SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- On the first day of the Arizona Fall League, manager Keith Johnson had a simple message for his team: “Congrats, you’re champions.”
Six weeks later, those words proved prophetic as the Salt River Rafters powered their way to an Arizona Fall League championship with a 5-1 win over the Surprise Saguaros on Saturday.
“I did say that and I felt it and I believed it,” the Salt River manager said. “I believed that at the end of this thing, if we did the things that we needed to do as a group and became a team, regardless of the logo on the side of our jersey, if we became the Rafters, then we were going to do well.”
The Rafters, who led the AFL with a .607 winning percentage (17-11-1), performed from start to finish in the AFL, much like they did in the championship game.
While there were several notable pitching performances, the Rafters’ bats broke the game open with a five-run fourth inning.
Jerar Encarnacion, who hit a career-high 16 homers over 135 games during the regular season, showed off his impressive power with a massive grand slam that proved to be the difference.
“I’m always looking for that kind of a pitch,” Encarnacion said in Spanish. “I made a good swing on it, it caught some air and went out of the ballpark. It felt great, it was a good hit.”
While the hit was huge for the Rafters, it was also a big moment for Encarnacion, who was performing in front of several members of his family, who flew into town 10 days ago.
“To do it in front of them was special,” Encarnacion said. “It’s really exciting to have them here.”
The Marlins’ No. 17 prospect turned around an 88.8 mph slider from Sterling Sharp (Nationals) and deposited it well beyond the left-field wall. The blast had an exit velocity of 109.9 mph, traveled 418 feet and had a hang time of 5.6 seconds, each of which Encarnacion thoroughly enjoyed.
Encarnacion wasn’t the only Rafters batter to hit the ball hard Saturday. Ronaldo Hernandez, who led Salt River with a .359 average during the AFL’s regular season, also played a vital role in the offense.
Hernandez, the Rays’ No. 7 prospect, got the first hit of the game as he crushed a double (106.6 mph exit velocity) off the center-field wall in the second inning. However, he was thrown out trying to stretch that into a triple. Hernandez made up for it in his next at-bat with a 107.6 mph single that brought home the Rafters’ first run.
While the Rafters’ offense broke the game open, the pitching staff also did its part. Dakota Chalmers (Twins) struggled with his command to start the game, but limited the damage to one run over 2 1/3 innings. Chalmers handed the ball off to Ashton Goudeau (Rockies), who has been lights out throughout his stint in Arizona and continued that trend Saturday.
The Rockies’ prospect, who fanned 18 over 13 scoreless frames in the AFL’s regular season, kept his perfect ERA intact and also picked up the win with 2 2/3 scoreless innings. Goudeau gave up just one hit, struck out three and threw 19 of his 26 pitches for strikes, operating with a mid-90s fastball and a curveball that sat in the upper-70s. Four pitchers followed Goudeau, and in total, five Rafters relievers combined to throw 6 2/3 scoreless innings.
“We had in our minds how we wanted the game to go, and it went according to plan,” Johnson said. “Ashton Goudeau came in and did really well. [Antonio] Santos does what he does, [Alex] Valverde did a great job to finish that inning off and [Alex] Vesia has been lights out for us.”