Whenever a position player takes the mound, it’s a moment worth remembering. But in Wednesday night’s wild Durham-Columbus game, strange baseball became surreal.
Durham starter Jacob Faria struck out 13 hitters in 4.2 innings on Wednesday night, but the game will be better remembered for what transpired after he’d left. The one blemish on Faria’s ledger was a three-run homer to former Bull Richie Shaffer in the fifth inning, which gave the Clippers a one-run lead. Durham re-tied the game an inning later, and that’s when the magic began.
The teams stayed deadlocked through regulation, which left the Bulls in a bind. Their previous game had been a bullpen start, which meant they’d used five relievers to patch their way through nine innings. Four of those pitchers had gone more than an inning, and none was available to pitch again on Wednesday. That meant it was time for one of baseball’s unique novelties: A position player taking the mound.
Outfielder Johnny Field—who had homered in the first inning—was the first up. Field worked a scoreless 10th inning, but got into trouble an inning later. Three of the first four batters reached against Field to open the 11th, which meant it was time for a change. Problem is, if you’re already in the predicament that requires a position player pitching then you probably don’t have anyone besides position players as options to stanch the bleeding.
So the next man off the bench, er, out of the pen, was catcher Michael McKenry, a veteran nearly 1,000 professional games who was making his second appearance on the mound in 626 minor league games. After appearing in a game against Louisville earlier this season, he was called on again on Tuesday. This time, he faced eight hitters and allowed seven of them to reach, the capper coming on a grand slam from Giovanny Urshela.
McKenry was hooked after that and replaced by infielder Kean Wong, who walked the first two hitters but brought the inning to a merciful close when Chris Colabello grounded to Patrick Leonard, who was making his first career appearance at shortstop. When Wong came in to pitch, McKenry moved to third base, a position he’d never played as a pro.
One position player pitching is odd enough, but three in one game is like seeing Sasquatch riding a unicorn. Put it this way, it’s never happened in the past 25 years in the major leagues. Two position players pitching in one game, however, happens more frequently than you’d think. Baseball America columnist Jayson Stark was kind enough to provide the beginning of the research, and in combing through the data I found six instances of one team using multiple position players on the mound in the same game.
July 1, 2016
The Teams: Blue Jays and Indians
Position Player-Pitchers: Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney
What Happened: Goins entered in a tie game and threw a scoreless inning, but Barney surrendered a game-winning HR to Carlos Santana.
Sept. 15, 2015
The Teams: White Sox and Athletics
Position Player-Pitchers: Alexei Ramirez and Leury Garcia
What Happened: Ramirez and Garcia pitched threw scoreless eighth and ninth innings of the White Sox’s loss to the A’s.
June 17, 2015
The Teams: Indians and Cubs
Position Player-Pitchers: Ryan Raburn and David Murphy
What Happened: Raburn and Murphy allowed seven runs (none earned!) on three hits, including a Kris Bryant grand slam off of Murphy.
June 16, 2015
The Teams: Rays and Nationals
Position Player-Pitchers: Jake Elmore and Nick Franklin
What Happened: Elmore and Franklin each pitched in the Rays’ blowout loss to the Nationals. Amazingly, Nats catcher Wilson Ramos homered off of both of them.
Aug. 24, 2013
The Teams: Phillies and Diamondbacks.
Position Player-Pitchers: Casper Wells and John McDonald
What Happened: Wells and McDonald each pitched in the 18th inning of a tie game with the Diamondbacks. They allowed five runs but no homers.
April 17, 2010
The Teams: Cardinals and Mets
Position Player-Pitchers: Felipe Lopez and Joe Mather
What Happened: Lopez entered in the 19th inning of a scoreless game with the Mets. He allowed a run, but Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez blew the save when he gave up a run of his own. Mather then allowed the Mets a run in the 20th, which they held for the win.
Minor league history is less accessible than major league history, so it’s very difficult if not impossible to ascertain if and how often a team has used multiple position players to pitch in the same game. In my time covering the minor leagues, however, I’ve seen some memorable instances of hitters being forced to the mound. Here are a few examples:
June 4, 2016
The Teams: Durham vs. Gwinnett
Position Player-Pitcher(s): Mayo Acosta (Durham) and Reid Brignac (Gwinnett)
What Happened: After nine innings of mostly ineffective pitching on both sides, both teams’ bullpens were spent. After Neil Wagner had blown the save in the ninth inning by allowing two runs, Durham turned to catcher Mayo Acosta for his second turn on the mound of the season. He breezed through the 10th inning in eight pitches. Gwinnett countered with infielder (and former Durham player) Reid Brignac, who did not fare as well. Brignac allowed three hits, a walk and eventually the game-deciding run.
June 2, 2012
The Teams: Trenton vs. New Hampshire
Position Player-Pitcher(s): Shane Brown
What Happened: The Thunder and Fisher Cats were scheduled for a doubleheader but wound up getting far more than they bargained. The first game lasted 14 innings, and then the second game went 15 more innings. Naturally, this exhausted Trenton’s bullpen, and they called on reserve outfielder Shane Brown in the 15th inning. Not only did he pitch a scoreless frame, but he did this in the bottom of the inning.
May 12, 2009
The Teams: Trenton and Portland
Position Player-Pitcher: Carlos Mendoza
What Happened: Down five runs, the Thunder brought in righthander Noel Castillo to pitch. Castillo’s control was spotty as usual, and he walked the first three men he faced. Trenton then summoned infielder Mendoza, who made pitching look as easy as could be. In a span of five pitches he worked out of the bases-loaded, no-out jam by coaxing two grounders back to the mound. He turned a swift 1-2-3 double play on the first one, then recorded a simple 1-3 putout on the next. Easy as pie.
June 29, 2009
The Teams: Lake Elsinore and High Desert
Position Player-Pitchers: Jose Yepez and Deybis Benitez
What Happened: Lake Elsinore defeated High Desert 33-18 in perhaps the wildest game in modern minor-league history. The contest featured a combined 51 runs, 57 hits, 10 home runs and 31 extra-base hits. Yepez, a catcher, entered in the top of ninth with High Desert trailing 28-14 and surrendered four home runs, including back-to-back-to-back shots by Sawyer Carroll, James Darnell and Matt Clark. He recorded only one out and was replaced by Benitez, a second baseman. After a wild pitch, Benitez induced a groundout and a flyout to end the inning. Benitez’s effort was particularly notable because, out of the 11 men who pitched that night, he was the only one who did not allow a hit.