Image credit: Jerar Encarnacion (Bill Mitchell)
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Jerar Encarnacion capped his breakout year in grand fashion.
Encarnacion hit the tie-breaking grand slam in the top of the fourth inning, and Salt River beat Surprise, 5-1, in the Arizona Fall League championship game on Saturday afternoon.
Encarnacion, the Marlins’ No. 21 prospect, sent a Sterling Sharp fastball 418 feet out to left field for his grand slam, lifting Salt River to its fifth AFL championship and first since 2014.
“I thank God for giving me that opportunity,” Encarnacion said through interpreter Luis Ramirez, “and I came through in that big moment.”
A relatively anonymous prospect entering the year, Encarnacion broke out at low Class A Clinton and earned Midwest League All-Star honors. He received a promotion to high Class A Jupiter in the second half and finished the year batting .271 with 16 home runs and 71 RBIs.
Encarnacion continued to show flashes of his impact potential throughout the AFL, although he also struck out 28 times in 67 at-bats.
In the biggest spot, he delivered.
With two outs, the bases loaded and the scored tied, 1-1, Encarnacion stepped to the plate against Sharp and took an 89 mph fastball at the knees for strike one. Sharp came back with another 89 mph fastball inside off the plate, and Encarnacion turned on it with authority.
The towering fly left Encarnacion’s bat at 109.6 mph, according to Statcast, and landed high up the grassy knoll beyond the left-field fence.
“Obviously he burst on the scene this year with what he did during the regular season and got an invite out here and made the most of it,” Salt River manager Keith Johnson said. “Obviously there are still some adjustments that he needs to make in his game, but I tell you what, he came here with the best of the best and competed and did well for himself.”
Sharp was responsible for all five of Salt River’s runs and took the loss. The Nationals righthander inherited a 1-0 lead, but hit Seth Beer with one out in the fourth, threw a wild pitch to move Beer to second and surrendered a sharp single to Ronaldo Hernandez that plated Beer and tied the score.
Sharp followed with walks to Luke Raley and Colton Welker to load the bases and, after Victor Victor Mesa grounded into a forceout at the plate, served up Encarnacion’s tie-breaking—and ultimately game-winning—blast.
“I was talking to our hitting coach and he was giving me tips about that pitcher,” Encarnacion said. “That he always keeps the ball down and I was looking for something up in the zone so I could make some good contact on it.
“I was ready, waiting for that pitch up in the zone. The rest is history.”
Encarnacion’s slam overshadowed a dominant start by Daniel Lynch for Surprise. The 22-year-old lefty pitched three scoreless innings, allowed one hit, walked none and struck out three while allowing only one ball to leave the infield.
Lynch, the Royals’ No. 3 prospect, overpowered hitters with a 93-98 mph fastball and 84-88 mph power slider and slowed them down with an 81-84 mph changeup. He pounded the strike zone with all of his offerings, throwing 27 of 36 pitches for strikes, and departed with a 1-0 lead.
Salt River struck once Lynch left the game, and its bullpen took care of the rest.
After starter Dakota Chalmers walked the leadoff hitter in each of his three innings and was pulled with one out in the third, Rockies prospect Ashton Goudeau tossed 2.2 scoreless innings of relief and fellow Rockies righthander Antonio Santos followed with two scoreless innings of his own. Alex Valverde and Zach Neff took care of the eighth, and Alex Vesia retired the side in order in the ninth to wrap up 6.2 scoreless innings from the Salt River bullpen.
Fittingly, Encarnacion caught the final out to cement Salt River’s championship.
“I believed that at the end of this thing that if we did the things that we needed to do as a group and became a team . . . then we were going to do well,” Johnson said. “Over the course of the season these guys starting jelling. They started pulling for each other. There were some great performances along the way, and here we are.”
Nationals No. 2 prospect Luis Garcia went 2-for-4 and drove in Surprise’s only run with an RBI single in the third.