The Princeton Rays make the 70-minute trip back home after each road game they play against the Pulaski Mariners. Following Wednesday night's 6-0 win, the bus ride was a jovial one. The team rooted on the various competitors in the London Olympics.
"Chaos" was the way P-Rays manager Michael Johns described it.
On Thursday night, the trip was much more subdued -- and with good reason. The Rays just completed 17 innings, and they weren't done yet.
Tampa Bay's Appalachian League affiliate took 23 innings to posted a 12-9 victory over the Mariners in a game that started on Thursday night, was interrupted by a 1 a.m. curfew and finally wrapped up almost 24 hours after it started.
In terms of actual game play, the contest lasted 7 hours and 48 minutes. It featured 19 pitchers, 35 hits, seven errors and 166 official at-bats.
"It'll be a while before we stop thinking about this game," Johns said. "Everyone in the organization was leaving me messages about it -- not all about the game, but everyone was intrigued about it. [Class A Advanced Charlotte] had a long game [19 innings in 2010] and everyone was talking about that at Spring Training, at workouts, the whole thing. This will be on the same level as that, I think."
The game headed to extra innings only after Rays closer Zach Butler, who had been 7-for-7 in save opportunities, gave up two runs on three singles and a walk in the bottom of the ninth. That came after Princeton scored five runs in the eighth and ninth.
Even with all the scoring in what are normally the late innings, neither team could muster another run Thursday night. Each bullpen tossed eight scoreless innings to send the game to the 18th before play was halted due to the 1 a.m. ET curfew.
When the teams resumed at 5 p.m. Friday, the scoring drought persisted for five more frames. At that point, the teams had gone through 13 innings of hits, bunts, steals and various other strategic moves in an attempt to break through. The psychological battle took its toll.
"After a while, you just have to let them play," Johns said. "You hate to say it, but you almost hope some guy kicks it and someone gets a few runs off it. You get to a point where conditional baseball just doesn't work anymore and you feel emotionally exhausted."
The pivotal miscue finally came in the 23rd inning. Mariners reliever Domingo Brazoban plunked Andrew Toles and William Argo to start the inning, then threw away Oscar Hernandez's ground ball, allowing Toles and Argo to score the first two runs in nearly a day. The Rays padded the lead on Reid Redman's RBI single and Brandon Martin's sacrifice fly.
The Mariners threatened in the bottom of the inning, getting singles from Dario Pizzano and Jabari Henry. But they produced just one run.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the celebration was muted after the 23-inning epic. After all, there was a regularly scheduled game to be played.
"It's more like relief," Johns said. "Everybody's exhausted and we still had to play again in 30 minutes. That's enough really to celebrate anything. I'd say it was pretty short-lived."
The Rays and Mariners didn't even get into the Appalachian League record book. The longest game in league history was a 27-inning contest between the Burlington Indians and Bluefield Orioles on June 24-25, 1988.
The Mariners got their revenge with a comparatively snappy 7-5 win that spanned only nine innings and two hours and 48 minutes.
While there was no threat of extra innings in the nightcap, Johns said his mind immediately will harken back to the 23-inning marathon anytime his team is forced to go beyond the ninth.
"It's going to happen," he said. "It almost has to, if you're human."