Matt Stites jogged in from the bullpen at Camelback Ranch-Glendale on Friday to face the kind of tough situation he has grown used to as a closer in the Minor Leagues. Salt River clung to a two-run lead and baseball's top prospect Byron Buxton, who had already homered in the game, was set to lead off the ninth inning for Glendale.
But it was no problem for Stites. The right-hander retired the Desert Dogs in order to close out the Rafters' 4-2 victory and earn his first save in the Arizona Fall League.
Stites, the D-backs' No. 17 prospect, didn't have as much success in his first two outings in the AFL. He gave up three runs and retired just one of the five batters he faced in a blown save on Opening Day. He gave up a run and threw two wild pitches in his next outing.
But in four appearances since, Stites has pitched much better. In four scoreless innings, he had given up one hit and struck out three batters.
Stites said his arm angle for his two-seam fastball was too low at the start of the fall. He has worked with pitching coach Darryl Scott to correct the problem.
"I was dropping my arm down and showing it to everybody," Stites said. "I didn't like it. Clearly I didn't enjoy doing that. But it's getting much better."
This fall is Stites' first time pitching as a member of the D-backs. The Padres dealt Stites and left-hander Joe Thatcher to the D-backs for Ian Kennedy at the Trade Deadline. Stites had undergone an emergency appendectomy the week of the trade, ending his season.
Stites said after a month of doing nothing, he went to Arizona in early September to begin to rebuild his strength. He feels good physically now, but is still getting used to wearing a D-backs uniform.
"It's definitely different," he said. "I find myself saying we and still mentioning the Padres. But it's definitely a good experience and a good opportunity for me."
Stites was the last of four relievers who followed another exceptional start by Drew Hutchison. Though the Blue Jays' right-hander didn't match the four no-hit innings he threw last Saturday, he allowed just one run on two hits in four innings. He struck out four batters and has a 0.84 ERA in three AFL starts as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery.
"I like watching him pitch," Stites said. "He's a guy a lot of guys out here want to be like. His fastball command is good and he mixes his three other pitches pretty well."
Buxton's solo home run in the first inning was the only run Hutchison allowed. Buxton, who was playing in his first game since Oct. 16, finished the game 1-for-4.
For much of the game, it looked like Buxton's home run would be all the Desert Dogs would need as they worked toward their third straight shutout. But, despite only allowing five hits Friday, Glendale's scoreless innings streak ended at 23.
Zack Jones, Buxton's Twins teammate, walked the bases loaded with one out in the sixth inning. He gave up a single to Jacob Wilson to tie the score at one and Mike Freeman added a sacrifice fly to give the Rafters the lead. An error by third baseman Travis Mattair on the relay throw allowed two more runs to score.
Kenny Wilson was the only player with multiple hits in the game. He went 2-for-5 with two doubles.
In the end, it was Stites closing out Salt River's victory. While he is happy with the improvements he's made already this fall, he knows he still has work left to do after missing the last month of the season.
"I'm really working on getting my feel back for everything," Stites said. "I'm working on my changeup here and there, mixing it in to righties. But mostly the two-seam because I know that's going to be huge for me."