Two quick outs to open the twelfth inning brought up the ninth hitter, shortstop Jesus Lopez. Lopez took a pitch from reliever Jayson Ruhlman and slashed the ball into the left-field corner for a double. It wasn’t all good, though, as Lopez twisted his ankle going into second and had to be removed for pinch-runner Brian Lauderdale.
That move proved to be unnecessary; Lopez could have crawled home backwards on what leadoff man Mike Epping did next.
Down two strikes, Ruhlman dealt fastball. Epping, overmatched, swung mightily and ticked the ball straight back to catcher Mario Mercedes’ waiting glove. If he catches the ball, Epping is out and the inning is over.
He didn’t. It wasn’t.
Epping took Ruhlman’s next pitch, a knee-high slider, and lined it just over the right-field fence for a two-run game-ending home run.
As he rounded third and headed home Epping followed David Ortiz’s Guide to the Walk-Off Home Run to perfection, almost. Hoist both arms in the air victoriously, check. Triumphantly stomp the plate amidst a sea of waiting teammates, check. Pull a full-on Big Papi and throw your helmet high in the air, check. But then Epping did something Ortiz never does—waited and caught the helmet.
It’s only single-A, he’ll learn.
After the game was over, and he had signed autographs for nearly all the remaining fans, Epping talked about the feeling he got from his first walk-off dinger.
“It was awesome. I was down 0-2 and he kept throwing me sliders and I fouled one off. I was seeing it well. I was just trying to stay back and he left one over the inner-half of the plate and I stayed back and put a good swing on it. First walk-off home run for me, so I felt pretty good.”
While Epping will get all the glory and the newsprint, the win wouldn’t have been possible without clutch play from Chad Huffman and solid pitching from starter Steve Faris and four Eugene relievers.
With the Ems down one going into the last of the ninth, it took a little late magic to tie the ballgame.
Tom King and Matt Antonelli opened the frame with back-to-back walks, but the next man, Craig Cooper, grounded into a double play to leave a man at third with two down.
Huffman followed with a line-drive double down the third-base line, bringing King home with the tying run.
The Ems continued the inning and loaded the bases, but the rally was squelched when catcher Matt Stocco grounded out.
“I got a fastball. It was a 2-2 count and was looking to drive something into the gap and try to get a hit to get him in and keep the game going,” Huffman described.
Just as big as the double was Huffman’s leaping, Jim Edmonds-esque snare of Russell Canzler’s screaming liner that had triple written all over it. The catch ended the tenth inning and saved both the run and the game for the time being.
“My reactions took over. I was heading back and jumped up and just tried to catch it. I jumped as I high as I could,” Huffman recounted.
With the last three innings being as exciting as they were, it would be easy to forget that Eugene’s pitching held the Hawks mostly in check for nine innings.
Faris locked horns with Boise starter and Emeralds alumnus Fabian Jimenez for six dazzling innings. Jimenez got the better of Faris, shutting down the Eugene offense on only one hit for the first two-thirds of the regulation game.
Although he would have been on the hook for the loss had the score stayed the same as when he left the game, Faris twirled what can easily be pointed to as the best start of his young professional career.
The right-hander from Clemson allowed just two earned runs on six hits in five and two-thirds innings pitched. He struck out one batter, walked two and allowed a solo home run in the fifth inning to first baseman Josh Lansford. With the outing, Faris lowered his ERA from 7.20 to 6.10.
Ernesto Frieri pitched a scoreless top of the twelfth to record the win and even his record at 2-2.
Although it won’t be easy, the Ems and Hawks will try to top today’s game Friday night. Eugene sends lefty Orlando Lara (1-0, 4.32 ERA) against Hawks’ righty Jose Pina (1-4, 5.88) in search of the Emeralds’ sixth win in seven tries against Boise. Game time is 7:05 p.m.