One Night In Adelanto: My Most Memorable Minor League Game
I’ve been fortunate to cover some incredible baseball games in my life. A short list:
- Game 5 of the 2017 World Series
- Game 3 of the 2016 World Series (the first World Series game at Wrigley Field since 1945)
- Pretty much everything at the 2017 World Baseball Classic
- Shohei Ohtani making the A’s look silly in his home pitching debut after hitting three home runs during the week to establish the hype was real.
- Game 5 of the 2015 (Mets-Dodgers) and 2019 (Nationals-Dodgers) NLDS’s
Others are more personal. The first MLB game I covered as a full-time professional, coincidentally, was Mike Trout’s debut. (I like to joke Trout and I made our major league debuts the same day). Trout made a running catch at the wall in the top of the ninth, Mark Trumbo hit a walkoff home run in the bottom of the ninth and I drove home that night a giddy 23-year-old feeling like all my professional dreams were coming true.
Two other games I covered that are lower-profile but equally enduring in my memory: Columbia’s 13-inning, comeback win over the D.J. Peterson/Mitch Garver New Mexico team in the 2013 NCAA Regional for the first tournament win in school history; and the 2011 CIF-Southern Section Division 5 semifinal game between Oak Hills and Dominic Smith-led Gardena Serra, which remains one of the most stunning comebacks I’ve seen at any level of baseball.
As a fan, I was in the stands for Bud Smith’s no-hitter vs. the Padres in 2001 and Tim Lincecum's no-hitter vs. the Padres in 2013. I was there for Barry Bonds’ 755th career home run (shoutout Clay Hensley), an epic Jake Peavy-Roger Clemens matching CGs duel in 2005 and Game 5 of the 2005 ALDS, when a rookie righthander named Ervin Santana relieved an injured Bartolo Colon after the first inning and held down a stacked Yankees lineup to help give the Angels the series win. (Also, this happened.)
But the question here is what is the best minor league game we’ve ever seen or covered. And for that, we go back to the night of May 12, 2012 in Adelanto, Calif.
The High Desert Mavericks were a juggernaut that season. Then the high Class A affiliate of the Mariners, they featured nine future major leaguers (including Brad Miller, Stefen Romero, James Jones, John Hicks, Roenis Elias and Carson Smith) and would go on to finish a California League-best 83-57 while winning both the first- and second-half South Division titles. Pedro Grifol, now the Royals bench coach, was the manager. I was the Mavericks beat writer for the Victorville Daily Press, barely two years out of college and still in my first full-time job.
As you may remember, no lead was ever safe at High Desert. Between the 3,000 feet of elevation, the dry desert climate and whipping winds that blew out to the outfield, runs piled up in an instant. Scores like 26-11, 23-12 and 18-13—scores from actual games that season—happened often enough that the longstanding joke was games in High Desert were "Arena Baseball.”
Still, even against that backdrop, the twists and turns of that May 12 game—and its ultimate final flourish—stick with me to this day.
It was the final game of a three-game series between the Mavericks and Dodgers affiliate Rancho Cucamonga. The Mavericks had blown eighth-inning leads of 4-2 and 9-4 the previous two nights—remember what I said about runs piling up in an instant?—and were not yet the well-oiled machine that would win 34 of 42 games during one stretch later in the year. At this point, it was still a team barely over .500 trying to adapt to its challenging home ballpark.
The game began normal enough, by High Desert standards anyway. The Mavericks scored in four of the first five innings and held a 6-3 lead going into the seventh. The two starting pitchers—Elias for the Mavericks and top prospect Zach Lee for the Quakes—were long gone, meaning the game was bound to get interesting with the bullpens involved. (Seriously, nothing turns a comfortable lead into a nail-biter like Class A bullpens.)
True to form, it began in the top of the seventh. The Quakes opened the inning with four straight singles—including back-to-back bunt singles—to cut the Mavericks’ lead to 6-5. With two out and one on after a pitching change, C.J. Retherford singled to left-center to score Joc Pederson (yes, that Joc Pederson) with the tying run. Then, outfielder Julio Morban threw the ball away, allowing the second baserunner to score and give Rancho Cucamonga a 7-6 lead. Six batters, five hits, four runs scored and one lead evaporated, all without a walk or extra-base hit.
The Mavericks stranded a pair in the bottom of the frame and Pederson—hey, this kid might be pretty good someday—added a two-out RBI single in the top of the eighth to extend Rancho’s lead to 8-6.
That’s when everything went off the rails. The Mavericks quickly loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth and Romero singled home a run to make it 8-7. With the bases still loaded with one out, the Quakes brought in lefty closer Eric Eadington, who had earned the save the night before in his first appearance after being called up from low Class A Great Lakes. Eadington hadn’t blown a save all season and, most notably, had demonstrated impeccable control. He had 28 strikeouts and just one walk to that point in the year, without a hit batter to his name, either.
So, naturally, Eadington uncorked a wild pitch against the first batter he saw, allowing Jack Marder to scurry home from third base with the tying run.
In the span of two innings, the score went from 6-3 Mavericks to 8-6 Quakes to an 8-8 tie heading into the ninth.
And that was just an appetizer for the insanity still to come.
Righthanded reliever Taylor Stanton entered for the Mavericks in the ninth and promptly retired his first two batters. With two outs, none on and the bottom of the Quakes lineup coming up, everything appeared set for the Mavericks to head to the bottom of the ninth with the score tied.
Instead, all hell broke loose. Quakes catcher Chris O’Brien hit a two-out double. Michael Pericht was intentionally walked to bring up .204-hitting No. 8 batter Charlie Mirabal. Stanton, promptly, hit Mirabal to load the bases. Light-hitting infielder Scott Wingo, the No. 9 hitter in the Quakes lineup, stepped to the plate. STANTON. HIT. WINGO. The go-ahead run scored. Back-to-back hit by pitches against the Nos. 8 and 9 hitters, with two outs, had put Rancho Cucamonga back on top, 9-8.
It still wasn’t over.
Stanton was pulled in favor of Jonathan Arias, a Dominican righthander who threw 95 mph but for some, unknown reason preferred to pitch off his secondaries. (This drove Grifol and gruff, oft-smoking 64-year-old High Desert pitching coach Tom Dettore absolutely nuts. On a side note, I miss chain-smoking, 60-plus-year-old minor league coaches who insert swear words into the English language in ways you never thought were possible. Dettore was a gem.)
Arias stepped on the rubber and the first batter he faced, Leon Landry—who coincidentally would join the Mavericks later that season after the Mariners and Dodgers swung a deadline trade that sent Brandon League to Los Angeles—hit a bases-clearing triple down the left field line. From 8-8 with two outs, no one on and the bottom half of the order coming up, it’s now 12-8 Rancho Cucamonga.
The air was completely out of the stadium at that point. The Mavericks had blown late leads the previous two nights and just squandered another in the most painful, cringe-inducing way. High Desert had a good offense that was never really out of it, especially playing at home, but no one could conceive of the Mavericks recovering from what had just happened.
The bottom of the ninth began innocently enough. Mike McGee led off with a double and eventually scored on a Miller sacrifice fly. Still, the Mavericks found themselves down 12-9 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with just a lone runner on first. If Baseball-Reference calculated win probabilities for minor league games, this one would have read 99.9 percent for Rancho Cucamonga.
And then Eadington, tired from pitching back-to-back days and entering early in the eighth inning, suddenly lost his control. Needing one out for the save, he walked Marder to put runners on first and second. He stayed in to face lefthanded-hitting outfielder Kevin Rivers. Eadington was dominant against lefties and would hold them to a .210/.270/.238 slash line that year. But on this night, in this game, he was too tired and walked Rivers, loading the bases for cleanup hitter Romero.
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The Mavericks had life. Most of the announced crowd of 4,275 had stuck around and began buzzing. Just as High Desert had gifted free bases and runners to Rancho Cucamonga at the most inopportune moments, the Quakes were returning the favor.
Rancho Cucamonga manager Juan Bustabad pulled Eadington and brought in righthanded reliever Craig Stem to face Romero. Stem toed the rubber, got his sign, came set and threw a first-pitch fastball.
It would be the only pitch he threw.
Romero swung to do damage. He would later say he had never had a walkoff hit in his life and figured he might as well swing for the fences and go for it.
He connected. He connected loud.
I can still see and hear it all so clearly. The crack of the bat, the ball soaring into the clear desert night, the growing shock of what was happening as the ball kept traveling and finally the explosion out of the Mavericks dugout when the ball landed beyond the center field fence.
A grand slam. A two-out, walkoff grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to turn a 12-9 deficit into a 13-12 victory.
From 6-3 Mavericks in the seventh, to 8-6 Quakes in the eighth, to 12-8 Quakes in the ninth, to 13-12 Mavericks as the final.
Landry, playing center field for Rancho Cucamonga, sunk to his knees as the ball sailed over the fence. Romero bounded around the bases. A high school basketball player, he jumped as high as I’ve ever seen a player jump on home plate after a walkoff. His teammates mobbed him as if they had just won the World Series.
It was just a regular, early-season, minor league game. And yet, the joy and energy and excitement on the field and in the locker room after was on par with anything I’ve ever seen or felt after a major league postseason game.
"I just got a text from one of my friends and my response back was, ‘This is why I do what I’m doing, to feel the way I felt tonight,’ ” Grifol said after the game. He was in his first season back on the field after six years in the Mariners front office. When I found him, he was in the coaches’ room with a beer cracked open and an ear-to-ear grin across his face.
"This is why I wanted to get back on the field, this is the feeling," he said. "When they talk about being a kid, I was part of that today. I went back to being a kid. I wasn’t jumping around with them, but mentally I was. I just can’t do it physically.”
The comeback proved critical to High Desert’s season. The Mavericks went on to win the first-half division title—and earned the first-round playoff bye that came with it—with a tiebreaker win over the Quakes a month later. Without the comeback, they wouldn’t have been in position to play the tiebreaker at all and would have finished two games back of Rancho in the final first-half standings.
It’s been almost eight years since that game. Most of the players either reached the majors or are out of baseball now. I’ve moved on to other jobs and covered countless more incredible games in both baseball and other sports.
But when people ask me about the greatest game I ever covered, my brain still instinctively jumps to that Mavericks-Quakes game. Maybe it’s crazy, but for me, it goes up right along with the aforementioned 2017 World Series Game 5 and WBC contests as among the wildest, most unreal baseball games I’ve ever covered. My original game story, luckily, is still up on the web after all these years.
In the final accounting, a total of 16 runs scored in the final three innings. Nine runs scored in the ninth inning, all but one with two outs. It came with wild pitches and errors and hit batters and all sorts of less-than-perfect baseball, but the flaws set up the beauty: a walkoff grand slam, soaring into the desert night, and unbridled joy exploding from a tiny, Class A stadium in Adelanto, Calif.