Surprise's bats meet Mesa's arms in AFL title game
League's highest-scoring offense, stingiest pitching staff battle for championship
After clinching the Arizona Fall League East Division on Monday, Surprise held off on celebrating its accomplishment.
"There's no celebration today," third baseman Garin Cecchini said at the time. "Hopefully if we keep playing the way we're playing, we'll have a good celebration Saturday."
On Thursday, when Mesa held off a late charge from Salt River to win the AFL West Division on the season's final day, it, too, abstained from reveling in its victory.
"I don't think we're having [a celebration]," third baseman Kris Bryant said. "We're focused on the championship. Win that one, I'm sure we'll have one."
Both Surprise and Mesa will get their chance to earn a celebration Saturday afternoon. They will meet in the AFL Championship Game at 3 p.m. ET at Scottsdale Stadium. There will be plenty of talent on the field, as the teams have a combined eight players on MLB.com's Top 100 prospects list.
The teams enter Saturday's game with identical 18-12-1 records, but have different strengths. Surprise had the league's highest-scoring offense, while Mesa allowed the fewest runs in the league.
The Saguaros have not won a championship since 1995, when the franchise was located in Mesa. This year, Surprise is led by center fielder Tyler Naquin and Jorge Alfaro. Naquin, the Indians' No. 5 prospect, led the AFL with 39 hits and began the season on a 13-game hitting streak. Alfaro, the Rangers' top prospect, finished second in the league in hitting with a .386 average.
The Saguaros' pitching staff has been bolstered by a strong bullpen. Left-hander Tim Berry and right-hander Noe Ramirez both posted sub-2.00 ERAs while serving as a bridge to the back end of the 'pen. Right-hander David Goforth, the Brewers' No. 17 prospect, led the team with four saves in 12 appearances.
Mesa led the league in ERA thanks in large part to its strong starting pitching. The club's four main starters -- right-hander Dallas Beeler and left-handers Matt Purke, Sammy Solis and Michael Roth -- combined for a 2.94 ERA.
But the Solar Sox's hitters won't be overshadowed. First baseman C.J. Cron, the Angels' No. 2 prospect, won the batting title this fall with a .413 average. Bryant, the Cubs' No. 4 prospect, led the league with six home runs and a 1.184 OPS.
The Solar Sox are hoping to win their first AFL title since 2003, and fifth overall. After finishing the season on a six-game winning streak, Bryant said they are ready for one more game.
"Anytime you play baseball, you want to be the last one on the field," he said. "A lot of us are swinging the bats well, and our pitchers are throwing strikes. We're pretty confident going into Saturday."
Mesa won its last two games against Surprise and holds a 4-3 advantage in the season series. Even before the Solar Sox won their division, Saguaros manager Gary Kendall said he knew his team would be facing a tough opponent in the championship game.
"Whoever we see, it's going to be a good ballclub and somebody that has beaten us before," Kendall said. "So we're going to have to step it up and play good baseball."
Throughout the fall, the Saguaros have said they quickly came together as a team. They believe their camaraderie has been one of the keys to their success.
Similarly, the Solar Sox credit manager Bill Richardson for setting the right tone in their clubhouse to keep them loose and focused. Cron said now they want to make sure they leave Arizona as champions.
"We want to win this thing," Cron said. "We've played a month and a half of baseball, and no matter how short the season is, it [stinks] to lose. We're going out there trying to win a ring and have fun and win some games."
A long season that began in Spring Training and extended deep into November is nearly complete. But, for one more day, the offseason can wait.
"It's the championship game. We have a good, fun team," Alfaro said. "How can you not be looking forward to it?"