SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—The bases were loaded, thanks in part to his own error. His team, the Surprise Saguaros, had a 1-0 sixth-inning lead, but lefthander Tim Berry would have to retire the Arizona Fall League’s MVP and the Mesa Solar Sox’s cleanup hitter and league batting champion to preserve the lead.
“The whole inning was moving really fast,” the Orioles farmhand said. “It’s rare when you have all your pitches working, and it’s rare when you have none of your pitches working. That’s how it was for me; nothing was working, and next thing you know, there’s first and second, and then I make the error.”
With the sacks jacked, Berry faced Kris Bryant (Cubs), whose six home runs led the AFL, and C.J. Cron, who hit .413 this fall. But he was able to retire both, Bryant on a foul popup to first base, and Cron on a swinging strikeout, to escape the threat.
Three innings later, Berry and his fellow Saguaros celebrated their championship as they defeated the Solar Sox 2-0 for the first title in the nickname’s history since 1995.
The Saguaros have shifted from Mesa to Maryvale and now to Surprise, and the affiliated major league clubs have changed over the years, so the significance of the title in Saguaros’ lore is certainly debatable. But the victory did mean something to players such as Berry, who pitched only the scoreless sixth, one of six Surprise pitchers who combined to hold the Solar Sox to five hits. The Saguaros rushed out from the dugout and bullpen to celebrate around the pitcher’s mound after David Goforth (Brewers) struck out Steven Souza (Nationals) to end the game.
“I’ve never played on a winning team, really,” said Berry, a 50th-round pick in 2009 out of San Marcos (Calif.) High. “I’ve seen other teams celebrate like that but I’ve never been in one. It’s actually pretty fun once you’re in the middle of one.”
Fellow Orioles farmhand Henry Urrutia had two doubles to pace Surprise’s offense and scored the game’s first run. He doubled to right-center field in the bottom of the second with two outs off Dallas Beeler (Cubs), then came home to score on a single to center by Jorge Alfaro (Rangers).
“I hit two fastballs,” Urrutia said through translator Jonathan Schoop (Orioles). “When I got up this morning, I told myself I was going to be aggressive if I had pitches to hit, and I was able to get some pitches and do that today, and I hit it hard twice and got two doubles.
“I’d been tired a little bit here because it’s a long season. But I got in the gym the last couple of weeks and felt pretty good today, I felt strong, and we had a good game.”
Alfaro also shined defensively from behind the plate. Well-regarded for his throwing arm, which earns 70 grades from scouts, he threw a laser to second to catch Souza trying to steal. He also nabbed Devon Travis in the top of the fourth inning.
“It’s huge to have a catcher who’s with you like that, because as a pitcher, you’re not alone,” Berry said. “When the bases were loaded, he came out and talked to me and took me through how to go after Bryant, and we were able to execute that pitch, and it got me back on track. The at-bat against Cron was a tough at-bat, but he’s just a great catcher to throw to and helped get me through that inning.
“He’s just a great all-around player. He can hit, he can catch, and he’s just a lot of fun to watch throw.”
Surprise got an insurance run in the eighth on a single by Schoop, who ultimately scored on Mookie Betts’ single. Goforth followed with his scoreless inning, completing the work started by lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez (Orioles), who threw three scoreless frames and was followed by Tyler Cravy (Brewers), Berry, Noe Ramirez (Red Sox) and Keone Kela (Rangers).
Beeler tossed five fine innings in the losing effort, giving up just the two hits and one walk while striking out five.
Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft who led the league with six home runs and a .727 slugging percentage while batting .364, was named the AFL’s Joe Black Award winner as MVP. It was a strong finish to a long season for Bryant, who also was Baseball America’s College Player of the Year and was named the Golden Spikes Award winner by USA Baseball after his spring season at San Diego.
Red Sox farmhand Gerin Cecchini won the Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship award. The award, instituted in 2004 in memory of former Red Sox farmhand Dernell Stenson, is presented annually to the AFL player who best exemplifies unselfishness, hard work and leadership. Stenson was killed in Arizona while playing in the AFL in 2003.