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SURPRISE, Ariz.—It would be understandable to assume that the Arizona Fall League’s annual Fall Stars Game at Surprise Stadium was dominated by hitters, with the two all-star teams combining for 16 runs in a game won, 12-4, by the West squad. But it was the pitching that made the difference in this contest—the West team had it and the East team didn’t.
Honeywell, the Rays’ No. 2 prospect, started the game for the home team and turned in his best performance of the fall and perhaps as good as he’s thrown all season. The 21-year-old righthander fanned five of the six batters he faced in two perfect innings, consistently fooling hitters with his high-70s mph screwball and a fastball touching 98. Three of his strikeouts came on fastballs, two on screwballs and one on a 77 mph changeup to Athletics shortstop Franklin Barreto.
After a slow start to his AFL season, Honeywell credits several changes he made to help him right the ship more recently.
“I didn’t really think too much into it, about the first two starts,” Honeywell said. “I told myself I needed to make better pitches, better fastball location, because everything plays off your fastball command . . . I didn’t have very much feel for my offspeed stuff either, but I worked hard getting back in the swing of things.”
Kopech followed Honeywell in the West rotation, immediately getting the crowd buzzing by lighting up the scoreboard radar gun with a 100 mph fastball on his first pitch. The Red Sox’s No. 4 prospect was asked before the game if he was anticipating putting triple digits up on the board during his stint.
“I don’t know if I’m necessarily looking forward to it,” Kopech said. “I know it’s there if I need it and I’m sure the crowd will enjoy it, but I’m just worried about getting outs.”
Kopech matched Honeywell’s two perfect innings with a pair of his own. All three of his punchouts came on called third strikes, each on 94-96 mph heaters. For the night, the fastball ranged from 94 to 101 mph and he complemented it with an 89 mph slider and a hard changeup at 91.
His performance in the Fall Stars Game reflected what Kopech came into the AFL looking to improve.
“I worked on a lot of stuff since I’ve been here,” Kopech said, “the main thing being fastball command and throwing the changeup in fastball counts. It’s been good to get consistent with the third pitch and that’s something that will work well next year and be another tool for me.”
Kopech missed more than two months at the beginning of the season after a spring training altercation with a teammate resulted in a broken hand, but he believes that the time on the sidelines was not wasted.
“I’m big on the mental side of the game and we have a very good mental skills coach in Justin Su’a,” Kopech said. “He sat down with me almost every day the whole time I was out and we just talked about things and he got me not only to where I was more confident in myself but ready for a comeback.”
By the time Honeywell and Kopech were done, the West had rolled out to a commanding 8-0 lead.
When the two star righthanders weren’t mowing down hitters, there were plenty of hard-hit balls, including a bases-clearing double my Padres outfielder Michael Gettys, giving the West team their first big lead. Ryan McMahon (Rockies), Cody Bellinger (Dodgers) and Christin Stewart (Tigers) each homered, but the real offensive star of the game was Fall Star MVP Willie Calhoun. The Dodgers second baseman consistently barreled up balls no matter who was on the mound, going 3-for-3 with a homer and three RBIs.
“They were throwing into my strengths tonight,” Calhoun said. “I was just trying to go up there with a really good plan and being able to see as much pitches as I can, and that’s what I was able to do tonight . . . I was able to put the barrel on a few balls.”
Anderson Has Stepped Up
Marlins third baseman Brian Anderson, who collected a hit in his two Fall Stars at-bats, could be forgiven if he doesn’t have real good memories of past games on the Surprise Recreational Complex. His Arkansas team played in an early season college tournament here in 2013, coming in with a 7-1 record before getting swept in four games against Arizona State, Gonzaga and Pacific. To add insult to injury, Anderson took a bad hop grounder off the noggin in this stadium on opening day of this Fall League season.
But the Surprise jinx hasn’t affected Anderson’s performance this fall, as Anderson—who has also played first base here—has been one of the league’s biggest surprises with a .367/.426/.592 slash line and three home runs.
“I’ve really just been trying to get good pitches to hit and not missing them,” Anderson said. “I’m not doing anything different than what I usually do . . . This year I came out here with a little more confidence in my ability and I’m just trusting it and trying to have fun.”
Anderson finished his regular season with the Marlins’ Double-A affiliate in Jacksonville of the Southern League, which recently was rebranded as the Jumbo Shrimp. If he winds up back there for the start of the 2017, Anderson is not at all concerned with the team’s new logo.
“I love it . . . I love the Jumbo Shrimp,” Anderson said. “It’s different, it’s unique, and it’s something you always get with minor league baseball teams. I like it, I think the logo’s cool . . . I love it!”
Diamondbacks’ Miller A Surprise
Diamondbacks lefthander Jared Miller has been one of the AFL’s more dominating arms this fall. Standing 6-feet-7 and weighing 240 pounds, the Salt River Rafter hurler’s 93 mph fastball plays up because of his size. Coming into the Fall Stars Game, Miler had not given up a run in 13 innings, dominating hitters with a microscopic 0.38 WHIP and an outstanding 24-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Working almost exclusively with his 81-83 mph slider in the Fall Stars Game, Miller struck out the last three batters he faced after giving up a two-run homer to Bellinger. But don’t get the idea that Miller was nervous with a crowd of 5,344 at Surprise Stadium. The Vanderbilt alum is used to performing in front of much larger crowds during his Commodores career.
“None of the stadiums phase you, especially getting to Triple-A this year,” Miller said. “Some of the stadiums would pack out. I’m really not intimidated with a stage anymore. That’s one of the blessings of playing in the SEC—you get to play at Mississippi State, you get to play at LSU, you get to play at Arkansas, you get to go to TD Ameritrade (Omaha site of the College World Series) . . . All it does is benefit you moving forward.”
Miller has also been quite evident as one of the loudest and most noticeable cheerleaders in the Salt River dugout when he’s not pitching, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by Fall League fans.
“I’ve always been a high energy guy,” Miller said. “I feel that can rub off on guys and I can help guys after bad at-bats . . . get locked back into the game. I can help keep the guys on the bench locked in on the game. I just like to try to use my energy and my positivity to help my teammates enjoy their days at the ballpark.”
Back Together For A Night
Scottsdale infielder Gleyber Torres (Yankees) and Mesa outfielder Eloy Jimenez (Cubs) were once again teammates for one night in the Fall Stars Game. The duo were part of the Cubs’ July 2nd international class in 2013 and began their pro careers together in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2014.
But their relationship changed this summer when Torres was the centerpiece of the lucrative prospect package traded by the Cubs to the Yankees for closer Aroldis Chapman. While Torres is now the Yankees’ top prospect, it’s a deal that the Cubs won’t regret after capturing the franchise’s first World Series crown since 1908.
“It’s really fun because he’s like my brother,” Jimenez said when asked about having Torres again for one night. “It’s really good to be back with him and playing together.”
“I feel so great and happy because he’s my brother,” Torres said. “Right now I feel so happy and excited to again be together and just enjoy this night.”
While Torres was no longer a member of the Cubs organization during the postseason, he was still able to root on his former team and feel like he had indirectly contributed to the championship. He said that he watched every game and was so happy for the Cubs.
Jimenez, meanwhile, is excited to be part of the Cubs future and eager to contribute to the big league team’s future success.
“It was really nice watching the guys win the World Series,” Jimenez said. “I try to work hard to be there, maybe next year or in two years, and try to win another World Series.”
While Jimenez and Torres both went hitless in the Fall Stars Game, they are among the better prospects in the league. Jimenez makes consistent hard contact, hitting three home runs to date with a .277/.358/.532 line. Torres also has gone deep three times and has put up even more robust stats with a .300/.451/.575 line.