Emilio Pagan's 23rd birthday didn't start out as he imagined, but by the end, the Clinton LumberKings reliever had a present unlike any other.
Trailing by 16 runs more than halfway through an otherwise ordinary May game at Burlington, Pagan and his teammates could've been forgiven for packing it in, hitting the postgame spread and living to fight another day. They didn't, and the right-hander could see it coming.
"When we were down, 17-1, I was thinking to myself it was not really the way I expected my birthday game to go," Pagan recalled. "I went down to the dugout, got a couple Gatorades and it was a weird feeling. It didn't feel like we were losing by that big of a margin. It felt like we were still in it."
What transpired was one of the most remarkable comebacks in baseball history. Consider: On Aug. 5, 2001, the Cleveland Indians rallied from 12 runs down to beat the Seattle Mariners, 15-14, in 11 innings, tying the largest comeback in MLB history, done twice before.
On May 7, 2014, Clinton did Cleveland four runs better.
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If a seven-run Burlington second inning didn't set an ominous tone for Clinton on a hot night at Community Field, the Bees' nine-run fifth presumably did. The home team boasted a total of eight walks and 11 hits, including a grand slam and a solo homer, by the conclusion of the inning and enjoyed a 16-run cushion behind starting pitcher Garrett Nuss, who faced just one batter over the minimum and allowed only one run through his first five frames.
LumberKings starter Jose Flores, on the other hand, lasted just four, peppered for eight runs on seven hits while walking four. His bullpen didn't fare much better. Relievers Tommy Burns and Paul Fry combined to yield nine in the fifth.
The LumberKings, though, had seen a watered-down version of this movie before. Just four days earlier, Seattle's Class A affiliate trailed by eight after five innings at Wisconsin. They rallied to win that game, 16-13.
"We looked at it as if the starter gives up some runs early on, you don't give in," LumberKings manager Scott Steinmann said. "You just keep plugging along, and you never know what's going to happen. Those starters' runs don't win or lose you games, especially early on.
"You just give yourself a chance."
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It started with a triple. Justin Seager laced a ball to left-center to lead off the top of the sixth and raced to third with history following behind him. After a strikeout, a flood of LumberKings baserunners broke through. A single, home run, double, error, two wild pitches and another walk chased Nuss. A sacrifice fly and an RBI single finished off the inning.
"Once we scored [six] in the sixth inning and got some things rolling, I could just see the energy turn," Steinmann said. "Even being down 10 runs in the top of the eighth, they were having fun in the dugout, having a good time, competing at the plate. Next thing you know, it just snowballed into this crazy evening."
Still trailing by double digits, Clinton cut the deficit in half with a five-run eighth. Burt Reynolds led off with a homer. Seager followed with a single. Lonnie Kauppila and Ian Miller cashed in RBI doubles, and Jeff Zimmerman brought in two with another two-bagger. 17-12. From his post coaching third, Steinmann sensed the tide beginning to swing.
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"I could see in the [first-base] dugout," he said. "I could see the energy. Everybody was having fun. At the time we had some kind of strange characters on the team, I guess you could say. A lot of energy on the bench. They were having a good time, and I thought, 'You know what? These guys are just crazy enough to do this.'"
With a five-run gap left to erase, Clinton kept coming in the ninth. Again, it started with Seager. The designated hitter ripped his fourth knock of the game. Three straight singles followed to bring a run home and Littlewood to the plate with the bases loaded and a chance to tie the game with one swing.
On a 2-1 pitch from Bees reliever Alan Busenitz, Littlewood did just that. The switch-hitting catcher mashed the third grand slam of his career to bring the LumberKings all the way back.
"When he hit the grand slam, I didn't even really wait to see if they were calling me to get loose," Pagan said. "I just jumped to the mound and started throwing."
A 2013 10th-round pick, Pagan had pitched past three innings just once in his professional career prior to May 7 in Burlington. That night, normalcy was out the window.
"I couldn't wait to get in the game," he said. "That was an amazing comeback, and when the game's on the line like that, I always want the ball in my hands. I knew we were going to have a chance to win, and I wanted to be out there for as long as it took."
Sporting a 0.69 ERA and five saves in five chances as he took the mound, Pagan was lights-out. The birthday boy on a mission allowed a leadoff single in the ninth, induced a double-play ball and then retired the next seven Bees he faced.
"The last thing you want to do is when your hitters come back like that and give you a chance to win is say, 'Thanks, but we're still going to lose,'" he said. "I wanted to seal their efforts with a victory."
Running out of arms, Clinton's bats rewarded Pagan's effort in the 12th. Again, Seager was the tip of the spear. With one out and the bases loaded, the DH bounced an RBI groundout to third base to give his team its first lead of the night at 18-17. Kauppila's two-run single one batter later put the L-Kings over the top, but even this night wasn't quite done.
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"I wanted to keep going," Pagan said. "I felt great, but they ended up bringing in Lonnie [Kauppila], the second baseman, to close it out, which is even crazier."
Already having tallied three hits, three RBIs and two runs at the plate, Kauppila saved arguably his biggest moment for last. The middle infielder-turned-reliever saved any drama too. Kauppila retired Burlington in order in the 12th, coaxing a foul popout from pinch-hitter Stephen McGee for the final out of an unprecedented night and sealing a win for the birthday boy.
"Checking your phone afterward and having a ton of text messages, a bunch of Twitter notifications from Sports Illustrated, ESPN, it was a pretty surreal moment," Pagan said. "Then having the Sports Illustrated article on us a week later, just to top it all off. Being in Sports Illustrated is a pretty good gig for your birthday game. I'll take it.
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The ripple effect of May 7 carried over for the LumberKings and the sparse announced crowd of 558. Clinton's epic comeback was indeed profiled in SI, and Littlewood made an appearance on ESPN, his wife's iPad video of the grand slam beamed to televisions across the country.
The lessons of the win ran far deeper than fleeting national attention.
"If you come back in a game, from that many runs that late into the game, you honestly feel like you can come back from anything," Pagan said. "Obviously, we didn't make the playoffs in Clinton, but even until the last week, we felt like we were in it. I guess you can give credit to that game for that feeling."
Steinmann and his staff reminded their club of the win when moments warranted the memory throughout the season. Five months after the victory, the skipper echoed his closer.
"It's never over in the Minor Leagues and in baseball. There's no time clock," he said. "I hope they can draw on this experience and pull from that and stay in the games, stay motivated throughout a game, throughout a season or throughout their career.
"It's never over."