The 2016 regular season was a tough one at Double-A Biloxi for Brewers No. 14 prospectJacob Nottingham. So when he stroked a walk-off single to left field to lift the Salt River Rafters to a 4-3, 11-inning victory over the Peoria Javelinas in the Arizona Fall League Military Appreciation Game on Saturday night at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, it was a sweet moment.
"I came up in the ninth inning with the same opportunity, and so definitely in the 11th I tried to relax as much as possible and get a good swing," Nottingham told MLB.com. "Something good happened. I can't be more happy about it."
The 21-year-old catcher, drafted by the Astros in the sixth round of the 2013 Draft before being traded to the A's and then Milwaukee, entered the 2016 season as MLBPipeline.com's No. 8 catching prospect.
But Nottingham followed up a stellar 2015 campaign between Class A and Class A Advanced for Houston and Oakland (.316/.372/.505 with 17 home runs and 82 RBIs in 119 games) with a mediocre performance in 2016. In his first season in Milwaukee's organization, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound slugger hit .234/.295/.347 with 11 home runs and 37 RBIs in 112 games.
"I think this year was the big learning experience, going to the Double-A level," Nottingham said. "The pitching, I thought, was a lot better up there. I feel like in this Fall League, I've been a lot better than in the season. So I think it's gonna be good going into Spring Training; I'm a lot more comfortable and taking good hacks and having a better approach."
Though he entered Saturday's contest batting .210, Nottingham raised that average by 14 points with his 2-for-5 effort against Peoria, driving in two of the Rafters' four runs. The other two were driven in by Braves farmhand Dylan Moore and Atlanta's No. 9 prospectTravis Demeritte, each of whom went 1-for-4 with a single.
"I'm with a lot of good guys in the locker room to talk about hitting," Nottingham said. "It's good to be around guys like that, and we all talk and we all help each other. Talking with them and picking their minds and how they go about stuff is really helping."
Nottingham is primarily regarded for his raw power and his potential as a hitter will likely determine his fate in the big leagues. But while he also has played first base on occasion, Nottingham has been working to improve his skills behind the plate.
He demonstrated that by throwing out Peoria baserunner D.J. Stewart in the fourth inning as he tried to steal second. According to Statcast™, Nottingham's exchange time from when he caught the pitch from Salt River starter Josh Taylor to when he released the ball to second was 0.665 seconds. Nottingham's throw was clocked at 83.9 mph.
"I know when I got traded to the Brewers [from Oakland for Khris Davis], they're really big on catching," Nottingham said. "I think that was the best thing to happen to me in my career so far. They have a great catching coordinator, Charlie Greene, and he really believes in it and has so much passion in it. Just seeing it through him and other guys [in the organization], I think that helped me want to be a better catcher.
"I want to be known as a catcher, too, and not just a hitter."
One player that has gotten to know Nottingham as a backstop rather than just an opposing hitter during this AFL season is Taylor, who started for Salt River Saturday and tossed five strong innings in which he surrendered one unearned run on two hits.
"I'm really comfortable pitching to him because he calls a good game -- sometimes I think he knows the hitters better than I do," Taylor said. "When he calls something I shake off, he'll put the sign back down again like, 'This is something we need to throw here.'"
Nottingham's throw to nail Stewart at second was one of several great defensive plays on the night from players on both clubs. Mariners No. 2 prospect Tyler O'Neill, in addition to going 1-for-3 with two RBIs, made two spectacular diving grabs in right field for Peoria.
Other defensive gems came from Reds farmhand Zach Vincej at shortstop -- a full-extension dive to his left to grab a sharp grounder and make the play at first -- and Rockies prospect Ryan McMahon at first base, diving for a ball to his right and flipping to the pitcher covering.
Salt River led 3-1 entering the sixth inning, but Peoria scored runs in the seventh and eighth to draw even. The Javelinas' Josh VanMeter doubled in O'Neill in the seventh, and O'Neill singled home the tying run in the eighth.
But in the end, the night belonged to Nottingham and the Rafters, who improved to 14-12-1, and sit in first place atop the AFL East division standings.