Caleb Kilian’s Perfect Effort Leads Top Performances Of The AFL Championship Game

Image credit: Caleb Kilian (Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Mesa defeated Surprise, 6-0, in the Arizona Fall League championship game at Salt River Fields on Saturday, concluding the 2021 AFL season.

Here are the top performers from the AFL championship game, led by a Cubs righthander who owned the night.

Caleb Kilian, RHP, Cubs (Mesa)

Kilian pitched six perfect innings with eight strikeouts in a masterful performance and was named MVP of the championship game. The 24-year-old righthander effortlessly sliced through Surprise’s lineup and completed his six innings in just 68 pitches.

Kilian reached 98.1 mph in the first inning, the hardest thrown pitch of the game, to set the tone immediately. His fastball ranged from 92-98 mph and sat 94-95 with alternating cut, sink and ride to keep Surprise’s hitters waving through it fruitlessly. His sharp 86-90 mph cutter dove across the plate to get empty, off-balance swings and his twirling 75-77 mph curveball froze batters again and again. He didn’t have command of his 83-86 mph changeup, but he hardly needed his fourth pitch.

“It was one of those days where kind of all of your stuff feels like it’s on,” said Kilian, who the Cubs acquired from the Giants in the Kris Bryant trade last summer. “I felt like all my pitches were working. I was throwing a lot of fastballs early on and I started mixing the other stuff and it started to come. You just go one inning at a time, one pitch at a time and then you look up and it was really cool.”

Kilian threw 48 of his 68 pitches for strikes and was ruthlessly efficient. He retired 16 of his 18 batters in five pitches or less.

The outing was a climactic finish to a breakthrough fall for the Texas Tech product. He surrendered five hits and seven runs without recording an out in his first AFL start. After that, he allowed only one earned run in his final 20 innings, including Saturday’s masterpiece.

“I’m not making excuses, it was a terrible outing,” Kilian said, “but it feels good to go from having one of my worst outings at the beginning of this league to one of the best at the end.”

Logan Davidson, 3B, Athletics (Mesa)

Davidson led Mesa’s offense in support of Kilian, going 3-for-4 with a double, a walk, an RBI, a run scored and a stolen base. The switch-hitting infielder started Mesa’s three-run first inning with a double down the right field line batting righthanded, smoked a single 110.5 mph off the bat batting lefthanded in the second inning and dropped an RBI single into right field in the sixth to cap the scoring.

“The whole team, we were just ready to go,” Davidson said. “We had a good approach from the start. We faced these guys before, so we stuck to our approach and we executed when we got good pitches to hit.”

Davidson also showed smooth actions and an accurate arm while converting every play cleanly at third base and showed off his speed when he slid into second base just ahead of an on-target throw from Nationals catcher Drew Millas on his stolen base in the sixth.

Including the championship game, Davidson finished his time in the AFL batting .299 with five doubles, two home runs and 12 RBIs in 21 games.


JJ Bleday, OF, Marlins (Mesa)

Bleday had a sensational showing in the AFL and finished his time in Arizona strong. He reached base twice and drove in a pair of runs for Mesa and did most of his damage early to help the Solar Sox race out to a commanding lead.

Bleday showed a discerning eye in laying off close pitches from Reds lefthander Jacques Pucheau to draw a walk in the first inning and help set the table for Mesa’s three-run frame. He lifted a sacrifice fly into center field to bring home a run in the second inning and extend the lead to 4-0, and he turned around a 96 mph fastball from Jackson Rutledge for a hard liner back up the middle in the fourth to single home another run that made it 5-0.

Bleday also stung a hard line drive the opposite way to left field in the eighth that was caught for a lineout.

Jackson Rutledge, RHP, Nationals (Surprise) 

Rutledge had a difficult AFL on the heels of an injury-riddled season, but he flashed the ability that made him a first-round pick during a 3.1-inning relief appearance. Rutledge entered in the third inning and struck out the side to stop the early bleeding for Surprise. He continued to rack up swings and misses throughout his outing and finished with seven strikeouts.

Rutledge’s 95-98 mph fastball was an effective pitch when he located it, but his 82-85 mph slider was his most dominant offering. Five of his seven strikeouts came on his slider, a promising development after his breaking ball was a focal point of his in the AFL. He also showed an effective 86-88 mph changeup with late dive that got both a called strike and a swing and miss.

Rutledge fell into ruts with his consistency and control—he threw only 38 of 73 pitches for strikes—and allowed three hits and two runs. Still, his flash of three swing-and-miss pitches represented a promising step forward.

Jonah Bride, DH, Athletics (Mesa) 

Bride went 3-for-5 with an RBI to help pace Mesa’s offense and made the most consistent hard contact of any player in the game. His three singles came off the bat with exit velocities of 98.8 mph, 99.8 mph and 101.9 mph, and he also had a flyout to deep center field that traveled 394 feet and left his bat at 101.7 mph.

Bride didn’t play the field in the game after bouncing around to different positions throughout the fall, including catcher. Even though he lacks a position, the A’s added him to their 40-man roster on Friday to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, and he showed why with his ability to square up baseballs and drive them.

Elijah Dunham, OF, Yankees and Drew Mount, OF, Reds (Surprise)

Dunham and Mount get credit for helping Surprise avoid straight zeroes across the board. Dunham drew a one-out walk from Orioles lefthander Nick Vespi to end the perfect game. Mount broke up the no-hitter in the eighth inning when he ripped a 107 mph single through the right side off of Orioles righthander Logan Gillaspie.

They were two of only three baserunners all game for Surprise. Justin Foscue reached on a throwing error by Mesa shortstop Luis Vazquez to lead off the bottom of the eighth, immediately before Mount’s single.

Other Notables

Blue Jays first baseman Jay Horwitz (Mesa) opened the scoring with a two-out, two-run single through the right side in the top of the first inning….Nationals shortstop Jackson Cluff (Surprise) made a sensational diving stop to his left to rob Blue Jays catcher Gabriel Moreno (Mesa) of a hit in the seventh inning. Cluff was named AFL defensive player of the year prior to the game….Royals outfielder Nathan Eaton (Surprise) made a leaping catch in left field to rob Cubs outfielder Nelson Velazquez (Mesa) of extra bases in the second inning….Blue Jays righthander Graham Spraker (Mesa) pitched a perfect ninth to close out the victory to complete a full AFL season without allowing a run. The 26-year-old made 12 scoreless appearances including in the championship game and was named AFL reliever of the year…Velazquez was named AFL MVP and Rangers righthander Owen White (Surprise) was named AFL pitcher of the year prior to the game. Bleday and Cardinals first baseman Juan Yepez (Glendale) were named AFL co-hitters of the year and Phillies catcher Logan O’Hoppe (Peoria) won the Dernell Stenson sportsmanship award.

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