The players and contributing organizations may change each season, but the Phoenix Desert Dogs continue to dominate the Arizona Fall League. Consisting of prospects from the Athletics, Devil Rays, Blue Jays, Tigers and Reds, the Phoenix team this time around captured its third straight championship on Saturday by defeating the Grand Canyon Rafters, 6-2, in front of 1,181 fans at Scottsdale Stadium.
The way in which the Desert Dogs, representing the AFL’™s East Division, won the championship game was indicative of the way they played all season.
“We got the hits when we needed them,” manager Tony DeFrancesco said. “We had the number one pitching in the league and the number one defense, and we came out and proved that’™s what it takes. In games like this, it’™s going to take a mistake or a big hit . . . they made the first mistake and we took advantage of it.”
The Desert Dogs made the most of their four hits, getting on the board with three unearned runs on only one hit, a Fernando Perez (Devil Rays) two-run single off Rafter starter, and losing pitcher, A..J. Murray (Rangers) in the third inning. Perez’™s hit came after Rafter shortstop Fernando Cortez (Royals) threw wildly on an attempted double play; the speedy outfielder later scored when second baseman Craig Stansberry (Pirates) misplayed a ground ball off the bat of Ben Zobrist (Devil Rays).
Grand Canyon got on the board in the top of the fifth after Desert Dog starter Virgil Vasquez (Tigers), the game’™s winning pitcher, held the Rafters hitless through the first four innings. Jeff Fiorentino (Orioles) led off the fifth with a single, advanced to second on a ground out, and scored on Cortez’™s double to right field.
Vasquez, who was slated to stay in the game for 75 pitches, was nearly pulled after Cortez’™s hit due to cramping in his leg and fingers, but toughed it out to complete the fifth inning.
The Desert Dogs countered in the bottom of the fifth with two more runs. After a pair of Rafter pitchers loaded the bases on walks, Brent Clevlen (Tigers) stroked a two-out, line drive single to center field, scoring Drew Anderson (Reds) and Zobrist.
Grand Canyon scored its second run in the top of the sixth inning off new Phoenix pitcher Kyle Yates (Blue Jays) on Joe Koshansky’™s (Rockies) two-out single, plating Adam Donachie (Royals), who had led off the inning with a double down the left field line.
The Rafters last chance to get back in the game fizzled in the top of the eighth when Fiorentino flew out to center field with a pair of runners in scoring position.
Clevlen, who paced the Desert Dogs offense with two of the four hits and three RBIs, put the game further out of reach with the game’™s only home run, a blast to right field off Nick McCurdy (Orioles) on a first pitch fastball to lead off the bottom of the eighth.
Righthander Tracy Thorpe (Blue Jays) retired the Rafters in order in the ninth to preserve the victory for Phoenix.
Vasquez, whose line on the day was impressive (5 IPs, 2 H, 1 R, 4 Ks, 0 BBs), was sorry to see the AFL season end. Prior to the championship game, Vasquez had 24 consecutive scoreless innings during the regular season.
“I had fun out here,” the righthander, who pitched at Double-A Erie during the regular season said. “We had a great team. I kept telling the guys before the game that I wish we could have this team during the season because we had so much fun together . . . If you have fun and stay loose, you’™re going to succeed as a team.”
• Braves infielder Yunel Escobar surpassed Giants infielder Kevin Frandsen in the last two games of the season to capture the league batting crown. The Cuban native, who was a member of the Peoria Javelinas squad, finished with a .407 average; Frandsen went hitless in his last two games to finish at .388. Zobrist batted .366, good for third place, and was followed by Chip Cannon (Blue Jays) at .352.
Cannon, who will be presented with the league MVP award at the MLB Winter Meetings in December, lead the league in three categories: home runs (11), RBIs (29) and slugging percentage (.714). Frandsen was the leader in on-base average at .480. Eric Patterson (Cubs) had the most stolen bases with 15.
• Blue Jays righthander Kyle Yates topped all pitchers in strikeouts with 25. Leo Rosales (Padres) finished with a league-leading seven saves.
• Frandsen was honored with the 2006 Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award, in recognition of the AFL player who best exemplifies unselfishness, hard work and leadership. The award is named for the one-time Boston and Cincinnati player who was tragically murdered during the 2003 AFL season. Also nominated were Chase Headley (Padres), J.C. Holt (Braves), Jesse Ingram (Rangers), Matt Tolbert (Twins) and Zobrist.