SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — You’ll forgive us if Bleed Cubbie Blue seems like “The Caleb Kilian Site” this morning, but I am quite excited about what the Cubs pitching prospect did in the Arizona Fall League championship game between the Mesa Solar Sox and Surprise Saguaros, which I attended at Salt River Fields, normally the Spring Training home of the Diamondbacks and Rockies.
Kilian retired all 18 Surprise hitters he faced, throwing 48 strikes in 68 pitches. He was throwing what baseball folks call “easy gas,” consistently hitting 95 or 96 on the ballpark pitch speed meter and touching 98 a couple times. He struck out eight and only four balls left the infield. He ran a three-ball count on only two hitters.
Meanwhile, the Mesa hitters were scoring early and often. They scored all the runs they’d turn out to need in a three-run first, with the big hit a two-run double by Blue Jays prospect Spencer Horwitz. They added single run in the second, fourth and sixth. For Cubs hitters in the game, it wasn’t a great night. Nelson Velazquez, named AFL MVP in a pre-game ceremony, went 0-for-5, though he did smack a long fly out to left in the second. Here’s the pregame presentation:
Cubs infield prospect Andy Weber went 1-for-5 and Luis Vazquez was 0-for-3, but reached base three times on two walks and an error and scored three of Mesa’s six runs. Here’s Vazquez after scoring the second of those three runs:
The story of the game, though, was Kilian. Since the AFL is a developmental league, there was never really any question about whether Kilian would be allowed to finish. Pitch limits for AFL starters are around 70-75 pitches, so 68 after six was it for Kilian.
Orioles prospect Nick Vespi kept the perfect game going for two batters in the seventh, then issued a walk. He struck out the next hitter, keeping the no-hitter intact.
Texas Rangers prospect Justin Foscue led off the eighth against Logan Gillaspie, who’s in the Orioles organization. Foscue hit a ground ball to Vazquez, whose throw pulled first baseman Horwitz off the bag. Horwitz attempted a tag, but it was late. The scoreboard operator posted “hit” on the board, to an audible groan from the crowd of 2,505. Moments later that groan turned to a cheer as the hit was removed and an error posted for Mesa. It was definitely an error; a good throw would have gotten the runner. (The official scorer for this game didn’t have a good night; two balls hit by Mesa batters that probably should have been ruled hits were called errors on Surprise fielders, including a ball hit by Vazquez.)
A couple of pitches later, it was groans again as Drew Mount (Reds) bounced a sharp, no-doubt single into right and broke up the no-hitter.
Gillaspie then struck out the next three hitters to end the inning, and Blue Jays prospect Graham Straker retired the side 1-2-3 in the ninth to complete the one-hit shutout and a championship for a team including Cubs prospects. Even in a league with just a 30-game season, that means something to the players.
Here’s the final out:
Here they are celebrating the win just after that last out:
Here’s the announcement of Kilian as championship game MVP and the championship banner presentation:
Back to the story of this game, Caleb Kilian. As you know, he was acquired by the Cubs in the Kris Bryant trade. He was the Giants’ eighth-round pick in 2019 out of Texas Tech and, like all minor league players, lost a year of development with the 2020 minor-league season cancelled due to the pandemic. In the AFL, he had an awful first outing. He faced seven batters and all of them reached base and scored. That will not do good things to your ERA. However, after that Kilian was absolutely dominant. Including the championship game, he had five other outings (three starts) in which he threw 20 innings, allowed 12 hits and five walks (0.850 WHIP), allowed two runs (one earned) for an 0.45 ERA, and struck out 26 — all of that in an environment generally favoring hitters.
Kilian turns 25 next June. He’ll undoubtedly start 2022 at Triple-A Iowa. He doesn’t need to be added to the 40-man roster at this time, but I hope he gets a Spring Training non-roster invitation and a couple of outings against MLB hitters. I believe he can get MLB hitters out — right now — and he should be on the fast track to be in the Cubs rotation sometime in 2022.
This was an enjoyable evening of baseball (and a relatively fast-paced game at 2:52) in front of an enthusiastic gathering at SRF. It’s now 97 days until the Cubs’ first scheduled Spring Training game, February 26, 2022 at Sloan Park against the Dodgers. A lockout for baseball looms, unfortunately, and there’s no guarantee when the next professional game will be played in North America. Games like the AFL championship remind me of what’s good about the sport. Let’s hope MLB owners and players can come to a deal that is good for everyone.