SURPRISE, Ariz.—Brett Nicholas was an unlikely candidate to star in the Arizona Fall League's annual Fall Stars Game, won by the AFL West squad, 9-2, before a record crowd of 6,529 at Surprise Stadium and a MLB Network audience.
With many of minor league baseball's top prospects in the game—names like Byron Buxton, Kris Bryant, Corey Seager, Kyle Crick, Jorge Soler and others—it was the unheralded Nicholas, a Rangers farmhand, who earned Most Valuable Player honors by homering twice and singling in four at-bats to help lead the AFL West to the victory.
The graduate of Phoenix’s Pinnacle High School, who had between 30 and 40 friends and family members on hand, took advantage of a couple of mistake pitches from the AFL East hurlers. Nicholas' long bombs, both pulled to right field, came off Cam Bedrosian (Angels) and Jeurys Familia (Mets).
"I was just trying to stay patient up there," Nicholas said. "Both the balls that I was fortunate enough to hit out were cutter/sliders, and they just left them middle in. Luckily I didn't try to do too much. The pitchers out here are incredible; I was able to take advantage of the mistakes fortunately enough."
Nicholas, who was drafted by the Rangers out of Missouri as a catcher, spent most of the regular season at Double-A Frisco as a first baseman. He indicated that he'll head to the Rangers complex in the Dominican Republic right after the AFL season ends in order to brush up on his skills behind the plate.
Stefen Romero (Mariners), like Nicholas a native of Arizona, also homered twice for the winners, and Garin Cecchini (Red Sox) accounted for the West's final run with a solo shot in the bottom of the 8th. Third baseman Colin Moran (Marlins) reached base safely in all three of his at-bats, singling twice and walking one time. Tyler Naquin (Indians) kick-started the West offense by tripling with one out in the bottom of the third and scored the first run of the game one batter later when Buxton hit a grounder through the legs of third baseman Bryant.
Mason Williams (Yankees) was the only East hitter with more than one hit, with the mid-game replacement in center field doubling and singling in his two plate appearances.
Not to be overlooked were some dominating pitching performances by West pitchers, holding the impressive array of AFL East hitters scoreless before yielding solo runs in each of the seventh and eighth innings. Starter Alex Meyer (Twins) earned the win with three scoreless innings. The 6-foot-9 righthander's fastball was consistently in the high 90s and reached 100 mph several times, but his mid-80s hard curveball proved to be his swing-and-miss pitch. Meyer, who said before the game that his primary goal for his AFL stint was to improve his changeup, fanned three batters in as many innings.
Lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez (Orioles) and righthanders Ken Giles (Phillies) and Keyvius Sampson (Padres) followed with one scoreless inning each.
Aaron Sanchez (Blue Jays) started for the East team by pitching two scoreless innings before the West hitters unloaded against the rest of the East staff. Sanchez mixed his 93-97 mph heater with an effective low 80s curveball and occasional changeup.
The most impressive defensive player of the night was West catcher Austin Hedges (Padres), who showed off his powerful arm by gunning down both runners that attempted to steal off him and nearly picked another runner off first.
MLB Network will five AFL games this week (Tuesday through Saturday) as part of the MLB Instant Replay Trial. All games will start at 7:00 pm MST except for the Saturday game which will begin one hour earlier.