Visalia, CA — Remember the scene from the movie "The Natural" when Roy Hobbs hits a home run so high and far that it hits a bank of lights, causing the to burst into a brilliant shower of falling embers? Well, what happened in Visalia California on Thursday night echoed that scene, only in a much less heroic and dramatic way.
It was the last game of the homestand for the Visalia Rawhide, who were facing the Modesto Nuts in a battle for first place in the California League Northern Division. The game had gone back and forth, but entered the bottom of the ninth inning 5-4 in favor of Modesto. Leadoff hitter Ryan LaPensee grounded out to second base, but before doing so, hit a foul ball that struck and broke a light bulb just above the first base side of the grandstand. There was a small explosion, and some falling glass that crashed to the ground behind the grandstand (where, thankfully, no one was standing). Next, outfielder Ender Inciarte dropped a base hit into left field. Everyone in the ballpark continued to monitor the spot where the light bulb had been, which was still meagerly smoking. The following batter struck out bringing Mike Freeman, perhaps the Rawhide's most clutch hitter, to the plate. Freeman had heroically ended numerous games for the Rawhide this season, including several walk-off base hits in front of the home crowd. Freeman, a left-handed batter, doubled down the left field line, missing the foul line by less than a foot. Inciarte rounded third, but was held as the baseball began to leave the left fielder's hand. Second and third, two outs and the Rawhide's leading home run hitter, 6'7" John Griffin, stepped to the plate. Remaining on the mound for the Nuts was left-handed late-inning reliever Isaiah Froneberger. Even with first base open, Froneberger looked set to pitch to the powerful Griffin with left-handed power hitter Yazy Arbelo on deck.
Then, with two outs in the ninth and the winning run on second base, the ballpark went almost completely dark. The broken light, still slightly smoldering, had caused all but two of the ballpark's light towers to short out and rendered the press box powerless. There were two possible outcomes at that point: The lights would not come back on and the dramatic ballgame would end in a strangely undramatic way, or the lights would come back on and the scene on the field would play itself out.
Fans began holding out their cell phones, trying to make light of the situation both figuratively and literally. Some left, but most stayed even with the uncertainty of the night's near future and no power to even play music through the speaker system. The only chance to play baseball was to let the light towers cool down and then flip the breaker switch. Five minutes passed. Then ten. If the switch was flipped and nothing happened, the game would be over and Modesto would win despite still needing one out to escape from having let two runners get into scoring position with a one run lead.
Suddenly, the lights reappeared in the press box and music began to play throughout the ballpark. Fans cheered and sang along, but the waiting game continued. Finally, after around 15 minutes of uncertainty, the switch was flipped and, slowly, the light towers began to come to life. At first, as if to gently test their strength, the lights were dim, but within a minute every tower was lit, bringing the suspended ballgame back to life.
After several warm-up pitches, the game was ready to resume and it did so with an intentional walk to the 6'7" Griffin, who had 22 home runs on the year. This chess move brought left-handed slugger Yazy Arbelo to the plate. Arbelo, with 20 home runs of his own, but in only 202 Cal League plate appearances, dug into the left-handed batter's box to face the left-handed Froneberger. Several pitches later, the count was full.
Bases loaded, two outs, full count, down by one run with perhaps a playoff berth on the line.
Froneberger throws a breaking ball that starts at Arbelo's front shoulder, but snaps sharply back toward the plate and into the edge of the inside corner of the strike-zone. The umpire, to the dismay of those who waited out the power outage and Arbelo, who vehemently disagreed with what was about to happen, quickly raised his right hand to indicate a called third strike.
The game was over, 5-4 in favor of the first place Modesto Nuts,
The crowd got in a few choice words to the umpires, then dispersed. Once the crowd had left and the grounds crew had completed their patchwork, the lights once again turned off, closing the ballpark for the night, the homestand and quite possibly the door that led to the playoffs for Visalia.