These 8 players shined in the AFL title game

November 21st, 2021

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The 2021 Arizona Fall League season is in the books, with the Mesa Solar Sox winning Saturday’s championship game, 6-0. It was a night where the developmental focus of the league could be put aside and winning a ring became tantamount.

A number of players stood out under the lights in a championship atmosphere, and it is worth noting that evaluators do like to see how players respond when the stakes are higher. The majority of the top performers were obviously on the winning side of this contest, but we’re not ignoring the Surprise Saguaros who showed well.

1. Caleb Kilian, RHP, Cubs: Mesa’s starter couldn’t have been much better. Slated to go five innings, he managed to get in a sixth because he was so efficient, retiring all 18 batters he faced. He missed bats (8 K's) and got weak contact early in counts (6 groundball outs), using a four-seamer that was up to 98 mph, a two-seamer that averaged just over 94 mph, according to Statcast, and a particularly effective cutter, filling up the strike zone that helped him cruise through six frames on just 68 pitches.

2. Logan Davidson, 3B, A’s: Davidson started to get locked in as the AFL season went on, hitting .300/.396/.450 in 11 November games, and he kept that going on Saturday, going 3-for-4 with a double and an RBI. He doubled in the first, then had a 110.5 mph single in the second before being one of the few people to touch Jackson Rutledge’s slider with his RBI single in the sixth.

3. Jackson Rutledge, RHP, Nationals: Rutledge showed both what makes him an intriguing pitching prospect and what he needs to work on during his outing. While he did give up a pair of runs in his 3 1/3 innings of work, he also struck out seven and the first six batters he retired were via the K. His electric fastball topped out around 98 mph and averaged over 95 mph. His mid-80s slider had a 69-percent whiff rate, but he walked four and only threw 38 of his 73 pitches for strikes. The stuff is all there; he just needs to keep refining his command.

4. Jonah Bride, C, Athletics: Bride, who is learning how to catch for the first time this fall, was actually the DH in this game and came through with three hits and an RBI for Mesa in celebrating being added to Oakland's 40-man roster. He hit the ball hard all night, starting with a 100 mph single in the first on a changeup. Bride picked up a 99 mph single off of a Rutledge slider in the fifth and collected his third hit in the ninth at 102 mph. Even his flyout in the seventh was squared up at 101.7 mph.

5. Logan Gillaspie, RHP, Orioles: Gillaspie was added to the Orioles’ 40-man on Friday and he gave a glimpse as to why he earned that spot by striking out the side in the eighth, even if he did give up the only hit Mesa allowed in the game. The reliever was up to 98 mph with his four-seamer and filled up the strike zone with it (10 of 11 for strikes). With two runners on (the first reached on an error), Gillaspie bore down, getting AFL MVP Nelson Velazquez to swing over a slider, freezing Nationals catcher Drew Millas with a 98 mph fastball on the inside corner, then getting Rangers infielder Ezequiel Duran to swing through a 97 mph heater up in the zone to end the only threat Surprise had all game.

6. Graham Spraker, RHP, Blue Jays: The AFL Reliever of the Year closed things out in the ninth and did what he’s done all fall: put up a zero. He needed just 10 pitchers for his perfect frame, striking out one. Spraker is all fastball-cutter and he leaned mostly on the former, throwing eight of them and topping out close to 95 mph. He struck out Nats shortstop Jackson Cluff and got Royals outfielder Nathan Eaton to ground out with the four-seamer, both with spin rates north of 2,400 rpm. To clinch the AFL championship, he retired Yankees outfielder Elijah Dunham on an 88 mph cutter, also with a high spin rate (2,420 rpm).

7. JJ Bleday, OF, Marlins: One of the AFL’s two Hitters of the Year, Bleday only had one hit on Saturday, but it did drive in a run and he also had a sacrifice fly. That came in the second, making it 4-0, and he turned on a 96 mph fastball from Rutledge in the fourth, sending it back up the middle to give Mesa a five-run lead.

8. Jackson Cluff, SS, Nationals: There weren’t many highlights for Surprise in this one, but Cluff showed why he was named the Defensive Player of the Year in the seventh inning. Blue Jays catcher Gabriel Moreno sent a 112.5 mph scorcher up the middle that seemed destined to be a hit, but Cluff ranged to his left, dove, popped up and threw a strike to get Moreno by a stride.