Surprise captures second straight Fall League title

November 11th, 2023

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Same champion, different year.

The Surprise Saguaros won the Arizona Fall League Championship for the second consecutive season after defeating the Peoria Javelinas 6-5 on Saturday night at Scottsdale Stadium.

It's the first time the Saguaros have won back-to-back crowns and made four consecutive championship game appearances in the premier prospect circuit.

"Everyone deserves this," Blue Jays No. 18 prospect Damiano Palmegiani said. "So many guys did their part to get us here. It means the world to us. It's awesome.

"[We] just mesh as a group right away. We kind of started to bond together really well and we play for each other. We could kind of sense that as we were going through the season, it was about wins and losses, not about stats."

Palmegiani's biggest asset has been his power, as he slugged six homers this fall and was the runner-up in last week's AFL Home Run Derby, but his plate discipline allowed him to play a huge role in the victory.

The Blue Jays' 2022 14th-round Draft pick walked in the third inning and scored the first run of the game two batters later on a Liam Hicks (Rangers) single.

Palmegiani started a four-run, fifth-inning drive by singling and later scoring. He added his third run scored in the sixth when he walked and then scored on a Wes Clarke (Brewers) double, which proved to be the game-winning run.

"That's all you can do in these big moments," Palmegiani said. "Is trust all the work you've put in all year, and I couldn't be happier for the guys."

It also helped that Surprise starter Angel Zerpa (Royals) ended his AFL season with his strongest outing by delivering three scoreless innings. After giving up a second-inning double to Nasim Nuñez (MIA No. 17), Zerpa retired eight consecutive batters. His six strikeouts were the most he's had this fall.

While the AFL is reserved for up-and-coming prospects, it isn't uncommon to see some players with Major League experience. However, Zerpa has made 19 appearances from 2021 to '23, making him one of the most experienced players in the AFL. The Royals sent him to the desert to throw more innings after suffering a left shoulder injury in June.

"I wasn't worried about who was batting," Zerpa said in Spanish. "I was looking to attack the hitters, and it doesn't matter if they are mostly Minor Leaguers, we still have to get the job done no matter where I'm at."

Despite being up 6-1 through six innings, the Saguaros couldn't feel comfortable with that lead. In Friday's play-in game, Peoria erased a nine-run first-inning deficit by responding with 12 unanswered runs -- seven in the second inning -- to complete the largest come-from-behind victory in AFL postseason history.

The Javelinas were on the brink of completing another comeback as they scored four runs in the ninth inning and had the game-winning run on base. But after Saguaros pitcher Justin Yeager (Brewers) struck out Chase DeLauter (CLE No. 4) on three pitches, the festivities began.

"They, they forced us to be perfect," Palmegiani said. "Because if you don't play perfect baseball against them, you're going to lose."

The Saguaros players ran to the dugout and headed toward second base to celebrate the triumph by spreading an infectious joy and embracing each other one last time, culminating the end of the 2023 AFL season.

"The special thing about this team is that we're always having fun in the clubhouse," Zerpa said. "We're always enjoying each other's presence and we're always pushing ourselves to become the best version of ourselves."

"It's a special group," Palmegiani said. "I wish all these guys the best in their careers and we're going to be seeing all of them in the big leagues soon."