As we all wait for the return of baseball, we want to remember some of what has made us fall in love with baseball. Baseball America staffers are writing about the most memorable games they have experienced in person. We want to hear about your most memorable games as well. Email your memories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been covering minor league baseball since 2006. The first team I covered—as part of an internship for Scout.com—was the Eugene Emeralds. The highlights of that team was getting to cover David Freese before he became a World Series hero (he hit .379/.465/.776 in 18 games), as well as future big leaguers Chad Huffman, Ernesto Frieri and Wade LeBlanc.
That season was also the only time I’ve ever gotten to swing a bat on a professional field—as part of a batting practice session for local media. The pitcher that day was manager Doug Dascenzo. So, although I didn’t do well, I can always say I made contact against a big leaguer.
A year later I was hired by The Trentonian, where I covered the Trenton Thunder for six seasons. Over my six seasons there, I covered countless big leaguers, a championship (2008) and a perfect game (Jeanmar Gomez, 2009) before getting hired by Baseball America.
August will mark my seventh year with BA, and I’ve gotten to cover hundreds of minor league games across the country. After some serious thought, here are some of my favorite games of all time.
1. Greensboro at Lakewood—April 17, 2012
The first and only time I saw Jose Fernandez in person. Although the stats don’t jump off the page—seven five-hit, one-run innings with seven strikeouts and no walks—this was the best pitching performance I’ve ever seen.
Coming into the day, I knew Fernandez was a first-rounder from the year before (I attended the draft at MLB Network studios in Secaucus, N.J., for some reason), and that was really it. If someone had quizzed me on where he went to a high school, what he threw or where he ranked on prospect lists, I’d have failed.
The stuff that came out of his hand that afternoon set a mark that no pitcher has equaled over the next eight years. (Side note: Future all-star closer Ken Giles pitched three shutout innings that day as well.)
I remember eagerly carving up the video to put on my new YouTube channel and then eagerly making my colleagues on the Thunder beat watch the video over and over on my laptop, much to their annoyment.
“He hit as high as 97 miles per hour with his fastball and displayed a truly knockout breaking ball that he could either throw for strikes or bury for a strikeout,” I wrote that day. “I’m not a scout, and I don’t play one on the radio, but even I could see on Tuesday that Fernandez is beyond special.”
From that point on, Fernandez was appointment-viewing. When I came to Durham, N.C. for my initial meet-and-greet with my future colleagues, instead of going out and exploring the city, I sat in my hotel room and watched as Fernandez carved up Cleveland for eight innings.
Fernandez, of course, died on Sept. 25, 2016, in a boat accident in Miami. He was under the influence of cocaine and alcohol at the time of the crash, which also killed two other people who were on board.
And although the circumstances of his death cloud his legacy, Fernandez remains the best pitching prospect I’ve ever seen.
2. Arizona State at Oregon—April 28, 2017
If you know me, or at least follow me on Twitter, you know I am an Oregon Duck. I bleed green and yellow … and white … and black … and anthracite … and purple … and any other color the Ducks choose to wear.
Every year, I make a pilgrimage back to Eugene to catch the spring football game and a baseball series. The team usually has a draft prospect or two, which means I can get a little bit of work done as well. This time, the Ducks’ best prospect was lefthander David Peterson and he delivered.
Peterson already had a 17-strikeout game under his belt, but it became clear in the early innings that he had a chance to be even better on this night. He struck out the side in the first inning, then added two more in the second.
Using a combination of his fastball, slider and curveball, Peterson whiffed two hitters in the third and fourth innings, then got the side in the fifth. For those counting, that’s 12 strikeouts through five frames, which began to put history in view.
Despite his pitch count beginning to pile up, Peterson never lost steam. He struck out two more in the sixth, added another in the seventh and two more in the eighth. That brought his strikeout total to 17 through eight innings, meaning he needed to punch out the side in the ninth to get to the Randy Johnson/Roger Clemens/Kerry Wood territory of 20 strikeouts in a game.
Spoiler alert: He did it.
After Andrew Shaps led off the inning with a double, Peterson got Lyle Lin swinging, froze Hunter Bishop, then finished the gem by getting Zach Cerbo to wave at a fastball up and away.
“I’ve been a part of a couple of no-hitters in my time—actually, one of the pitchers won 29-0 in a no-hitter,” then-Oregon coach George Horton said. “but I’ve never seen a more special performance than that. That was unbelievable.”
3. Yankees at Pirates (minor league spring training)—March 23, 2013
If this day had gone according to plan, I would have stayed at the Yankees’ minor league complex in Tampa and watched Jose Campos pitch. Campos was the second piece of the deal—along with righthander Michael Pineda—that the Mariners used to pry then-prized prospect Jesus Montero from New York.
Campos was a lottery ticket at the time and would eventually reach the major leagues, albeit with the Angels, which made him a fine choice for the day. Lineup information is always a little sketchy during minor league spring training, however, so I asked Nardi Contreras, then the Yankees’ minor league pitching coordinator, to make sure Campos was slated to pitch that day.
He was, Contreras said, but there was another option more worth my while. If I drove about an hour to Bradenton, Fla., to the Pirates’ training complex, I’d get to see a young righthander named Luis Severino.
I took Contreras’ advice. Severino did not disappoint.
Although I was more suited to game reporting, it was easy to see that Severino had some serious potential. He was young, had a loose arm, was already touching the mid-90s with his fastball and showed the makings of what would become an excellent pair of offspeed pitches in his changeup and slider.
Severino blitzed through the minor leagues, took his place as one of the top prospects in a stacked Yankees system, starred in the 2014 Futures Game and was excellent in the first few years of his big league career before running into injury troubles over the last two years (he will miss the 2020 season after having Tommy John surgery).
When healthy, though, Severino has shown ace-level stuff and performance, and the signs were there that afternoon in Bradenton. The lesson that day: When a pitching coordinator tells you to go see a pitcher, do it.
4. Reading at Harrisburg—April 22, 2013
Jesse Biddle was a big deal in Pennsylvania in the early part of the last decade. The Germantown, Pa.-bred lefthander was taken by the hometown Phillies in the first round of the 2010 draft, then began to slowly wind his way through the minor leagues.
Because three of the Phillies’ four full-season minor league clubs (Lakewood, Reading and Lehigh Valley) are all near Philadelphia, Biddle got a lot of media attention. And because I was a budding prospect hound who worked for a newspaper about an hour from Citizens Bank Park, it was always worth the time to go check out Biddle.
This drive to Harrisburg, where Biddle would face a Senators lineup with future big leaguers Brian Goodwin and Sandy Leon, was two hours long. It was worth it.
Biddle was a buzzsaw that evening. He used a four-pitch mix to strike out 16 Senators over seven innings. He threw 74 strikes in his 104 pitches, allowed just one hit and walked two. Eleven of Biddle’s strikeouts were swinging, and he got 25 swings and misses overall.
Because this was an Eastern League matchup between two teams with parent clubs in the National League, Biddle also got to hit. Not content to let his mastery on the mound stand on its own, Biddle smacked a pair of doubles off of Harrisburg starter Paul Demny.
Not only was this one of the most exciting games I’d ever seen in person, but it was the first time I got my name in Baseball America. Biddle made Hot Sheet that week, and I sent over the highlight reel I’d shot that night for inclusion with the post.
5. Frederick at Wilmington AND New Hampshire at Trenton — June 2, 2012
As I morphed from a beat writer into a wannabe prospect writer, I learned to count days between starts to see if any of the pitching prospects du jour were slated to be in the vicinity of Trenton.
While doing this during some downtime during copy-editing shifts, I figured out that Yordano Ventura and Dylan Bundy were slated to lock horns in Wilmington on June 1. So I asked for that day off. My request was granted and I waited patiently for the day to come, but then rain entered the forecast.
Once it became clear that the incoming storm would wipe out the Bundy-Ventura game, I begged my boss to move my off-day up one. He agreed, and the sun came out the next day. I drove from Trenton to Wilmington and convinced my friends that the pitching matchup was good enough to drive up from Baltimore to check it out.
Both pitchers were outstanding that day. Bundy struck out seven over five one-run innings (being a doubleheader, the game was only slated for seven innings) and Ventura whiffed a half-dozen over six shutout frames.
The game lasted just slightly more than 90 minutes and my friends and I took a walk around the park after the game before going our separate ways. But my day wasn’t done. Back home, Trenton was slated for a doubleheader of its own against New Hampshire.
Because going to a baseball game is better than not going to a baseball game, I drove back to Trenton to catch the remainder of its doubleheader, figuring to relax for a few innings before driving home.
I got back just in time to see Jose Pirela hit a walk-off home run in the 14th inning that gave Trenton manager Tony Franklin his 1,000th career victory. Normally, that alone would be the price of admission. But there was a second game. And things got weird.
Remember when I said that the Thunder won in the 14th inning of the first game? Well, the second game went 14 innings too … and was still tied. Playing that many innings in a day tends to tax a team’s bullpen, so the Thunder handed backup outfielder Shane Brown (who once homered off of CC Sabathia in a backfield game) the ball for the 15th inning.
Brown tip-toed his way through the top of the inning, literally lobbing the ball to the catcher every time. With the bases loaded and one out, he got Mark Sobolewski to strike out, then induced a fly to left from catcher Brian Jeroloman to end the frame.
Future big leaguer Aaron Loup took the mound for the Fisher Cats in the bottom of the inning, and leadoff man Abraham Almonte (also a future big leaguer) greeted him with a single to left. Kevin Mahoney (now a Yankees minor league coach) pushed him to second with a bunt.
An out later, Addison Maruszak’s single pushed Almonte to third. That brought up Brown, who had the potential with one swing to put an absolutely perfect bow on a madcap day of baseball in New Jersey’s capital city.
Did he? Of course he did.
Brown slipped Loup’s one-strike offering back up the box, plating Almonte, setting off a wild celebration and putting an end to the single wildest day of baseball I’ve ever seen.