SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Chris Lubanski, a 23-year-old prospect of the Kansas City Royals, pinch-hit in the bottom of the ninth last Saturday afternoon for the Surprise Rafters.
It had been a long season for Chris and the rest of the players, all of whom had added the 32-game AFL schedule to their minor league summer.
All he could manage was three less-than-enthusiastic swings, and suddenly the 16th edition of the Arizona Fall League was in the books.
The Phoenix Desert Dogs wrapped up their fourth championship in a row with a relatively easy 7-2 win over the Rafters. It was also the Dogs’ fifth championship in their last seven seasons.
That’s impressive, but, it’s a little mysterious since everything about every AFL team changes from one season to the next. The players are not the same, the managers are not the same, the mix of major league franchises from which the players come is not the same.
There appears to be no reason why one team should win four championships in a row.
However, since the boys from Oakland happened to be a part of the Dogs this year, I took a little closer look.
Guess what? They have been Desert Dogs every year during this championship run. Indeed, the A’s turn out to be the common denominator. That’s not surprising since Phoenix is their spring training home, but, the other four franchisees which make up the Dogs have been different every year.
Well, as a Bay Area baseball fan in general and an A’s fan in particular, I just couldn’t let a fact like this slip by without a cheer or two. How about those Dogs?
How about those aspiring young Athletics? In a baseball year that didn’t have much to get excited about, I’m celebrating the Dogs!
Woof! Woof! Woof!
Actually, there are some good things to talk about from both sides of the Bay so far as AFL 16 is concerned. The Giants sent two young pitchers to Arizona this fall, both of whom put up some impressive numbers.
Remember, pitchers in the AFL don’t get worked quite as hard since their arms can’t help but be tired from their summer seasons. Nevertheless, the statistics were impressive.
Brian Anderson, a 2005 draft pick out of Long Beach State, appeared in 12 games, pitched in 12.1 innings and didn’t allow a single earned run. Sergio Romo, another 2005 draft pick from Mesa State College, was almost as good.
He appeared in nine games, pitched 14 innings and allowed just one earned run. Of course, they may not get to play by the Bay next year, but, in the tradition of the AFL, they are a couple of fellows to keep an eye on.
A third Giant pitcher did not have quite the earned-run average as Anderson and Romo, but, Nick Pereira was the winning pitcher in four of the Scottsdale team’s 16 victories. Like the other two players, Nick was also picked up in the 2005 draft.
From the McAfee side of the Bay, Raul Padron, acquired by Oakland in the Jason Kendall trade last year, had the Dogs’ best batting average, posting a .320 mark with 16 hits in 50 plate appearances. That was well below the Colorado Rockies’ Corey Wimberly, who led the league and the Peoria Javelinas with a sparkling .407.
Hitting, however, was not the Desert Dogs’ forte. It was their pitching that eased them into the championship.
The league’s four top hurlers, all with 0.00 earned-run averages, played for Phoenix.
Jake Arrieta with Baltimore, Chris Hernandez with Pittsburgh, Fernando Hernandez with the White Sox and Eduardo Morian with Minnesota left almost all the batters they faced wondering what happened.
Two of the Oakland pitchers did well — however, their performances were a bit overshadowed by the aforementioned quartet. Brad Kilby, selected in the 2005 draft from San Jose State, appeared in 11 games, pitched 11.1 innings and allowed just two earned runs. James Simmons, a first-round draft choice this year out of California Riverside, pitched 9.1 innings and allowed three earned runs.
Simmons was one of the more unique AFL players, having made it to Arizona in the fall just about as fast as anyone could. Actually, he pitched in the 2007 college season at Riverside, was drafted in June and sent to Double-A Midland (Texas), where he pitched 29.2 innings in 13 games, and, with no break in the action, wound up with the Dogs in Arizona.
I talked with James a few minutes before the championship game. He was still a little overwhelmed. Indeed, he had never heard of the Arizona Fall League until after the draft. He was just figuring out what a great opportunity he had been given to showcase his stuff with players who are obviously on the way up. He just turned 21 in September.
He did not get to pitch a great deal, but was pleased that he had managed to keep his earned-run average under 3.00.
“We’ve got a great bunch of pitchers on this team,” he said, “so I was fortunate to get into the number of games I did.”
I asked about how he had been getting along off the field. He said things were much better than they had been in Midland. “I got an apartment by myself in Texas and almost went crazy. Here in Arizona I’m living with Brad (Kilby) and Raul (Padron). Life is much better.”
The three had been together on the Midland team and were all looking forward to coming back to Phoenix in February for spring training.
The season-ending championship game could not have been played under more ideal conditions — good crowd (finally), excited players, weather to die for and the classy environs of Scottsdale’s little ballpark.
The contest was well played. Indeed, the Dogs’ leadoff hitter, Nyjer Morgan from Pittsburgh, hit the first pitch to the wall and was thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple. Of course, triples are arguably one of baseball’s most thrilling plays — consequently, no waiting for excitement this afternoon.
Both teams played like champions and the game was tied 2-2 at the end of the seventh. However, Rafter pitching fell apart late in the game.
The Dogs scored twice in the eighth and three times in the ninth, and what had been a serious contest became something of a laugher. Happily, the player of the game, at least on my scorebook, was Oakland’s Cliff Pennington with two hits, two stolen bases and a run scored along with solid play at short.
If — as current rumors seem to indicate — Donnie Murphy is going to fill the gap left on the A’s club with the trade of Marco Scutaro to Toronto, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Mr. Pennington filling the Murphy gap between second and third in Sacramento.
So it goes in the AFL. That’s what makes it interesting.