It was late Wednesday night, about an hour after his team had done the seemingly impossible, when Scott Steinmann began to understand the magnitude of the accomplishment.
Steinmann, the first-year manager of the Clinton LumberKings, was sitting on the team bus waiting for the last of his players to file on and leave Burlington, Iowa, and head back to Clinton. There was an excited energy not common for a team that had just finished playing 12 innings of baseball, wrapping up a 10-game trip.
But it was what his team did in those 12 innings that had everyone buzzing with excitement. Down 17-1 to the Burlington Bees after the fifth inning, the LumberKings, the Class A affiliate of the Mariners, mounted a historic comeback, scoring 19 unanswered runs over the next seven innings to somehow prevail, 20-17.
Yes, it was an absurd comeback and accomplishment. But it was also lower-level Class A baseball, in the Midwest League, in Iowa.
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How big of a deal could it really be?
Steinmann got his answer in the form of a text message to hitting coach Brent Johnson from his wife, Amanda.
“Brent shows me this text from his wife and it’s a screen shot of us on ESPN on SportsCenter,” Steinmann said. “That’s when I sort of knew. Then later I started hearing about all the talk on social media.”
By the next day, Steinmann and the LumberKings had fielded calls from The Associated Press, ESPN, The New York Times and even Good Morning America.
“It’s been a crazy little run,” he said on Saturday. “It’s been fun.”
The previous comeback record was a 12-run comeback by a Dominican Summer League team, representing the Angels in 2008
Just how did this remarkable rally happen?
Let’s start with the unenjoyable aspect, building the 17-1 deficit. Starter Jose Flores struggled in his four innings of work, giving up eight runs on seven hits with four walks and two strikeouts.
Reliever Tommy Burns started the fifth inning and gave up six runs on three hits with two walks and only got one out in the inning. Burns was replaced by Paul Fry, who gave up three more runs. The inning finally ended nine runs later.
“Yeah, that part wasn’t too enjoyable,” Steinmann said. “You are down 17-1 after five innings, I was just thinking about riding the game out. We would have finished 6-4 on the road trip, and that would have been a good trip.”
His players were thinking other things.
“You know these guys were crazy enough to believe they can come back,” Steinmann said. “It’s a good group. And they believe nothing is impossible. We had a crazy comeback a few days before. So they knew they were capable.”
Indeed, on May 3 in Appleton, Wis., the LumberKings were trailing 12-4 after five innings and came back and won 16-13.
But this was a 17-1 deficit.
“They walk that fine line between crazy and insane sometimes,” Steinmann joked.
Erasing that sort of a lead is like eating an elephant — you have to do it one bite at a time. And Clinton took some pretty big bites.
The LumberKings answered with six runs in the top of the sixth to make it 17-7, scoring runs on a triple from Justin Seager, younger brother of Mariners’ Kyle Seager, and a homer from Zach Shank. After going scoreless in the seventh, they tacked on five runs in the eighth with Jeff Zimmerman providing a two-run double.
That’s when Steinmann started to sense something building.
“I’m coaching third and I look into our dugout and I see the guys in there and they are involved; there’s great energy and everyone is excited,” he said. “That’s when I knew we had a chance.”
Still, they were down 17-12 going into the ninth inning. A five-run deficit isn’t easy to overcome. Clinton did. Four straight singles led to a run and then Marcus Littlewoods plated the other four with one swing, hammering a grand slam off Burlington closer Alan Busenitz to send the game into extra innings.
Clinton closer Emilio Pagan worked overtime, throwing three scoreless innings and allowing just one hit to keep it at 17-17.
The LumberKings broke the tie in the top of the 12th. Zimmerman doubled and then scored the go-ahead run on a fielder’s choice. Second baseman Lonnie Kauppilla singled home a pair of big insurance runs.
The LumberKings were out of relievers and Kauppilla was going to pitch the 12th. Kauppilla hadn’t pitched since high school. So, of course, he pitched a 1-2-3 inning to get the save.
“We told him to use a fastball and change-up and stay under control,” Steinmann said. “He went in there and threw strikes, and we made the plays behind him.”