Despite leading the Arizona Fall League East Division since the first week of the fall, Mesa entered the season's final day only a half-game up in the standings over Salt River. The tight race set up a tense afternoon Thursday, even though the Solar Sox controlled their own destiny.
The Solar Sox quickly took the drama out of the day. Mesa never trailed against Glendale and cruised to a 9-3 victory at Camelback Ranch, clinching the East Division. Mesa will face Surprise, which won the West Division, Saturday in the AFL Championship Game.
Mesa, which began the season undefeated in its first eight games, will go into the championship on a six-game winning streak. It hasn't lost since last Thursday, when its lead in the division shrank to a half-game over Salt River. Neither team blinked in the final week, allowing Mesa to hold on for the title.
Third baseman Kris Bryant said the Solar Sox are pleased with how their season has unfolded.
"We started off good. We hit a little rough stretch and then we finished strong," Bryant said. "It's all about finishing strong. It's been a long fall and we're ready to wind down, but we've got another game coming and we'll give it our all out there."
Bryant, the Cubs' No. 4 prospect went 1-for-3 with two walks and scored three runs Thursday. He led the league with six home runs and a 1.184 OPS.
After hitting .429 in his first 10 games, Bryant has slowed down somewhat at the plate. He hit .286 in his last 10 games. But he drew 10 walks in the last 10 games after just two in the season's first half.
Bryant said he feels comfortable at the plate.
"I'm not really getting a lot to hit," he said. "They're pitching me a little differently the second and third time through and I'm taking what they're giving me. I'm pretty confident right now."
Glendale didn't make it easy for Mesa to clinch the division. In the season's final two days, the Solar Sox had to beat a pair of starting pitchers ranked on MLB.com's Top 100 prospects list. Wednesday, they topped right-hander Alex Meyer (No. 31). Thursday, it was left-hander Andrew Heaney (No. 48).
But the Solar Sox offense proved to be up to the task. They took early leads against both starters and then padded their lead against the Desert Dogs relievers. Heaney allowed one run on four hits in three innings, before turning the game over to the bullpen.
Bryant scored the first run Thursday in the second inning. He led off with a walk and eventually scored on catcher Adrian Nieto's one-out single. The Solar Sox then broke the game open with a pair of home runs. Outfielders Zach Borenstein and Tyler Collins went deep in the fourth and fifth innings, respectively.
Left-hander Sammy Solis was the beneficiary of the run support. The Nationals' No. 11 prospect allowed one run on six hits in five innings. He struck out four batters and lowered his ERA to 2.17 in 29 innings this fall.
Bryant said Solis, who leads the league with five wins, has been impressive throughout the fall.
"He was awesome," Bryant said. "He was throwing first-pitch strikes every time. He was really competing and making it real easy to play defense behind him."
Three relievers followed Solis to close out the victory. But, like Surprise earlier in the week, Mesa is not reveling in its division championship. Instead, the Solar Sox hope Saturday will give them an opportunity to celebrate.
"We're focused on the championship," Bryant said. "Win that one and I'm sure we'll have [a celebration]. Our job's not done yet."