SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—This year’s Arizona Fall League championship resembled a close political election, with the result being contested and a subsequent delay until a winner was finally declared. Twenty minutes after the last out, the Peoria Javelinas were confirmed as the 2012 AFL champs by defeating the Salt River Rafters, 4-3, in front of 3,411 fans at Scottsdale Stadium.
The controversial play occurred in the bottom of the sevrenth inning with Salt River trailing by a run. Rafters lead-off hitter Brian Goodwin (Nationals) smoked a line drive triple to the right center gap. Chris Owings (Diamondbacks) then flew out to right field, with Goodwin beating a strong throw to home by Rymer Liriano (Padres) for what looked like the tying run. The home plate umpire signaled the runner safe after Peoria catcher Mike Zunino (Mariners) stepped on home in case Goodwin had missed the plate, and that call was followed by an appeal at third base arguing that the runner tagged up before the ball was caught.
The umpires conferred before correctly declaring Goodwin out for leaving third early, which brought a protest by Salt River manager Matt Williams, arguing that two different appeals could not be made on the same play. After arguing his point, Williams notified the umpires that he was playing the game under protest.
The umpires conferred after the game with Steve Palermo, Major League Baseball’s supervisor of umpires, who was in attendance, and it was ruled that multiple appeals can be made on the same play. AFL director Steve Cobb finally announced to both teams and the remaining crowd that the protest was not upheld.
The Rafters also came close to tying the game in the bottom of the eighth with another lead-off triple, this time off the bat of Anthony Rendon (Nationals) on a ball nearly caught by Peoria center fielder Billy Hamilton (Reds), who was injured on the play and had to be removed from the game. Rendon was thrown out at home plate on the next at-bat on Carlos Sanchez’s (White Sox) soft grounder back to pitcher Curtis Partch (Reds).
“To win a championship or to win a league title, it takes the ball to bounce your way,” said Javelinas manager Dusty Wathan. “The ball bounced our way the last couple of innings . . . back-to-back triples to start innings, you would assume that they are going to score at least one of those times. We were lucky enough to hold them from scoring.”
All seven runs came in the game’s first three innings, with Peoria jumping out to an early 2-0 lead that it never lost. The Rafters’ first big threat came in the bottom of the second, when they scored one run but left the bases loaded after Owings was called out on strikes.
Hamilton, whose injury turned out to be back spasms suffered when hitting the wall, was one of three offensive catalysts at the top of Peoria order. The switch-hitting outfielder, who led all of minor league baseball with 155 stolen bases during the regular season, tripled to lead off the game, scoring the game’s first run two batters later on Zunino’s RBI single. Hamilton also reached first base in his second at-bat with a bunt single in which he was timed at 3.45 seconds down the line.
Nate Roberts (Twins) reached base four times, with three singles and a walk.
Zunino also singled three times and drove in two runs. Liriano (Padres), batting in the fifth spot for Peoria, went 3-for-3 with a walk.
Goodwin, Owings, Sanchez and Kent Matthes (Rockies) each had two hits for Salt River.
Neither starting pitcher was effective. Salt River’s Ryan Perry (Nationals), who has converted to starting after reaching the big leagues quickly as a reliever with the Tigers, gave up all four Peoria runs on eight hits and two walks in three innings. Javelinas starter Tim Crabbe (Reds) lasted 2 2/3 innings, yielding three runs on six hits and one walk, and was awarded the win. Six relievers combined to throw six scoreless innings, with AFL saves leader Kevin Quackenbush (Padres) pitching a perfect ninth inning for the save.
Wathan was pleased with his team’s performance in the game, acknowledging that the players are tired by this point in the year.
“It’s been a long season. These guys have been through a lot,” Wathan said. “When it comes down to it, that’s why these guys have made it to the level that they are at—their competitive nature. They’re all tired mentally and physically but (they) came out and put on a good show for the fans.”
Zunino, the Mariners’ first round draft choice, especially had a long season that started in mid-February with his junior year at the University of Florida, where he earned College Player of the Year honors. In addition to this championship game, Zunino also played in the College World Series and later in the Double-A Southern League playoffs.
“You always want to make an impact, especially when it’s the last game of the season,” Zunino said. “No matter how much you’re running on empty, the last game of the season always gets a little adrenaline going, especially when it’s a championship caliber game. I was just going up there to have good at-bats, and I was able to get pitches I could handle.”
While Hamilton’s injury initially looked potentially serious, he was celebrating with his teammates and signing autographs for the fans after the game.
“I’m the type of guy that likes to catch everything,” Hamilton said. “I felt like if I had a good jump on it, I had a good chance at it. I jumped up and hit the wall, bent my back a little bit. I’m feeling good now though. The trainers do a real good job of taking care of me.”
• Chris McGuiness (Rangers) of the Surprise Saguaros was presented with the Joe Black MVP Award as the AFL’s Most Valuable Player. The lefthanded hitting first baseman batted .283/.370/.474, leading the league in RBIs with 27.
“I always wanted to come out here and play in the Fall League,” McGuiness said before the championship game. “To be lucky enough to win an MVP trophy, it’s a great honor.”
• Righthander Cole Kimball (Nationals) 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.
• Nate Roberts (Twins) led all AFL hitters with a .446 batting average, .565 on-base percentage, and .662 slugging percentage.
“I was definitely seeing the ball well,” Roberts said. “I played the last two years in Beloit and some of the ballparks are kind of difficult to see. Here, great batters eyes, great places to hit, and pitchers throw strikes here, so I was able to see a lot of strikes and hit a lot of strikes. The ball just happened to drop for me quite a bit here.”
Roberts, a 2010 fifth-round pick out of High Point, was also noted by fellow players and fans for having the best mustache in the league, long before the current “Movember” movement. He even gave the mustache a little credit for his success.
“It’s just something I started,” Roberts said. “I was injured for a while (during the regular season) and I told myself that if I was to play again I’d rock the ‘stache, so that’s why I’m doing it. I tried to shave it one time and I couldn’t, so it’s got some kind of power over me.”
• While most observers expected Billy Hamilton to lead the AFL in stolen bases this fall, the Reds prospect actually came up one short, with the title going to Salt River infielder Carlos Sanchez (White Sox) with 11 thefts. The native of Venezuela said through an interpreter that he worked hard this fall with Rafters hitting coach Jon Nunnally on getting better leads and studying the pitchers and their moves to home and to first base.
• Kyle Jensen (Marlins) and Kent Matthes (Rockies) tied for the league lead in home runs with five. Southpaw Justin Marks (Royals) led all pitchers with five wins. Jimmy Reyes (Rangers) was the leader in ERA at 0.68 and Quackenbush earned the most saves (six).