A couple days ago, the Orioles and Rays played an ordinary, nine-inning baseball game. The Orioles won, 5-3, and the official time of game was three hours and 36 minutes, excluding a short delay. In the low minors on Wednesday, Clinton and Burlington played an extraordinary, 12-inning baseball game that Clinton won 20-17. The official time of game was three hours and 28 minutes. That could make for a story in and of itself, but with the particular game in question, such a story would kind of bury the lede.
By now, you’ve probably heard about what happened, because what happened has shown up on news sites and television shows across the country. And when something from a minor-league baseball game goes viral, you know you’re not dealing with just any other game. In part, it’s just crazy how many total runs were scored, but the real story is about the sequencing — host Burlington scored 17 of the first 18 runs. Clinton scored the remaining 19, erasing a 17-1 sixth-inning deficit. These aren’t teams that play in the California League. It was classic minor-league insanity in a way that wasn’t really classic at all, and whenever you see something like this, you always want to check out a win-expectancy chart. Or, I do, anyway.
A problem: the game was at such a low level of the minors that I haven’t been able to track down a play-by-play log, like the kind of thing you just take for granted. But I do have a box score and a partial radio call from Cheyne Reiter, and together they provide enough information for an estimate. I made some assumptions about the run environment — the wind was blowing out, strongly — and then I plugged away into a win-expectancy spreadsheet. The result is not exactly correct, but it’s far more right than wrong:
(background image from the Clinton Facebook page)
You remember when the Indians rallied from 12 down to beat the Mariners. Baseball-Reference has a chart for that game. At their worst, the Indians’ odds were just about 0%. More recently, in July 2009, the A’s beat the Twins 14-13 after falling behind 12-2. Here’s that chart:
They’re always going to look the same, more or less, because overall they tell similar stories, but the Clinton Lumberkings didn’t rally from down ten, or down 12. They were down ten and then another six, and while their odds were obviously never 0%, they were effectively 0%, and then they won, which tells you this is the sort of game that happens once in countless thousands of opportunities. Or maybe hundreds of thousands, or millions, but “countless thousands” doesn’t have an upper limit.
One of the interesting things about the chart is how little it responds to additional runs, at first. Clinton’s odds slipped below 1% around when the score was 10-1. They didn’t return to 1% until the score was 17-10, and entering the top of the ninth at 17-12, their odds were just about exactly 1%. When the leadoff hitter made an out, that dropped to 0.2%. But then there were four straight runners and a grand slam, and the tying grand slam was the biggest play of the game, with a Win Probability Added of about 36%. Even still, at that point, Burlington was the favorite, but when Marcus Littlewood left the yard to knot it up 17-all, I suspect Clinton no longer felt like the underdog.
The eventual miracle allows recaps to include hilarious lines such as:
[Clinton manager Scott] Steinmann was equally confident in his club when it was down, 17-1, heading to the top of the sixth.
If you listen to Steinmann, after the fact, he had a sense things were going to turn awful early:
“I tell them to keep competing and have professional at-bats and I just stay out of the way and let them do it. That’s all them,” he said. “We start to string together a couple of little hits in the sixth and you could kind of feel it turning. That’s when it was really exciting.”
Of course, a tie game still needs to be resolved, and nobody scored in the tenth or 11th. Clinton managed to plate three in the top of the 12th, a big insurance hit coming from infielder Lonnie Kauppila, and then Kauppila himself spun a 1-2-3 bottom half to seal the victory and the history. Kauppila, a college product, had most recently pitched in high school. He pitched against the 3-4-5 of the Burlington order.
Here’s an interesting side effect of the comeback. Just last Saturday, against Wisconsin, Clinton rallied from down eight in the sixth. They turned a 12-4 deficit into a 16-13 barnburner, once having reached a win expectancy in the neighborhood of 1%. That comeback was incredible on its own, but now not only is it almost forgotten — it sounds almost insignificant, the same team having now rallied from a deficit twice as large. So that’s another way to think about this: it’s really rare for a team to rally from eight back. Clinton rallied from eight back and another eight back, with less than half the nine innings to play.
Yeah, the circumstances were unusual, with such a strong wind. Yeah, the wind was a factor in some balls blowing out to or beyond the wall. But the circumstances were mostly unusual for one team falling behind by 16 and then ending up the victor. Official attendance was 558, and official attendance for the comeback might’ve numbered in the double digits. The priority in the minors is never about winning. It’s always about personal development, in order to try to get the players to higher levels. The teams down there don’t operate like the teams in the bigs. But those teams are every bit as capable of the improbable, if not more so, because baseball is ultimately a complicated sequence of beautiful dice rolls, and sometimes the dice just get hot.
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