SURPRISE, Ariz. -- There was an expectation heading into this year's Fall Stars Game that the East lineup would put up some serious numbers. Two of the top three hitters in the Arizona Fall League, the Cubs' Kris Bryant and the Angels' C.J. Cron, were hitting third and fourth in the lineup, respectively, after all.
Alex Meyer had other plans. The big Twins right-hander, ranked No. 31 on MLB.com's Top 100 prospects list and No. 3 on the Twins' Top 20 threw three scoreless innings against that powerful East lineup, yielding three hits and one walk while striking out three. His West Division teammates backed him up with some firepower of their own, coasting to a 9-2 win in front of a Fall Stars Game record crowd of 6,529 at Surprise Stadium on Saturday night.
The West lineup did what many thought the East would, pounding out 12 hits -- five of them home runs. Fall Stars Game Most Valuable Player Brett Nicholas of the Rangers hit two of them, finishing the game 3-for-4. Mariners outfield prospect Stefen Romero entered the game in the sixth and homered in both of his at-bats, driving in three. Red Sox third-base prospect Garin Cecchini added a final long ball in the eighth inning.
Meyer set the tone from the get-go, making it fairly clear that if the East was going to do any damage, it wasn't going to be against him. Velocity has never been a problem for the big right-hander who came to the Twins via the Denard Span trade, and he had plenty of it on Saturday night. His first three pitches to East leadoff hitter James Ramsey of the Cardinals were in the 95-98 mph range. He was still popping 96 in his final inning of work, impressive considering most believed he might only go one in this All-Star Game type format.
"That's kind of what I thought, too," said Meyer, who's gone 2-0 with a 3.63 ERA over five AFL starts to date. "I thought there was a chance I was going to go two. But before the game, they said, 'Hey, you're supposed to go three tonight.' I said, 'I don't know. I didn't hear that.' I got out there, stretched it out and got ready for it. It was fine. I was able to pace myself a little bit, knowing I had to save some bullets."
As impressive as the velocity was, it was Meyer's breaking ball that really kept the East hitters at bay. He struck out Ramsey and Bryant with it in the first inning, then got Nationals prospect Brian Goodwin with it in the third. That ended the inning on a strikeout-throwout double play, as Padres catcher Austin Hedges gunned down Ramsey at second. It was the second time Hedges helped out Meyer, having thrown out Goodwin in the first inning.
"My curve was good for me tonight," Meyer said. "My fastball command wasn'the best, but it was effective enough.
"I feel like I was facing the Mesa lineup. I faced them in my first game out here. They're a bunch of free swingers who can run into a ball. To be able to go out there and put up three zeros, I was happy with it. If I can come away with the win against some of the best players in Minor League Baseball, it was fun. It was a special night to see all these players."
It was a special night for the West offense as well. Indians prospect Tyler Naquin tripled to lead off the bottom of the third after Meyer was done for the night. He came home to score on a Bryant error off the bat of Twins outfielder Byron Buxton, who would steal second and eventually score on a fielder's choice. Nicholas added run number three when he led off the fourth with his shot off of Angels right-hander Cam Bedrosian. His second home run came in the seventh off of the Mets' Jeurys Familia.
"It feels incredible," Nicholas said. "The other part, too, I've got a lot of family and friends here. I'm from Arizona. It's just an incredible experience and it's something I'll remember for the rest of my career."
The West pitching staff followed Meyer's lead, putting up zeros until allowing single runs in the seventh and eighth innings. It's a sign of progress for Meyer that relievers were trying to extend what he was doing, rather than put out a fire he created. In the past, he readily admits, not having fastball command would have led to poor results. Now he understands he can get hitters -- even some of the best the Minor Leagues has to offer -- out without it.
"There were times this year when I didn't have fastball command and it'd be one of those days where I'm absolutely fighting to get through five innings," Meyer said. "Tonight, I had a good changeup going for me, which I was able to use effectively. I'm maturing as a pitcher, learning how to pitch, instead of just going out there and throwing the ball as hard as you can every time. I'm not where I need to be yet, or where I'm going to be, but it's a process ... I feel like I'm taking big steps and getting there."
It was a nice bonus that Twins general manager Terry Ryan was in the house to see Meyer take the step he did on Saturday. Ryan has obviously seen Meyer pitch before, even here during this Fall League season, but Meyer agreed that it never hurts to do well in front of the guy who makes personnel decisions for the organization.
"He's been here all week," Meyer said. "He saw me throw earlier in the week and I didn't necessarily have my best game. Being able to go and throw like this in front of the general manager, you try not to think about that, but it's hard not to. When your general manager is out there, it's in the back of your mind and you want to go out there and perform well. You want to every time, but when he's there watching it, you want it to be a little bit better."