Trailing 17-1 after five innings, the Clinton LumberKings were down – in their moods as well as on the scoreboard. Then the players, all prospects hoping to one day make the major leagues, started thinking back to last weekend, when they overcame an eight-run deficit.
”We kind of had that in the back of our heads. I was like, `Hey, it’s not over `til it’s over,”’ second baseman Lonnie Kauppila recalled, invoking Yogi Berra’s famous saying. ”It was a long shot. But once we got into the ninth inning, it was like, `Hey, we can do it again.”’
Seattle’s farm team in the Class A Midwest League started chipping away. And by the time Wednesday night’s game was over, the LumberKings had beaten the Burlington Bees 20-17 over 12 innings in one of the greatest comebacks in professional baseball history.
”I’m still in shock,” Clinton manager Scott Steinmann said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. ”I’ve never been a part of that. I don’t think too many people have in the game.”
A crowd of 558 turned out on a warm and breezy night at 3,200-capacity Community Field in Burlington, Iowa, home of the Los Angeles’ Angels’ Midwest League affiliate.
Burlington burst ahead with a seven-run second and made it 8-0 in the fourth. After Clinton scored in the fifth, the Bees added nine runs in the bottom half to take a 16-run lead.
”The coach had a meeting with us a couple days ago saying it’s a long season, we need to grind out at-bats. That was my mindset,” said Clinton designated hitter Justin Seager, the 21-year-old younger brother of Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager.
Clinton had rallied from a 12-4, sixth-inning deficit Saturday in a 16-13 win at the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, a Milwaukee farm team in Appleton. The LumberKings started swinging the wood Wednesday in a six-run sixth that cut the deficit to 10, closed to 17-12 with a five-run eighth and then got a run in the ninth on four straight one-out singles off Ben Carlson.
Marcus Littlewood, a second-round draft pick in 2010, followed with a moment of drama, sending a 2-1 fastball from Alan Busenitz over the wall in right-center field for a grand slam. Now the score was 17-17.
”Rounding the bases,” Littlewood said, ”I kind of realized what we had done. Pretty incredible. Probably the funnest game I’ve ever been part of.”
Players came out of the dugout to meet Littlewood, who played for the U.S. at the 2008 Youth Pan-Am Games.
”Everybody was excited like we won the World Series,” Steinmann said.
Seager, who had four hits, put Clinton ahead in the 12th with a bases-loaded RBI grounder off Trevor Foss (0-2). Kauppila, a 22-year-old drafted from Stanford last year, followed with a two-run single.
Emilio Pagan (1-0), Clinton’s fifth pitcher, had thrown three innings. Kauppila had been told to start warming up in the 11th. He hadn’t pitched since 2010, when he took the mound for one inning as a senior at Burbank High School in California.
”Other than that, was probably eighth grade,” he said.
Clinton pitching coach Cibney Bello called former big leaguer Chris Gwynn, Seattle’s director of player development, to get permission for Kauppila to take the mound. Kauppila was told to throw at 85 percent velocity and to stick to fastballs and changeups.
”I wasn’t allowed to throw a slider, which was pretty unfortunate,” he said.
Kauppila got three straight outs on two liners and a popup. After 3 hours, 28 minutes, the epic was over. Clinton had tied Burlington for fourth place at 16-15, six games back of Kane County.
The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which governs the minors, didn’t have any records of a 16-run comeback. The largest deficit overcame in a big league victory is 12 runs, accomplished by Detroit against the Chicago White Sox on June 18, 1911; by the Philadelphia Athletics versus Cleveland on June 15, 1925; and by the Indians over Seattle on Aug. 5, 2001.
Having checked out of their rooms at the Catfish Bend Casino Resort, Clinton’s players had postgame pizza and then got ready for the 3-hour-plus bus ride home. Family members and friends sent emails and texts congratulating them.
”I told them a few minutes ago not to do it again,” Steinmann said Thursday before laughing, ”because I’m tired of answering these phone calls.”