It began simply enough: New Orleans Baby Cakes relief pitcher Mike Kickham hit for himself in the bottom of the seventh on Thursday night with two outs his team down by one in the bottom of the seventh, which even play-by-play broadcaster Tim Grubbs acknowledged, "... may have been a different scenario had maybe you gotten a few men on."
A potential game-tying inning seemed well outside the realm of possibility. Fresno Grizzlies reliever Derek Self throws a called strike one on the outside edge.
Kickham had pitched well in his first two innings of work, and has been stretched out to throw several frames all season, including three starts. With the 'Cakes down 4-3, manager Keith Johnson felt the team's best odds of coming back in the game was to stick with Kickham on the mound and forfeit a competitive at-bat in the seventh.
Kickham fouls off the next delivery. 0-2.
Just a couple more pitches, it seemed, and Kickham would go back to work on the mound. The New Orleans pitching staff is the worst hitting group in the Pacific Coast League, with only three hits to this point in 74 at-bats to this point. Their .041 average is well behind every other National League-affiliated team in the league.
Self's third delivery bounces, blocked by the catcher. Some faint chants of, "Mike! Mike! Mike!" arise on the on-field mic from a small group of fans down the first base line.
It's Thirsty Thursday at the Shrine on Airline, with the discounted beer sales putting these fans in just the right mindset to engage in the game with a reliever at the plate. Chants for Triple-A players are scarce, but for a relief pitcher in a lost inning with two outs, they're Bigfoot.
Kickham fouls off the next two pitches as the chant starts to gain momentum. Then Self delivers ball two into the dirt again.
"Hey, this might work out if Kickham can get on!" Grubbs exclaims as his inflection goes up with some excitement.
"That'd be funny," color commentator Ron Swoboda agrees.
Kickham fouls off the next two. The crowd cheers.
He enters as a career .200 hitter. He's no slouch with the bat, and even has a home run on his resume, two seasons ago for Double-A Jacksonville, but has gone hitless through his first four plate appearances this season.
But every offspeed pitch Self has thrown has been uncompetitive, bouncing to the plate. Kickham has fouled off every fastball.
"I consider myself pretty athletic," Kickham said. "When I was starting and getting consistent at-bats, I felt I put up some pretty good ABs. But since I've moved to the bullpen, you're in the box so sporadically, it's been tough."
He fouls off four more in a row. The count remains 2-2, after 10 pitches.
The 'Cakes have not had a hitter reach a double-digit pitch count since Bryan Holaday reached 11 on April 20. He is the only Baby Cake to do so this season. Until, that is, Kickham -- a relief pitcher.
Had this been a game between two major league teams, Kickham would not likely even have a bat in his hand at this moment. But the 'Cakes are down a man, with first baseman Matt Snyder out of commission with an injury the previous night. Deven Marrero has already been burned, pinch hitting in the fifth. The only two bats on the bench are backup catchers Rodrigo Vigil and Wilkin Castillo. Johnson will only want to use one, and doesn't want a pitcher hitting in the ninth.
Kickham is hitting because he has to.
Pitch 11 is ball three, just staying off the ground.
Pitch 12 stays much higher, sitting about dead center on the plate. Kickham launches it 103 miles per hour off the bat, just over the right field wall, bouncing back onto the field. Swoboda cannot contain himself, and begins laughing as Kickham trots the bases.
Mike Kickham has just taken the best at-bat of the Baby Cakes season. His newly-found fan club loses its collective, three-minute-old mind. After staying stoic to this point, he answers their curtain call with a wide grin. Kickham has knotted the score at four against his former team, for whom he pitched 47 games.
In the top of the eighth, he throws another shutout inning, and effectively stopped the bleeding of four runs allowed in the first five frames. The 'Cakes rally for two in the bottom half, and R.J. Alvarez locks it down in the top of the ninth to earn Kickham the win.
"The Mike Kickham game," starting with an inconspicuous throwaway at-bat, turned into one of the top moments in the 'Cakes season.
"It was a good day," Kickham said. "I've given up plenty in my career, so it was fun to hit one myself."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.