A ho-hum game under leaden skies came alive to deliver a sizable crown an only-in-baseball, pins-and-needles ending Friday at Coral Seymour Memorial Park in Kenai.
Oilers closer Caleb Hicks, with help from his fishing buddies, extricated himself from a first-and-second, nobody-out jam to preserve a 4-3 Alaska Baseball League victory over the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks.
The Oilers move to 7-11 with their third straight victory, six games behind the league-leading Mat-Su Miners but tied with the Chinooks (8-12) for third place in the league. The same two teams meet tonight at 7 p.m.
“The reds are running and so are we,” Oilers right fielder Thomas Ruddy said. “We’ve fished a lot together as a team, so that helps us come together.
“We’re not catching as many fish as we’d like, but we’re getting better at that as well.”
The Oilers almost let a big one get away after entering the ninth clinging to a 4-3 advantage.
Caleb Hicks has assumed the closer’s role for the local nine, but Hicks is far from an experienced pitcher. He has been an infielder, and not a pitcher, at Murray State University.
“His school is going to have him do a lot of pitching next year, so they want us to pitch him,” Oilers head coach Jim Dietz said. “He has to learn to pitch in those situations.”
Specifically, Dietz said said Hicks must learn not to walk the opening batter of the inning, as he did to Levi Gilcrease. Micah Pries, who finished 2 for 5, then followed with a single to put runners on first and second.
Jeremy Johnson failed to get a bunt down on the first and second strikes, but Oilers first baseman Jeremy Conant crept up on the grass in case Johnson tried a daring bunt with two strikes.
Two people in particular took note of Conant’s position — Johnson and right fielder Ruddy. Ruddy suspected Johnson would try to slap a single past Conant, and when that happened, Ruddy charged hard and threw for home.
“I was coming in hard because I knew the tying run was on second base,” said Ruddy, who had two of the Oilers’ four hits on offense. “I saw him hesitate at third base so I knew I just had to put it right on the money and not do anything fancy.
“Mikey Hoehner had a nice catch and tag.”
Upon being called out on the bang-bang play, Gilcrease vociferously professed his innocence to such degree that he was tossed from the game.
But the drama was just getting started. Hicks’ grasp on the cliff became more precarious with a balk that put runners on second and third with just one away.
“I think that’s why I balked,” Hicks said. “I’m not really comfortable out there yet.”
Surprisingly, Hicks was comfortable when Justin Gomez laced the ball up the third-base line. Nathan Webb snatched the ball from the air and just missed doubling Pries off third to end the game.
“I had a pretty good idea it would be caught,” Hicks said. “I threw it in, so it was kind of a bloop line drive.”
Chinooks head coach Jon Groth saw other possibilities.
“That’s baseball,” Groth said in a postgame interview just feet from Webb’s snare. “That ball right here, if it’s a foot right or a foot left, it scores two runs and we have a chance to win the game.”
As it was, the Chinooks still had a great chance to win the game when Aaron Shackelford walked to load the bases.
Up stepped Brandon Michie, who had a 2-for-4 night going. Michie immediately went into a 1-2 hole, but was on the verge of clambering out when Hicks missed on successive sliders.
So what did he throw 3-2 with the game in the balance? Slider, of course. Michie froze and the home-plate umpire emphatically declared an end to the festivities.
“I figured he wasn’t looking for it, so I threw him a slider,” said Hicks after creating a happy ending for his father, Steve, who is up from St. Louis for the week. “That’s my best pitch.”
As emotionally charged as the play at the plate and called third strike were, Groth said that is not where the game was lost.
Chinooks starter Michael Batten poisoned a solid performance by allowing the first three Oilers batters of the game — John Thomas, Oilver Dunn and Kellen Strahm — to score, with Dunn reaching on a walk and Strahm taking first after getting plunked. Batten would give up just four hits and those three runs in 6 1-3 innings.
The Oilers also got a crucial insurance run in the seventh when pinch runner Isaac Deveaux took third on a throwing error and scored on a wild pitch.
“In baseball, if you make more mistakes than your opponent, you’d better score a lot of runs, and we didn’t do that tonight,” Groth said.
Four Oilers pitchers made sure of that. Kyle Lucke won by pitching five innings and giving up two runs — one earned — on four hits. Aaron Shoup kept the Chinooks scoreless for two innings and Josh Congdon gave up a run in an inning to set up Hicks’ save.