The California League has a reputation as being a hitters' league, but entering this season no player in the circuit's 66-year history had ever slugged four home runs in a game.
On May 19, however, Aaron Bates did just that, lifting the Lancaster JetHawks to a come-from-behind 14-12 victory over the Lake Elsinore Storm. As a result of his unprecedented power display, the 23-year-old first baseman earned MiLB.com's award for Best Class A Advanced Single-Game Performance.
Bates' five-hit, six-RBI onslaught would be impressive under any circumstance, but his feat was especially remarkable given the context in which he accomplished it.
Just a night earlier, the Storm collected 28 hits (one shy of the league record) in a 30-0 dismantling of the JetHawks. Needless to say, defeats don't come any more humiliating than that.
"It was just embarrassing," Bates recalled. "They had 28 hits, we had four. It seemed like everything they swung at was a hit. After the game, we were all in shock, and our manager [Bill Butler] talked to us briefly to let us know that he had appreciated that fact that we hadn't shown any quit out there, despite how bad things had gotten.
"I'm not one to promise any victories or anything like that, but the next day it was real important to us that we find a way to win."
Despite the JetHawks' resolve to emerge victorious whatever the cost, the May 19 game started to spin out of control early. In the middle of the second inning, the visiting Storm held a 9-0 lead and Lancaster seemed well on its way to a second straight blowout loss. A comeback seemed unlikely, at best.
But, to quote Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, "The journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step." And Bates took that step when he led off the bottom of the second with a home run.
"At that point, I came to the plate just thinking that I wasn't going to let [pitcher Brent Carter] get ahead in the count," Bates said. "After I hit it, we were still down, 9-1. I just rounded the bases as quickly as I could, so that we could keep on going about our business."
That's just what the JetHawks did. In the third, after Tony Granadillo's two-run homer made it 9-3, Bates blasted his second solo dinger in as many frames. Mark Wagner's RBI single later in the inning brought Lancaster within four.
Bates' next at-bat came in the fifth, when he smacked a two-run shot, his third in as many at-bats, to make it 10-7.
"That third one really brought us closer and made us believe we could come back and win," he said.
Lancaster scored three runs in the sixth, an inning in which Bates singled, to take an improbable 11-10 lead. But the Storm answered with two runs in the seventh to surge back on top.
The score was still 12-11 when the JetHawks came to bat in the eighth. After Granadillo grounded out, Zachary Daeges stroked a double to right field and Bates strolled to the plate for the final time.
"To be honest, a fourth home run never crossed my mind," he said. "The tying run was on second and they had a base open, so I thought they were going to walk me. When I realized that they were going to pitch to me, I was just focused on tying the game by driving the ball up the middle. In my mind, that would have been my biggest hit of the day, bigger than any of the home runs."
Instead of hitting a game-tying single, Bates blasted a two-run homer over the fence in right-center field to put the JetHawks ahead for good.
"I was so happy to give us the lead that I didn't really realize what I had done. I got back in the dugout and my hitting coach [Damon Mashore] was like, 'Are you kidding me' and told me to go out and do a curtain call," Bates said. "Then, over the loudspeaker, they announced that I had just set a California League record for home runs in a game.
"It wasn't until after the game that it all sunk in. It was just such a rollercoaster ride over those two days, from getting blown out in the first game to getting down early in the next one before making a comeback. It was crazy."
The rollercoaster wasn't over, either. In the series finale on May 20, Yordany Ramirez hit for the cycle and drove in eight runs to propel Lake Elsinore to a 21-6 rout.
"Hitting is contagious, and in that series we saw that saying at its most extreme," said Bates.
And, in perhaps the most improbable twist of this improbable saga, Bates wasn't the only Cal Leaguer to hit four homers in a game in 2007. In fact, he wasn't even the only JetHawk. Teammate Brad Correll accomplished the feat against High Desert on June 23 in just his fifth game with the club.
"That was unreal. I was on base for three of them," said Bates. "We're different kinds of hitters and he's got a lot more raw power than I do. I was more surprised at me hitting four homers than I was when he did it."
Bates went on to hit 24 homers in 88 games with Lancaster before receiving a promotion to Double-A Portland in mid-August. While he is focused on solidifying himself as a Double-A hitter and continuing his climb up the Minor League ladder, his four-homer game will not soon be forgotten.
"As an athlete and competitor, you just hate to lose. And after we lost, 30-0, I was embarrassed for us and the organization," Bates said. "To come back and win the next day was very special, and I'm just glad that I was able to contribute."