On paper heading into the game, it seemed like it might be an uphill battle for Phoenix's drive for five, a remarkable feat considering the ever-changing personnel and organizations providing players each fall.
The first obstacle was the 6-foot-6 right-hander who took the mound for Mesa. Braves prospect Tommy Hanson has been by far the most dominant pitcher in the AFL this season -- perhaps in any season -- and managing any offense against him would be easier said than done.
The heralded hurler performed as scripted, going five innings while allowing a run on three hits with eight strikeouts.
Already the winner of the circuit's pitching Triple Crown and potentially the first pitcher to take home league MVP honors (announced at the Winter Meetings), Hanson didn't give up his lone run until the fifth, when he already had a three-run lead. For the AFL season -- including the championship game and Rising Stars Showcase -- Hanson pitched 36 2/3 innings, allowing only 13 hits and 10 walks while striking out 64. He finished the campaign with a combined 0.74 ERA.
Phoenix starter Jeff Manship of the Twins matched Hanson to start, allowing one run through the first three frames on a Casper Wells double that plated Scott Cousins. But he ran into trouble in the fourth, when Logan Morrison led off with a single and Jeff Larish clubbed a two-run homer to right to give the Solar Sox a 3-0 lead.
Hanson gave up his lone run of the day in the fifth -- an Evan Frey RBI groundout following Danny Valencia's triple -- but Mesa got it right back in the sixth, when Van Pope doubled and scored on Will Rhymes' single to center.
The Desert Dogs never got to Hanson, but his pitch count did. He had thrown 76 pitches, including 54 for strikes, and even though this was a championship game, the Braves' top pitching prospect was not allowed to extend himself further. That turned out to be a huge break for the Desert Dogs, who put up nine runs in the sixth and seventh to put the game away.
"You have to tip your hat to that guy," Athletics first base prospect Josh Donaldson said of Hanson. "Just getting a hit off of him is a big accomplishment. We were hoping to get some runs off of him and we were fortunate to get one, but in the next inning, things seemed to open up for us."
It opened up, and then some, even without A's slugger Sean Doolittle, who was not in the lineup due to a previous commitment. Donaldson certainly helped pick up the slack for his missing organization-mate, collecting three hits and four RBIs. His single in the sixth scored J.P. Arencibia to shave the deficit to 4-2. Valencia singled home two more runs to give Phoenix its first lead of the game, chasing Tigers reliever Rudy Darrow.
In came Phillies lefty Sergio Escalona, who was greeted by Frey's RBI single as the Desert Dogs opened a 6-4 lead.
"Tommy Hanson is a great pitcher," Donaldson said. "When you see someone new after him, it makes the at-bats seem a little easier. It's not that the other guys are bad, but Hanson's that good."
Phoenix wasn't done feasting off those other guys, scoring four more in the seventh. Steve Tolleson and Mike McKenry walked before Marlins reliever Tim Wood left a two-strike pitch over the plate to Donaldson, who launched a three-run blast far beyond the left-field fence to give Phoenix a five-run lead.
"I knew I hit it well," Donaldson said. "They said it traveled pretty far. I got a good pitch to hit and barreled up. I had a two-strike approach and was just trying to shorten my swing."
From there, it was A's relievers shutting the door, perhaps fitting since Oakland has been the one constant organization during this five-year title run.
Andrew Bailey tossed a scoreless seventh and eighth and Andrew Carignan, the AFL leader in saves, finished it off in the ninth, getting Morrison to ground out to Donaldson to end the AFL season the same way it had the previous four years: with the Desert Dogs celebrating a championship.
"It was a joy to play with these guys," Donaldson added. "We really bonded."