Breaking Down The 2018 AFL Championship & Annual Awards

Image credit: Braxton Davidson's walk-off home run. (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Braxton Davidson almost got to do the whole, customary post-home run routine after hitting the walk-off homer that gave the Peoria Javelinas a 3-2 win over the Salt River Rafters to capture the 2018 Arizona Fall League championship. Davidson watched his prodigious 10th-inning blast leave the stadium, executed a nice bat flip, pointed to the sky, danced around the bases, and then met his teammates for a celebration at home plate.

What Davidson missed out on was the unfurling of the championship banner and the postgame interviews with the media, because somewhere between third base and home plate he stepped wrong and suffered a mid-foot sprain in his left foot. Instead of continuing the celebration with his teammates, the Braves farmhand was helped into the clubhouse and later taken by cart to the team bus, with his next destination being the X-Ray room at a Phoenix area hospital. He will undergo an MRI on Monday. 

This year’s championship game was viewed by 3,217 fans at Scottsdale Stadium on a pleasant November afternoon, as well as a national TV audience watching on the MLB Network. It capped off a very successful season for a Javelinas team that posted the league’s best record at 21-9.

The Peoria players were told by their manager to just go into the game and stay loose, and they were able to stay close until their bats finally came erupted late in the game.

“When you get to this point it’s about having fun,” said Peoria manager Daren Brown after the game. “There wasn’t much fun about it for the first eight innings and then we got the two runs and ultimately got the home run in the 10th … It’s a good group of guys, they seemed to come together and that’s always a tough thing to do with five organizations coming together.”

Davidson’s home run to right-center field off southpaw reliever Taylor Gilbeau (Nationals) marked just the second time in the AFL’s 27-year history that the championship was decided by a walk-off home run, coming 17 years after Mike Hessman hit a grand slam to cap a seven-run ninth inning rally giving his Phoenix Desert Dogs squad a 12-8 win over the Grand Canyon Rafters.

This year’s championship clash was nondescript for much of the game, with the only scoring through eight-and-a half innings being Salt River’s single runs in both the second and fourth innings off Javelina starter Miguel Diaz (Padres). Peoria’s biggest issue was not being able to get key hits off Salt River starter Jordan Yamamoto (Marlins) with runners on base. The Rafters’ righthanded was struggling with his control, walking five batters, despite flashing both a plus slider and plus curveball to go with his 92 mph fastball.

The Peoria hitters finally broke through in the bottom of the ninth inning off Salt River closer Justin Lawrence (Rockies) after leadoff hitter Ian Miller (Mariners) walked. A line-drive double by Lucius Fox (Rays) put runners on second and third with no outs, with Peoria’s best hitter, Keston Hiura (Brewers), coming to the plate.

After Miller scored on a wild pitch, Hiura lined a single to center field to tie the game. Hiura advanced to second base on a groundout and later to third on a wild pitch, but he was stranded there when a sharp liner off the bat of Hudson Potts (Padres) went right into the glove of Rafters third baseman Josh Fuentes (Rockies).

Peoria reliever Adam McCreery (Braves) came on for the top of the 10th. The big southpaw, who spent part of his college career just down the road at Arizona State, walked the second batter he faced but struck out a pair before the final out was made on an unsuccessful steal of second base by Fuentes.

That set the stage for Davidson’s dramatic home run, coming just over three hours after the start of the game.

Hiura was presented with the Joe Black MVP Award as the AFL’s Most Valuable Player prior to the championship game. The righthanded-hitting second baseman batted .323/371/.563 with five home runs and a league-leading 33 RBIs. Drafted by Milwaukee in 2017 with the ninth overall pick, Hiura made it to the Fall League in his first full season as a pro. He believes he gained a lot in his six weeks in Arizona.

“Facing top-tier arms, that’s always exciting and a challenge for me,” Hiura said. “I’m glad to be given the opportunity to play here and I enjoyed the past month or two.”

Hiura hit for more power in his second pro season, but not as a result of any swing changes he’s made.

“It’s just naturally happening,” Hiura said about the boost in his power. “Being able to hit pitches that should be hit and being able to hit them hard—I haven’t changed anything in my swing since high school.”

Hiura added that keeping in rhythm and getting his timing down are important factors in feeling comfortable at the plate.

Hiura has been playing catch-up with his work on defense after missing time on the field to elbow issues that started late in his college career. Getting so much work at second base during his AFL stint was extremely beneficial.

“I was grateful to be able to play pretty much this whole past season at second base and get a lot of reps there,” Hiura said. “To be able to continue that here, that was a big goal for me … I feel very comfortable out there and I’m looking forward to getting better this offseason, fine-tuning a lot of things before next season.”

Salt River infielder Tyler Nevin (Rockies) was awarded the EyePromise Vizual EDGE Award as the league’s leading hitter. The son of former big leaguer Phil Nevin led all AFL hitters in batting average (.426), on-base percentage (.535) and slugging percentage (.593). Nevin’s performance this fall was even more impressive considering that he was one of the youngest players in the league, having just completed a year in high Class A. He believes the experience he gained in Arizona gives him a head start on next season.

“Hopefully I’m going to Double-A next year,” Nevin said. “So it was like seeing the test before I get it. (I was) facing a lot of guys that have been in Double-A and some in Triple-A, so it’s kind of like seeing what I’m going to see next year.”

Another impressive part of Nevin’s stat line this fall is the 15 walks he drew compared to only five strikeouts, albeit in the small sample size of the six-week season.

“It’s something I always take pride in, trying to not strike out,” Nevin said. “I take pride in taking quality at-bats and not giving any easy outs. I was very fortunate to be able to put up those numbers, I feel like I was seeing the ball well, and that’s always what I’m shooting for.”

Surprise shortstop Cole Tucker (Pirates) was awarded the AFL’s Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award prior to the championship game. Named in memory of the former AFL player who was tragically murdered in 2003 while a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions, the award has been given annually since 2004 to the league’s player who best exemplifies unselfishness, hard work and leadership.

Tucker led the Surprise Saguaros with a .370 batting average to go with a. 442 on-base percentage and .457 slugging percentage. This came during Tucker’s second try to get to the Fall League after missing his opportunity to play in front of the hometown fans last year due to an injury late in the 2017 season. A graduate of Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, Tucker was drafted by Pittsburgh in the first round in 2014.

One of the more intriguing stories of this year’s championship game centered around the fact that the starting shortstop and leadoff hitter for both teams—Salt River’s Jazz Chisholm (D-backs) and Peoria’s Lucius Fox (Rays)—grew up together in the Bahamas. Both players signed as international free agents in 2015, with Fox first starting his pro career in the Giants organization before being traded to Tampa Bay as part of the package for southpaw pitcher Matt Moore.

Chisholm arguably raised his prospect stock more than any other AFL player this year despite his limited playing time due to his status as a taxi squad player. Playing in only 10 games, the left-handed hitter posted a slash line of .442/.489/.767 with three home runs in just 43 at-bats and made frequent highlight reel plays at shortstop during the fall.

Fox, at 21 and just seven months older than Chisholm, consistently played outstanding defense for the Javelinas as well as hitting .326/.437/.384 in 86 at-bats, showing solid plate discipline by drawing 16 walks.  

Facing each other in the championship game brought out both their mutual friendship and competitive natures.

“I know he wants me to do well and I want him to do well,” Fox said before the game, “but I want my team to win. At the same time, I want to see him hit home runs and he wants me to get extra-base hits and score a lot of runs. But once we get between the lines we want our teams to win, and then after we’ll talk about it.

“The bigger goal is to have long, successful careers in the major leagues. Whoever wins this game will get bragging rights for the offseason, but then we’ll take some rest and get ready for next year.”

Both players benefited from their six weeks in the Fall League, with Fox emphasizing that he was able to face better pitching, improving his approach at the plate, and having a plan at the plate.

Chisholm, who perpetually has a smile on his face both on and off the field, reinforced the idea that he’s a better ballplayer when he’s enjoying himself on the field.

“Keep on competing and keep on having fun,” Chisholm said. “When you have fun, you do your best at all times. You play loose, you play carefree, but at the same time you play hard.”

Their time in the Arizona Fall League is over, but the two Bahamian natives will soon be seeing each other back on their native island.

“We have some work to do this offseason,” Fox said. “He had a great year this year, and he accomplished his goals. There’s stuff I can learn from him about hitting. We piggyback ideas off each other, and just try to be the best we can.”

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