Image credit: Nate Pearson (Photo by Bill Mitchell)
The 2018 version of the Arizona Fall League’s Fall Stars Game will be remembered for much more than just the high-octane velocity flashed by many of the 21 pitchers appearing in the annual showcase of premium baseball talent. The two teams played an entertaining game on a beautiful Saturday evening at Surprise Stadium before a record crowd of 6,883 and the MLB Network television audience.
The West team scored a pair of runs in the bottom of the ninth, both coming with two outs, to eke out a 7-6 win over the East squad. Buddy Reed (Padres) drove in the tying run with a standup triple to left-center field that barely eluded the glove of Luis Barrera (Athletics). One batter later, Meibrys Viloria (Royals) ended the game with a single to center field, scoring Reed for the winning run.
Reed, a former Florida star who had a breakout season in 2018 split between High-A Lake Elsinore and Double-A San Antonio, said after the game that the pitch he hit was a fastball low and away.
“I just shortened it up (his swing) and won the battle for my teammates,” Reed said.
The West team’s rally came one inning after East left fielder Austin Listi (Phillies) smacked a three-run home run off reliever Demarcus Evans (Rangers) to put his team on top, 6-5. Listi had previously driven in a run on a groundout in his first at-bat after entering the lineup as a mid-game sub, thus driving in four of the East’s six runs.
But now, back to the extreme velocity that was being delivered by pitchers from both teams throughout the game. As many as five pitchers touched 100 mph or more during their short stints. The debate on whether the stadium scoreboard gun was running slightly high is irrelevant. The fact is that this game was a showcase for some pretty serious heat coming from the arms of the pitchers.
West starter Nate Pearson got the fastball hit parade started in the top of the 1st inning, with several 103 mph readings flashing on the board and confirmed on radar guns in the stadium’s scout section. Pearson, who missed all but one game to injury during the 2018 regular season, had hit 101 mph numerous times in previous AFL outings, but he was surprised to have gotten up to 103 in this game.
“The highest I had ever thrown was 102,” Pearson said after the game. “This is a little new for me today … it’s a big stage, a lot of fans out here, and I was amped up.”
Pearson gave up a home run to East first baseman Peter Alonso (Mets) during his lone inning, but otherwise his velocity was overwhelming as he struck out two of the opposing hitters. But at least one of the hitters Pearson faced—East second baseman Jahmai Jones (Angels)—enjoyed the challenge, displaying his exuberance when he returned to the dugout after hitting a sharp grounder to shortstop to lead off the game.
“It’s always good competing against the best of the best,” Jones said. “Nate was really throwing it today … it’s always fun facing it (velocity). The game’s going to a lot of power arms now, so you’ve got to just keep it going and get used to it.”
This game really had it all—exhilarating pitching performances, clutch hitting and some flashy defense. Overall, an outstanding showcase for the Arizona Fall League. The best thing is that there’s still two more weeks of action. Three games a day from baseball’s best-kept secret.
Whitley, arguably the top pitching prospect in the minor leagues, used a five-pitch mix (fastball, cutter, slider, curveball and changeup) in holding the West scoreless over his two innings. His command was a little off as he walked two batters, but the 21-year-old righthander did not give up a hit and struck out one batter. Like Pearson, he was a little surprised to hear that he had hit 100 mph, remarking that it was the first time he had done so since his high school career.
“I felt really good and my body felt great,” Whitley said. “The location and the command were a little sporadic, but that’s fine. In a game like this you’re trying to go out and show your best stuff … There was definitely a little added adrenaline being on TV with the short outing … that’s always nice to pitch with adrenaline. It’s always fun.”
Wrapping up the 2018 season in which he pitched in only eight games because of injury and a PED suspension, Whitley has accomplished the goals that the Astros identified for him.
“Get the slider and curveball in the zone,” Whitley said. “I can get those down to the floor pretty easily, but getting those in the zone and letting the hitter know I can throw it for a strike and a ball.”
Alonso has been one of the more intriguing power hitters in the Arizona Fall League through the first month of the season, making a strong case to earn the Mets starting first base job next year. He believes he’s meeting the goals he set coming in.
“I just wanted to become more of a polished hitter out here,” Alonso said. “Lay off some tougher pitches, command the strike zone a little bit better, and also I wanted to continue my growth as a good baserunner and get better defensively … just elevate my game to the highest level I possibly can, and I feel that I’m doing a pretty good job at that.”
With four long home runs and some record-shattering exit velocities to his credit, Alonso’s power game has been on display in Arizona. But perhaps his most impressive feat of strength came in an at-bat that ended with a strikeout during a recent home game in Scottsdale Stadium. Alonso hit a foul ball just to the left of the left field foul pole, with the ball disappearing far beyond the 360-foot fence. After striking out to end that at-bat, in frustration Alonso snapped the bat in half over his knee, a show of power that perhaps even exceeded the foul ball he had just hit.
“I thought it hooked around the pole, but they called it foul,” Alonso said. “In retrospect I shouldn’t have done it (breaking the bat) … I was really mad because I had struck out in a big spot … In my mind, I thought, this bat’s gone, and there it went.”
In the Fall Stars game, Alonso showed he can easily catch up to premium velocity. He homered off of a 103 mph Pearson fastball. There were no home runs hit against pitches 103 mph or faster in Major League Baseball in 2018.
West center fielder Cristian Pache (Braves) made a leaping attempt to catch Alonso’s first inning home run, but the ball landed over the fence just out of his reach. It wouldn’t have been too surprising if Pache had somehow been able to rob Alonso of the home run considering his reputation as one of the better defensive outfielders in the minor leagues. Still a few weeks away from turning 20, Pache has continued to improve his game since signing with the Braves from his native Dominican Republic in 2015, becoming one of that organization’s best prospects. The experience he’s gaining in Arizona has been invaluable for the young outfielder.
“I came here to get better control of the strike zone,” Pache said through an interpreter, “to get more knowledge about the game … and try to have better strike zone discipline.”
West shortstop Cole Tucker (Pirates) singled in one of his two Fall Stars at-bats, continuing a strong AFL season that has been a bit of a homecoming for the Arizona native. Tucker was born and raised in the Valley of the Sun, playing his high school ball at Mountain Pointe High in Phoenix before he was drafted by the Pirates in the first round in 2014. The AFL season is the first time since then that he’s gotten to play anywhere near his home, and he was expecting 50 to 60 friends and family for the Fall Stars Game.
Tucker missed a chance to play in the AFL last year due to a foot injury suffered near the end of his team’s postseason, but he’s made up for it this fall, meeting the goals that he and the Pirates organization set for the 22-year-old switch-hitter.
“When we talked about me coming to the Fall League,” Tucker said, “we talked about extending the season, playing a big league-like season, just slowing the game down and letting the game come to me, and being the best Cole Tucker that I can be. I feel I’m doing that and I’m having really good at-bats, creating runs, scoring runs, and I’m showing myself that I can be an everyday big league shortstop at a really high level. I feel like I’m checking the boxes I wanted to check and having a really good time playing against good competition.”
With teammates from four other organizations on his Surprise Saguaros team, Tucker has been a sponge in absorbing every bit of knowledge he can during the six-week season.
”There’s some really, really good competition here, so I’d be a fool not to pick up on some things that guys talk about,” Tucker said. “I’ve been talking to Cavan Biggio about his presence in the box and how he thinks. You can learn a lot by watching Vladdy (Guerrero Jr.) go about his business. I’m learning a ton from Nick Heath from the Royals about baserunning and speed. Taking little tidbits from everyone.”
But the most important lesson Tucker has learned from his time in the AFL is that he has a bright future in the game.
“The biggest takeaway for me is that I can do it,” Tucker said. “Playing against this upper-level competition … this league holistically is as close as it’s going to get to major league action. I’m performing and I’m playing really well. I’m really confident in my at-bats and my play at shortstop, and I know that I can handle it. I know that I can be that everyday big league shortstop.”