2013-We hardly knew ye

[Originally published in September, 2013]

On August 26 of last year, the ThunderBolts suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the eventual champion Southern Illinois Miners. They lost leads in the seventh and eighth and then dropped the game in the tenth. The loss effectively ended the ThunderBolts’ playoff hopes but it was the type of game, with a week to go in the season, that made you ready for the offseason, that made you wish you could take a good deal of time off before having to go back out there.

But baseball doesn’t work that way so after just one day off, we were right back at the park on August 28 to begin a new series with Lake Erie. The feeling at the park was different that day, much more casual after the Bolts had returned home defeated, but what transpired made everyone (or at least me, anyway) forget about the troubles of the previous series. Tyson Corley went out and threw just the second no-hitter in ThunderBolts history.

It was a special moment for me (my first live no-hitter) and a great ray of sunshine in a cloudy period for the Bolts last year, a literal reminder that in the game of baseball, something amazing is always liable to happen, even when the situation seems at its worst.

I thought of that as this season began to wind down in late-July and I searched for those types of events that might be able to salvage what was otherwise a disappointing 2013. But they never came.

What we got, however, was much better. Instead of a bad team trying to make a tough season worthwhile with a few scattered moments of glory, the team morphed into something else entirely. After sitting at 23-34 on July 23, they actually turned the season around and became one of the best teams in the league.

Good, I thought after the Bolts won a couple of games in a row. This was what we needed. Not a late playoff run, which seemed impossible at the time, but just a spell of good play to remind us that this team had talent and a good track record and they were capable of putting together a stretch of solid baseball, something we hadn’t seen in Crestwood through the season’s first half.

When they reached six straight wins in mid-August, it got more exciting. Were the playoffs a possibility still? Probably not; after all, they had only gained one game in the standings. But at that point, I think we were allowed to dream.

They lost the first game of a week-long homestand against Joliet, snapping the winning streak, but not, apparently, their confidence. They came back with two straight wins against the Slammers before taking the opener against River City. That Saturday, they went for their tenth win in their last eleven games, but came out flat. The capacity crowd at Standard Bank Stadium searched for something on the field to cheer for, but couldn’t find it as the ThunderBolts fell behind 2-0 and then 5-2.

But then something happened to confirm that this wasn’t the same team from a month ago, the team that struggled to stay within ten games of breaking even.

The Bolts came back. They did so against a pitcher who hadn’t allowed a run in over a month. They scored four straight runs, culminating in a Kyle Robinson homer in the eighth that led to a 6-5 win.

The win moved the ThunderBolts record to the .500 mark for the first time all year. It took 80 games, but they made it. Perhaps even more importantly, it moved them just five games out of a playoff spot. For the first time, it seemed as though postseason play might be an actual possibility. A still very unlikely one, but a possibility nonetheless.

The mood around the ballpark after that game was celebratory. The ThunderBolts had done something that it hadn’t seemed like they could do in making it to .500 and even though they still had a long way to go, it truly felt like a celebration was in order.

I came to the park the next day fully expecting the team to start their slide. They had reached that point of contentedness that comes from having achieved a goal and after the revelry from the previous night’s win, it felt only right that the fall begin today.

Right on cue, they were outplayed throughout the game and fell to the Rascals in the series finale 6-3.

But this team had proven me wrong before and they would again because the story doesn’t end with that loss. They won ten of their final 15 games, including seven of 12 on the road and a three-game sweep of first-place Lake Erie.

That they finished with a winning record after not spending one day over .500 through the first 86 games is incredible. But what amazes me most about the 2013 ThunderBolts is that even though they finished with the second worst record for a Windy City team over the past seven years, some of the best and most exciting baseball I can remember comes from this team.

Every year I like to put together a list of the top games from the season and it has never been tougher than this year. There have been so many unforgettable moments.

It all started in the first week of the year, when the ThunderBolts had an incredible 11-9 win over the Southern Illinois Miners in which they came from behind three different times to avoid an 0-4 start. At the time, I made the statement that we could go the whole year without seeing another one that crazy, but my, how wrong I was.

In fact, that game may have been topped  less than a week later when the Bolts erased a three-run ninth inning deficit against the Otters and closer Eric Massingham, who had converted his first 42 save opportunities with Evansville and did not allow another run until late July, when the ThunderBolts got him again.

There was a 19-inning win, the longest game in Frontier League history in both innings and time of game (officially five hours and 53 minutes, but actually 25:34, including a day-long rain delay). There was also a 16-inning game, the two longest I have ever been a part of, both of them ThunderBolt walkoff wins.

Then there was the six-game win streak in which all six-wins came in the last at-bat. One of the games featured a nine-run ninth inning, one featured a walkoff after a lost lead in the top of the ninth, and still another was a come-from-behind 11th inning win.

And we can’t forget the game against River City, won on Robinson’s homer. There were certainly no shortage of thrilling wins.

Even if the game itself wasn’t a classic, even if they lost, there were some amazing moments. I witnessed two of the most bizarre innings I have ever seen on the field of Standard Bank Stadium this year. On June 1, the Washington Wild Things loaded the bases on three consecutive bunt singles, which is strange enough on its own, but to see the inning end one batter later on a triple play is something I’ll probably never see again. On July 14, Daniel Cropper threw a three-pitch inning, during which he allowed two hits. Like I said, you never know exactly what you’re going to see when you show up to the park.

There have been fantastic individual plays as well: Andrew Brauer throwing a runner out at first base from right field, something I had never seen in a professional game, or Mike Torres breaking up a no-hitter in the ninth and becoming the ThunderBolts all-time hits leader in the process, these are moments that will stay with me forever.

So through it all, despite the unpleasant first half and the missing of the playoffs, there’s no denying on my part that 2013 was a fun year.

They’re all fun.

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