With Tim Wilken and all of the Cubs scouts from around the world watching from the picnic area above and behind the third base grandstand, the Mesa Solar Sox hosted the first-place Phoenix Desert Dogs at HoHoKam Park in Mesa last night.
The annual November organizational meetings in Mesa is probably the only time when all of the Cubs scouts, major league and minor league managers and coaches, and executives get together all in one place. And as Arizona Phil encouraged them to do, Cubs scouts decided to have a party at the Thursday night AFL game at HoHoKam. I won't say who got drunk and made a fool of himself, but needless to say, a good time was had by all.
As for the game, Solar Sox manager Pat Listach (Cubs) made sure to get six of the seven Cubs playing for Mesa into the game. Eric Patterson started at 2B and hit lead-off, Scott Moore played 3B and hit 5th, and Jake Fox hit sixth and was the catcher.
The Phoenix Desert Dogs are one of only two of the six AFL teams with a winning record, and the Mesa Solar Sox are the other one. Unfortunately, both play in the same division (AFL East), so only one of the two can get a slot in the AFL Championship Game a week from tomorrow at Scottsdale Stadium. And with the Desert Dogs leading the Solar Sox by three games with seven to play, it was pretty clear that last night's game at HoHoKam was critical for the Sox.
It's no secret why the Desert Dogs are the best team in the AFL. They have the lowest team ERA, four of the league's five best starting pitchers (Kyle Yates, Virgil Vasquez, Dustin McGowan, and Jordan Tata), the league's best shortstop (Ben Zobrist), the league's best catcher (Curtis Thigpen), and the league HR leader and likely AFL MVP (1B Chip Cannon).
And the reason the Solar Sox have been the second-best team so far is because they have the second-best team ERA, the league's best lead-off hitter (Eric Patterson), the league's best RF (Hunter Pence), and the league's best bullpen (Clay Rapada, Jonathan Meloan, Kevin Slowey, Troy Patton, and Lincoln Holdzkom). Unfortunately for the Sox, Pence (HOU) was busted for DUI last week and got kicked off the team.
With the Hunter's Moon rising large in the eastern sky over Mesa, Desert Dogs manager Tony Defrancesco (OAK) decided not to start any of his top four rotation starters, instead opting to go with #5 starter LHP Tyler Pelland (CIN). Even so, the game was a pitcher's duel through the first three innings, as Pelland and the Solar Sox Errol Simonitsch (MIN) threw shutout ball and made quick work of the hitters.
The Desert Dogs broke through in the top of the fourth, as Sox reliever Carmen Pignatiello (Cubs) issued a two-out walk, after getting an easy one-hopper back to the mound and a strikeout to start the inning. Although Pignatiello was obviously on his game, manager Listach chose to pull Piggy at this point, and bring Brian Akin (LAD) into the game. But Akin didn't have much, and he proceeded to give up two runs (one of which was charged to Pignatiello) on an RBI triple hit off the centerfield Green Monster hitting background by Dogs' DH Rich Robnett (OAK), before getting the final out.
The Cubs' Lincoln Holdzkom entered the game in the top of the 7th with the Sox trailing 2-0, and picked the wrong game to struggle with his command. With most of the Cubs organization watching, Linc struggled to throw strikes, with his mechanics obviously totally out of whack. Throwing his usual mid 90's heater high & outside and his slider into the dirt (and expecting Jake Fox to block balls in the dirt is asking too much), Holdzkom was able to get a strikeout before walking the bases loaded. The Dogs were unable to capitalize on the golden opportunity, however, as Fernando Perez (TB) lined out to Moore at third and (with ace reliever Clay Rapada now in the game) Ben Zobrist (TB) grounded out weakly to short.
The Solar Sox continued their futility at bat, however, and trailed 2-0 heading into the 8th. Rapada (Cubs) gave up a lead-off infield single to the Blue Jays' Curtis Thigpen (a brilliant diving stop by Eric Patterson in short rightfield, followed by a throw that was fielded by Jake Fox in front of the Solar Sox dugout), but then got Dogs slugger Chip Cannon (TOR) on a fly out to center. With a right-handed hitter due to bat, manager Listach decided to bring his other ace reliever--RHP Jonathan Meloan (LAD)--into the game.
But like fellow-Dodger Akin in the fourth inning, Meloan was not on his game in the eighth, and before the inning was over, the Dogs had scored two more runs (one charged to Rapada), doubling their lead to 4-0 with only two ABs left for Mesa.
But this is when the Solar Sox began to shine.
With two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the 8th, Mets 1B Michel Abreu (ex-Team Cuba) drew a walk. Scott Moore ripped a triple over the first base bag into the RF corner driving in Abreu, and Jake Fox lined a single to right-center knocking in Moore, cutting the Desert Dogs lead in half.
Mesa's Kevin Cameron (MIN) held the Dogs scoreless in the top of the 9th, and the Solar Sox entered the bottom of the 9th with their season essentially on the line, trailing 4-2.
With Desert Dogs ace closer Marcus McBeth (OAK) on the hill, Anthony Raglani (LAD) worked a walk to lead-off the inning, and 18-year old Fernando Martinez (NYM) followed with a line single to right-center, sending Raglani to 3rd. (The youngest player in the AFL, Martinez was signed by the Mets out of the Dominican Republic last year, getting a $1.4M bonus). Eric Patterson then dropped a textbook sac bunt, moving Martinez to 2nd, with Raglani holding at 3rd.
With the tying run on 2nd, Matt Tolbert (MIN) smoked a single just to the left of the Dogs shortstop, scoring Raglani, and cutting the Phoenix lead to one run. However, Martinez had to hold-up to make sure the liner went through, and could only advance to third.
With one out and the tying run on third and the winning run on 1st, Astros' Brooks Conrad (Hunter Pence's roster replacement) worked a walk, leaving it up to Michel Abreu to get the big hit. However, it looked like McBeth might get out of the damn spot, as Abreu rolled a slow grounder to Ben Zobrist at short. But the Dogs just missed the game-ending twin-killing, as the somewhat slow-footed Abreu beat the relay by an eyelash, as fellow-Met Martinez scored the tying run. Then Scott Moore struck out, sending the game into extra innings.
Jake Fox launched a long drive to the left that was caught by Desert Dogs left-fielder Cody Strait (CIN) against the fence leading off the bottom of the 10th, but otherwise neither team appeared capable of pushing across the winning run.
With a suspended game looming (any AFL game not decided after 11 innings is suspended), the Solar Sox came to bat in the bottom of the 11th, needing just one freaking run. With Cubs scouts looking tired and quite obviously anxious to get back to the hotel, and with Arizona Phil freezing his ass off, Eric Patterson worked a one-out walk. E-Pat then stole second, and advanced to 3rd, making a daring dash after a pitch in the dirt that was scored a wild pitch, barely beating Curtis Thigpen's laser throw. With Cubs scouts calling for a squeeze, manager Listach let Matt Tolbert hit away, and the Solar Sox shortstop drew a walk. Phoenix Manager Defrancesco then chose to intentionally walk Brooks Conrad, setting up a potential DP.
Once again, the pressure was on Michel Abreu. But playing in front of a couple of hundred polite fans in Mesa, Arizona, probably pales in comparison to playing in front of Fidel Castro and heavily armed Cuban troops in Havana with a sniper's rifle pointed at his head, so quite naturally the big Cuban came through like a cool breeze off the Bay of Pigs, chopping a high bouncer over Dogs third-baseman Kody Kirkland's head, scoring Eric Patterson with the winning run, giving the Solar Sox a hard-fought 5-4 victory, and cutting the Desert Dogs lead in AFL East to two games, with six to play.
By the end of the three hour-plus game, the temperature had dropped into the upper 60's, so you can be sure your old buddy Arizona Phil made a bee-line for the casa and had himself a warm libation in front of the fire.