandwiched between two hits allowing 4 more runs to cross the plate for the blown save before heading into the 9th with his team down 6-5.
In the top of the ninth, the American Division, Shelby Ford led off with a single off Milwaukee Brewers/Javelinas closer Omar Aguilar, stole second was moved to third on an infield grounder and scored on a one out single by Mets/Saguaros catcher Josh Thole to tie the score heading to the bottom of the ninth.
The bottom of the ninth was thrilling. Detroit Tigers/Solar Sox closer Casey Fien came in to keep the game in tact. The madness began as J.P. Arencibia led off with his second hit of the night, a single. Beau Mills followed him with a single and then Wes Hodges came up to bat with the intention of bunting the runners along. He didn't get the bunt attempt down but then swung at the second pitch ripping it into LF between the 3B and SS. As Arebcibia rounded third and headed for home, Los Angeles Angels/Scorpions LF Chris Pettit fielded the ball and fired to home. Josh Thole fielded the ball on a hop and *bang-bang* Arencibia slammed into the Mets catcher, who held on register the first out. The baserunners advanced to second and third respectively on the throw.
Joe Dickerson was intentionally walked to load the bases and preserve the force at home. The outfield was brought in to make a play at the plate on a base hit and to prevent any bloopers from falling in.
Drew Stubbs came to the plate with the bases loaded and only one out. Casey Fien made his first pitch low for Ball One. He followed with two more pitches out of the strike zone to run the count to 3-0. Stubbs took a fat strike on the fourth pitch and on the three-one count also took another strike.
With a full count in the bottom of the ninth, Drew Stubbs gripped his bat tightly and readied himself to protect the zone. Casey Fien walked behind the mound and gathered his composure. The game was coming down to this pitch.
It was a fastball - at the knees but just a little bit inside, maybe even a little bit of a strike, but it was called "ball four" and the National Division walked away with a thrilling win in the cool Sonoran Desert air in front of a crowd of 2,765 paying attendees.
Notes and Observations
- Before the game, longtime MLB Umpire and AFL contributor Rich Garcia was awarded the Roland Hemond Award for AFL Meritous Service. Twenty nine former AFL umpires have gone on to make calls in MLB including four of the umpires on this year's World Series crew. Garcia gave a sincere speech after which the crowd gave him a hefty applause which might be the first time in history any umpire was applauded!
- Tommy Hanson is really, really good. Even if the Braves don't trade him, they won't be sorry.
- The 2008 Manny Stiles' AFL Player Slobberfest Award goes to J.P. Arencibia. He's a total stud of a player and if I wasn't already so gay (deliriously delighted, that is) about baseball talent, I'd consider becoming homosexual for his skillset and tools. (I refuse to use the word "Mancrush" because THAT is truly gay.)
- In all seriousness, I've seen him play four times before the Rising Stars game: he throws from his knees and has a cannon of an arm - from his knees!!! He has a very refined approach at the plate and has plus power to all fields - evidenced by his over-the-bullpens oppo bomb at Mesa. I also videotaped his HR at the Rising Stars game but unfortunately, a young child decided it was a perfect time to walk in front of me as it was happening so the frame is shaky. (I have about 4 GB of 2008 AFL game action so far)
- After the game I talked with him about the game and specifically about the 9th inning play at the plate. He said he wanted to "play hard and win but don't want to hurt anyone" especially in a developmental league in an exhibition game like this. And by all means his collision at home was as clean as it was hard. He's a catcher, too and recognizes and virtues of hard play and certainly respects the game. He has that "baseball aura" about him, he carries himself with confidence and certainly is gracious with the fans and media. He has the whole package.
- Reminder: 2007 Manny Stiles' AFL Player Slobberfest Award went to Evan Longoria for whatever that is worth...
- Florida Marlins/Solar Sox 6'8" 240lb lefty Sean West was quite impressive in his inning of work. He struck out three batters and walked two, but only one pitch was even grazed by a bat. He has the proverbial "electric" stuff. And despite only 11 of his 20 pitches going for strikes he wasn't neccessarily "wild". A few of his pitches were clocked at 96 and his slider was a very mean 88 and 89 mph.
- Red Sox/Scorpions CF Josh Reddick had a HR, a double and 2 RBI but everything he made contact with was hit very hard.
- The Baltimore Orioles have two of the best prospects in baseball at AFL this year. Wonderkind catcher Matt Wieters was the Orioles first round pick in 2007 (#5 overall)Minor League Player of the Year after batting .355-27-91 in only 130 games in 2008. he didn't do much in the rising stars game with the bat mostly because he was pitched around and at 6'5" and 230lbs, I'm not sure how long he'll remain a catcher but he is going to be a VERY good major leaguer for sure.
- Their 2008 #1 draft pick (4th overall) lefty pitcher Brian Matusz won't be far behind Weiters in their trek to the bigs. Matusz has some plain ole' nasty movement and tremendous command. He might end up as the best pitcher to come out of the 2008 draft. He has plus stuff and a solid understanding on how to keep hitters off balance.
- As if the AL East wasn't tough already, the Yankees also showcased their CF of the future, Austin Jackson in the Rising Stars game. The Rays were represented by reliever Ryan Reid who struck out two in his inning of work.
- Rangers/Rafters OF Julio Borbon went 3-3 in the game with one RBI.
- Mariners/Javelinas SS Carlos Triunfel is the youngest player in the AFL at 18 years old. He plays like he's a seasoned MLB vet. He has a VERY slick glove, great footwork and a gun for an arm. At the plate, he has pretty good discipline and makes quality contact. From what I've seen from him so far, he has the makings of a future star. However, his body looks like he'll be a corner infielder of corner outfielder before long. He's listed at 5'11" 175lbs but when he grows into his body he'll be a lot meatier. Even though he plays older than his birth certificate, he can't fake his babyface. He might be a few years away but the Mariners have a blue chipper in him.