Four In A Row

Desert Dogs win another AFL title

Phoenix righthander Nick Blackburn didn't earn the victory in the 2007 Arizona Fall League championship game, but the Twins prospect was unquestionably the key to the Desert Dogs winning its fourth straight AFL championship with a 7-2 win over the Surprise Rafters in front of nearly 1,500 fans at Scottsdale Stadium. Named the player of the game, Blackburn yielded only one run on five hits in six innings, striking out two and walking one.

"He has been effective the whole season," Phoenix manager Rafael Santana said. "There's no difference between today and the regular season. He's a great pitcher."

Blackburn, who made his big league debut with the Twins this year, credited a change in his pitching philosophy—throwing more offspeed pitches—for his AFL success. It paid off for him, as he posted a 4-0 record with a 1.64 ERA and 20/2 K/BB rate during the AFL season. Along the way, Blackburn ran off a string of 19 consecutive scoreless innings.

"In my last two outings of the regular season, I was just being too stubborn," said Blackburn. "I knew I needed to slow my pitchers down, but I was never doing it. Even my first start out here, I ran into the same problem . . . everything was hard . . . I was staying with my hard fastball, cutter and sinker. Guys were sitting on it and getting their timing down, and I was just getting punished."

"Once I was able to finally quit being stubborn and commit myself," Blackburn continued, "everything settled in real well and I was throwing all of my off speed for strikes."

Blackburn's only mistake in the championship game was a curveball in the third inning to Surprise third baseman Sean Rodriguez (Angels), who sent the pitch over the left field fence to tie the game at one.

"I had just told our catcher (fellow Twin farmhand Drew Butera) the inning before that any time I get a good pitch to start off a hitter, I like to double it up," said Blackburn. "After that, I was punished . . . it's almost like he knew it was coming."

Surprise's starting pitcher, Fernando Rodriguez Jr. (Angels), wasn't nearly as effective as Blackburn. The right-hander pitched only 1 2/3 innings, giving up five Phoenix hits and walking one.

Phoenix's initial tally came in the first inning as Cliff Pennington (Athletics) scored from second on Ryan Sweeney's (White Sox) two-out opposite field double. It was the first of three hits for Pennington, who led the Desert Dogs 15-hit attack. Five other Phoenix players tallied two hits each.

Rodriguez was lucky to escape with only a 1-0 deficit. The Desert Dogs failed to capitalize, stranding four runners in the first two innings. A fifth runner, Nyjer Morgan (Pirates), was thrown out at third base attempting to stretch a double in the game's first at bat.

After Rodiguez tied the game for Surprise in the bottom of the third, Phoenix regained the lead in the next inning when Morgan singled with two outs, scoring Matt Macri (Twins) from second base.

The Rafters tied the game a second time in the bottom of the seventh after Blackburn was replaced by reliever Chris Hernandez (Pirates). They could have broken the game open with more timely hitting. Brad Snyder (Indians) singled to open the inning and advanced to third on Elvis Andrus' (Rangers) line drive double. Craig Tatum (Reds) flew out to center field for the first out, scoring Snyder and advancing Andrus to third. Sean Rodriguez was hit by a pitch, putting runners on the corners with one out. Jose Duarte (Royals) then popped out to first base for the second out.

With two outs, Marc Maddox (Royals) hit a sinking liner to center field. The ball was snared just above the ground by a sliding Andrew McCutchen (Pirates), preventing the Rafters from taking its first lead.

The Desert Dogs took the lead for good in the top of the eighth. After Sweeney drew a walk off Rafter reliever Rich Rundles (Indians), the Rafters called Mike Finocchi (Indians) in from the bullpen. The righthander induced Jason Delaney (Pirates) to hit a sharp grounder to shortstop, but Andrus' errant throw pulled Maddox off the bag at second base and both runners were safe.

After a passed ball and a ground out to shortstop, Macri gave the Desert Dogs the lead for good with a sacrifice fly to right field. Phoenix added an insurance run when Chris Getz (White Sox) narrowly beat out an infield hit, driving in Delaney to make the score 4-2.

Phoenix scored three more times in the top half of the ninth off Rafter relievers Tyler Pelland (Reds) and Paul Kometani (Rangers). The inning included a fielding error by Maddox and a passed ball by Tatum, the latter allowing an unearned run to score.

The Desert Dogs called on closer Bob McCrory (Orioles) for the bottom of the ninth. The frustrated Rafter bench erupted after leadoff batter Andrus was called out on strikes, resulting in the ejection of coaches Jon Nunnally and Steve Luebber. After play was resumed, Tatum grounded out to second base and Sean Rodriguez singled for this second hit of the game. McCrory then fanned pinch hitter Chris Lubanski (Royals) to give the Desert Dogs the win.

Hernandez earned the win in relief of Blackburn. Rundles was the losing pitcher.

"Pitching was a big key for the ballgame today," Santana said after the game. "We took advantage of the mistakes they made and were able to capitalize on them."

A possible factor in the outcome of the game was the unavailability of Surprise's ace pitcher, southpaw Matt Harrison (Rangers), who had to start Wednesday's division-clinching game after the Rafters failed to nail down the title the two previous days.

• Outfielder Sam Fuld (Cubs) was presented with the Arizona Fall League's Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award, presented annually to the Fall League player who best exemplifies unselfishness, hard work, and leadership in memory of Dernell Stenson, who was killed in 2003 in Arizona during the Fall League season . . . Corey Wimberly (Rockies ) edged out Fuld for the batting title, hitting .407 compared to Fuld's .402 . . . Three players—Nolan Reimold (Orioles), Matt LaPorta (Brewers) and Caleb Stewart (Mets) tied for the league lead in homeruns with six. Stewart missed nearly 2 ½ weeks due to injury; his six homers came in only 44 at bats. Reimold also led the league in RBIs with 23 . . . Brett Gardner (Yankees) was the league leader in stolen bases with 16 . . . Matt Harrison (Rangers) was the league leader in wins with five. Hayden Penn (Orioles) led the way in strikeouts with 27.