That competitive spirit will be on display on Saturday in the AFL championship game between the Salt River Rafters and Peoria Javelinas (3 p.m. ET, live on MLB Network and MLB.com) at Scottsdale Stadium. This might be an easygoing league, but in the one-game, winter-takes-all format of the finale, the desire to be crowned champion will be clearly evident.
"It means a lot, to go into the championship game," said Nationals right-hander Ryan Perry, who will start the game for the Rafters. "With the kind of talent that's out here, it's something special. Fighting for a ring is always a good time."
This will be the Rafters' second straight trip to the championship game, giving them the chance to win two years in a row since moving to Salt River Fields. The Rafters beat the Surprise Saguaros, 9-3, a year ago and now they will have the task of beating the Javelinas to repeat as champions.
The Rafters' roster is comprised of players from the D-backs, White Sox, Rockies, Blue Jays and Nationals. The Javelinas squad includes Reds, Twins, Phillies, Padres and Mariners prospects.
There was a chance of a championship game rematch, with Peoria not clinching the West Division title until the regular season's final day on Thursday. Robbie Erlin's five shutout innings allowed Peoria to finish ahead of Surprise and advance.
"Between Surprise and us, we had some good games," said Peoria manager Dusty Wathan, who tabbed the Reds' Tim Crabbe as his starter on Saturday. "I think anything can happen on any given day, especially in this league with the talent so high."
Wathan has grown used to having the season hang in the balance. His Reading Phillies team didn't clinch a spot in the Double-A Eastern League playoffs until the season's final game.
"Our year in Reading came down to the last day, too," Wathan said. "We never played a game that didn't mean something, on any of my teams. That's good for player development, when you're always playing for something."
"This league has been so tight," Salt River manager Matt Williams said. "We go into the last day of the season and we don't have a winner on the other side, that just means everyone is competing. That's good. They know what's in front of them, what they need to do, how they need to prepare. They'll let it all hang out on Saturday and we'll see what happens."
Salt River will have to find a way to tame Peoria's offense, arguably the best in the league this fall. The Javelinas led the AFL in a host of offensive categories, including runs scored, batting average and OPS. They are led by speedster Billy Hamilton, who stole 10 more bases in the AFL after his record-breaking, 155-steal performance during the regular season. Mariners prospects Nick Franklin, Stefen Romero and first-round Draft pick Mike Zunino have also been instrumental in their success.
The Rafters aren't exactly coming with a punchless lineup. The Blue Jays' Kevin Pillar finished sixth in the AFL with his .371 average. Rockies outfielder Corey Dickerson wasn't far behind at .364, while Nationals prospect Anthony Rendon hit .338 and fellow Nat Brian Goodwin provided Salt River with its own dynamic leadoff hitter.
"I'm just trying to give my team a chance," Perry said. "We have great hitters, some guys who can put up some runs. My goal is just to keep the game close and give us a chance.
"It's been a challenge. Pitching out here is tough. You have good hitters one through nine. It makes it interesting, you have to work on your stuff, locate and keep everything down, otherwise you'll be taken out of the park. I'm pretty fatigued, but a chance to go out there and compete one more time, I'm not going to complain."
"I think any time guys eventually get into a competitive situation, everybody wants to win," Wathan said. "When it gets down to it, everyone wants to win. It's a great thing for these guys. It's more exposure. And more exposure creates more opportunities."