BY BILL MITCHELL
PHOENIX—The Arizona Fall League championship game was supposed to be the occasion for No. 1 overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg to lead the Phoenix Desert Dogs to their sixth straight league championship in front of a national TV audience.
Instead, local product C.J. Retherford (White Sox), who went undrafted in 2007 after the end of his career at Arizona State, turned himself into the unlikely hero of the game. Retherford’s two-run homer off Desert Dog reliever Josh Perrault (Orioles) in the bottom of the eighth inning gave the Peoria Javelinas a dramatic 5-4 victory for the AFL title.
Retherford hit a middle-in fastball on a 1-0 count for his winning blast. The home run capped a great day for Retherford, which saw the Peoria second baseman involved in four of the five Javelina runs.
"My family is here," said Retherford in a postgame interview just before getting doused by his teammates with a cooler of water. "It’s awesome to be able to do it in Arizona and play at a high level."
Robbie Weinhardt (Tigers), in his second inning of relief, retired the Desert Dogs 1-2-3 in the ninth for the win. The righthanded reliever, who led the AFL in strikeouts with 29 in 18 1/3 innings, fanned four batters in his two-inning stint. He was relying primarily on his fastball, as he said after the game that his breaking ball wasn’t working as well as usual.
Strasburg was originally scheduled to get the start for the Desert Dogs, but the Nationals prospect twisted his knee during pregame practice prior to Thursday’s regular season finale. He returned to Arizona after yesterday’s medical examination just in time to watch the championship game from the Phoenix dugout.
The Desert Dogs got on the scoreboard early when Matt Angle (Orioles) led off the game with a triple off Javelina starter Anthony Varvaro (Mariners), scoring one batter late on a Danny Espinosa (Nationals) ground ball out.
The Javelinas took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the secondnd off Desert Dog starter Mitch Talbot (Rays) on Retherford’s force out grounder, followed three batters later by a bases-loaded infield single by Dustin Ackley (Mariners), who was drafted one pick after Strasburg back in June.
Phoenix regained the lead in the top of the fourth on solo homers off Peoria reliever Scot Drucker (Tigers) by Grant Desme (Athletics), the league’s home run leader, and Nevin Ashley (Rays).
Retherford was again in on the scoring as the Javelinas tied the game at three each in the bottom of the fourth inning, scoring from third base on a force out grounder by Jordan Danks (White Sox).
The game remained tied until the top of the seventh when Ashley scored from third on Shawn O’Malley’s (Rays) single up the middle.
After Weinhardt struck out the side in the top of the eighth, the stage was set for Retherford’s heroics.
Perrault came on for the Desert Dogs, striking out Casper Wells (Tigers) for the first out. Jonathan Lucroy (Brewers) followed with a line-drive single to left field, bringing Retherford to the plate. After taking ball one, Retherford pounded Perrault’s fastball deep into the left-field corner to give the Javelinas their 5-4 lead.
Weinhardt, the sixth Peoria pitcher, retired the first two batters on groundballs before fanning Jemile Weeks (A’s) to seal the Javelinas victory, their fifth AFL championship in the league’s 18-year history.
"With the offense we had, if our pitching could hold them to five or less runs we had a chance," said Peoria manager Kevin Bradshaw, infield coordinator for the Detroit Tigers. "C.J. stepped up and got that big home run for us, and Robbie shut the door on them."
• Javelinas infielder Russ Mitchell (Dodgers) was presented with the AFL’s Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award prior to the championship game. The award, named in memory of the former AFL player who was murdered in 2003 while a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions, has been given annually since 2004 to the league’s player who best exemplifies unselfishness, hard work and leadership. Mitchell hit .319/.396/.606, with five home runs for the Javelinas. He hit the first professional home run yielded by Strasburg on Oct. 22.
• Desme was presented with the Joe Black MVP Award as the AFL’s Most Valuable Player. The right-handed hitting outfielder hit .315/.413/.667 with a league-leading 11 home runs. He ranked second in the league in RBIs with 27. Corey Brown (A’s) surpassed his Phoenix teammate Desme with a late-season rush to lead the league with 28 RBIs. Third baseman Brent Morel (White Sox), who replaced the injured Dayan Viciedo two weeks into the season, led the league with a .435 batting average. Shortstop Chase D’Arnaud (Pirates) was the leading base stealer with 13.
• Strasburg led all pitchers in wins with four; teammate Drew Storen (Nationals) was the league’s top reliever with four saves.