Before the first pitch was even thrown on a sweltering, lazy Sunday afternoon, Peninsula Oilers head coach Kyle Brown had the key to victory ready to go.
It came in the pregame coaches-umpires meeting at home plate, at which time Brown let loose a few criticisms on the umpiring crew, leading to his rapid ejection from the game.
The odd exit resulted in a swift 12-inning classic between the Oilers and the three-time Alaska Baseball League champion Mat-Su Miners.
The Oilers ended it in walk-off fashion in the bottom of the 12th as the hometown kid Paul Steffensen, a 2017 Kenai Central graduate, brought home the winning run on a fielder’s choice knock that resulted in the Miners failing to turn a double play, giving the Oilers a 2-1 victory and a six-game series split.
The Oilers (11-19) are 8.5 games behind the ABL-leading Anchorage Bucs (18-9), and one game ahead of the Chugiak Chinooks (9-19) for the fourth and final spot in the ABL postseason.
Brown said his intentions to get thrown out were planned well before the pregame meeting, and he let the team in on his trick.
“My whole thing was I wanted to play with an attitude today,” Brown said. “I wanted our actions to speak louder than words. My words were my actions pregame.”
Brown said his comments were nothing personal to the officiating crew, but simply a tactic to light a fire under his team.
“Obviously losing a doubleheader (Saturday) and down 2-3 in the series at home, I wanted to do something to fire the guys up,” Brown said. “Try something different, and obviously Eric Reardon on the mound did his thing.
“When you hold the Miners to one run on four hits, that’s a good day.”
The pitching ruled the day as New Jersey lefty Eric Reardon tossed a gem on the mound for the Oilers, giving up one run on a single hit in six innings of play, walking three and whiffing three.
Reardon went toe to toe with Miners starter Randy Abshier, who gave up one unearned run in eight innings on just two hits and one walk, while striking out five. Abshier got the job done in 98 pitches.
The bullpens shined as well, as Kyle Muller, Heath Olive and Steven Ordorica combined for six shutout innings for the Oilers. Muller gave up two hits and a walk in two innings, Olive gave up just one hit and whiffed two in three innings of work, and Ordorica earned the save with a perfect inning.
The winning sequence in the bottom of the 12th began with a leadoff single from pinch hitter Bobby Goodloe, who moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Drew Thorpe. Following a walk drawn by Victor Carlino, Steffensen raked a ground ball to short. Mat-Su’s Coby Boulware got one out on the toss to second, but first baseman Drew Williamson couldn’t hold onto the throw and it sailed towards the Oilers dugout, allowing Goodloe to score.
“They brought in a new pitcher and I was thinking, fastball,” Goodloe said about his leadoff hit. “Just stick to my approach up the middle, and the outcome was what I wanted. Once I got the base hit, I had to get in scoring position. What happens next was history, I guess.”
Steffensen grew up at the ballparks in Kenai and Soldotna, and is very familiar with Seymour park in his time with the Kenai Central Kardinals and the Legion Twins. Steffensen couldn’t recall notching a game-ending hit in his early days but said he stole home against Kodiak once to end a game.
“Playing in front of a home crowd is one of the most exciting things to do,” Steffensen said. “To be able to come back is kind of a dream, coming back and getting the win.”
Notorious for blinding base running speed, Steffensen’s grounder likely played a role in the Miners’ game-ending error as they rushed the double play. Steffensen said he was searching for a pitch down the middle that he could put in play.
“I was looking for something I could hit hard,” he said. “Probably not exactly where I was looking, but it’s baseball. You’re not always going to get the best pitch, but you try to do something with it.”
The Oilers are back on the road for a three-game series with the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Mulcahy Stadium.
Sunday in Kenai, the Oilers took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the third on an error by Miners first baseman Aaron Walters that allowed Steffensen to reach base and Carlino to make it to third. Camden Vasquez plated Carlino with an RBI groundout to put the Oilers ahead.
Mat-Su answered in the top of the fourth with an RBI groundout by Walters to tie it up.
The Oilers were able to turn two double plays in the middle frames. The Miners threatened in the top of the fifth with two on and one out, but the Oilers turned a 4-6-3 double play by Carlino, Skyler Messinger and Connor McCord to end the threat.
In the top of the seventh, Ricky Martinez grounded into a Messinger-Carlino-McCord double play to keep the Miners off the board in a bases-loaded situation.
McCord was part of another defensive highlight in the top of the sixth when he had to stretch out again to grab the third out.
The Oilers missed a chance to win it in the bottom of the 10th, loading the bases with one out but failing to come through after a strikeout by Vasquez and a lineout by Bohall.