The reason for the delay? An official protest -- certainly a first in the annals of the AFL -- over an appeal play in the bottom of the seventh inning. Nationals outfielder Brian Goodwin led off that inning for the Rafters with a triple. D-backs shortstop Chris Owings lofted a fly ball to right field, Goodwin tagged and scored with what appeared to be the tying run.
That's when things got a big chaotic. Catcher Mike Zunino stepped on home plate and the home-plate umpire signaled safe. But then the Javelinas appealed to third and Goodwin was ruled out for leaving early, keeping the score 4-3. The protest wasn't about the ruling over Goodwin's departure, but rather the multiple calls, first at home, then at third.
"There have been times it's been overturned," Salt River manager Matt Williams said, adding that members of his coaching staff told him they'd been involved in games where protests had changed an on-field decision. "I felt an obligation to place it under protest, to get an explanation. If they do [overturn it], we're still playing."
Once it was explained that a defensive team is allowed to appeal the same play at multiple positions, AFL director Steve Cobb was able to announce to the crowd and both dugouts that the protest had been denied and that the Javelinas were indeed champions, allowing Peoria to renew its celebration.
Zunino went 3-for-5 with a pair of RBIs, Padres prospect Rymer Liriano went 3-for-3 and Nate Roberts of the Twins also had three hits. Reds speedster Billy Hamilton went 2-for-5 before having to leave the game in the eighth after crashing into the right-center-field wall.
Even though he scuffled a bit near the end of the Fall League season, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Hamilton was the catalyst for the Javelinas. The center fielder led off the game with a triple off Salt River (and Nationals) right-hander Ryan Perry and came home on Zunino's single. The Javelinas scored again to give them a 2-0 lead before the Rafters even came to the plate.
Hamilton contributed again in the top of the second as Peoria extended its lead. After fellow Reds prospect Didi Gregorius singled with one out, Hamilton pulled out one of his specialties, a drag bunt from the left side, for a hit that moved Gregorius to second before he came around to score on another Zunino RBI hit. Nate Freiman's two-out single gave Peoria a 4-1 lead in the third.
"It felt great," said Zunino, the No. 3 pick in the 2012 Draft. "It's been a long year, but this is a great group of guys and I was happy I was able to contribute."
The Rafters weren't done after Rockies catcher Lars Davis' sacrifice fly that scored Carlos Sanchez of the White Sox in the second. They plated two more in the bottom of the third, both with two outs. Sanchez started it out with a single and then the AFL stolen-base leader -- that's right, Hamilton didn't top the Fall League in that category -- swiped second. Rockies outfielder Kent Matthes singled him in to chase Reds starter Tim Crabbe. Lefty Jay Johnson was brought in to face the left-handed-hitting Corey Dickerson of the Rockies, but Dickerson stayed on the ball and laced an RBI double to right, just beyond the reach of Padres prospect Liriano, to bring Matthes home from first and make it a one-run game.
Salt River had multiple opportunities to knot things up, starting off both the seventh and eighth innings with leadoff triples. First came Goodwin's triple in the seventh and the ensuing nullified sacrifice fly. In the eighth, it was another Nats prospect, Anthony Rendon, who tripled to deep right-center. But when Sanchez's dribbler was fielded by Reds reliever Curtis Partch, he flipped to Zunino to nail Rendon at the plate.
"That's the toughest play for a catcher, the ball to right field," Zunino said of the Goodwin play. "I can't watch the runner; I have to stay on the ball. After the throw came in, we weren't sure what to do. I threw to third, they threw back to me, I threw it back to third."
"It was worth a shot," Williams said of the protest. "In the end, we had a guy on third with no one out twice and couldn't [get him in]. That's the story."
On Rendon's triple, Hamilton slammed against the wall trying to make the play, forcing him from the game. He stayed on the ground for a long time before slowly walking off the field. In the end, it appeared to be back spasms and nothing more serious.
"It's sore, but I'm OK," said Hamilton, who is playing the outfield for the first time this fall, moving from shortstop. "There aren't walls when you play shortstop, but I better get used to that."
Saturday's championship game ended what was a very long run for all of the AFL's prospects. Zunino began his junior year at Florida in February. After 66 games there, he played in 44 more after signing with the Mariners. The AFL championship was his 20th game with Peoria.
For Hamilton, Saturday was game No. 150 in a season that really started in January when he started strength and conditioning work. It included 581 at-bats and 204 stolen-base attempts. Always high energy -- it's pretty evident that he wouldn't have pulled up short of the center-field wall even if he could have -- the future leadoff hitter had to finally admit that it was a good time for a break.
"I'm tired," Hamilton said with a smile. "I need to get home and rest up. I've got a long year ahead of me and I want to be ready."