It wasn’t the first game-winning hit of Chu Yuan-Chin’s burgeoning career.
But it may have been the most dramatic, as the Taiwanese newcomer for the Alaska Goldpanners slapped a single to center field scoring pinch runner Lan Shao-Bai for a 2-1, 10-inning win over the Beatrice, Neb., Bruins that sent another huge crowd home happy in the 101st Midnight Sun Game.
“This is the most exciting (game-winner) I ever hit,” said Chu, whose style is already drawing comparisons to Seattle Mariners’ Japanese star Ichiro Suzuki, through an interpreter.
The Midnight Sun Game win was the 14th straight for the Goldpanners in the famous contest that starts at 10:30 p.m. and is played in its entirety without the aid of artificial lights. The rapidly played game ended at 12:32 a.m., 15 minutes before the official sunset.
Chu’s third hit–the Panners had just seven in all–made a winner out of starting pitcher Chris Kissock, who went the distance, a rarity beyond nine innings. Kissock gave up only four hits on 103 pitches and didn’t allow a hit after a leadoff single in the fifth inning. Kissock outdueled tough-luck losing pitcher Ryan Sheldon, who was lifted with one out in the 10th.
“I knew I wasn’t going back out (for an 11th inning) so I was hoping we could bring around a run,” said Kissock. “Chu saw the pitch real well and just drove it over the second baseman’s head … It was a great experience. The fans here are amazing. I’m definitely gonna remember this.”
The winning rally started with one out in the 10th when Jordan Mayer beat out a single deep in the hole at shortstop. Player coach Elliott Strankman then drew a hard-earned walk, and Sheldon was lifted for reliever Erik Bird, who struck out Mark Thompson before Chu’s dramatic hit.
Beatrice (5-9), which beat the Panners 12-1 on Tuesday, got on the scoreboard first in the third frame when Nick Wolfe doubled with one out, took third on an infield single and scored on Tyson Parks’ roller to first that was hit too slowly for a double-play attempt.
The Goldpanners (5-2) had runners on second and third with one out in the fourth inning but wasted the opportunity when Sheldon got Jessie Mier to pop to second and Joe Persichina flew to right.
But the Panners finally got the run back in the sixth when Chu led off with a double over the head of Beatrice right fielder Andrew Brown, who tripped near the warning track while trying to run it down. Jovanny Bramasco followed with a sacrifice grounder, and then cleanup hitter Beau Mills lined a shot to right that Brown, it was ruled, snagged just before it could hit the outfield grass. Chu alertly tagged up to score the tying run and Beatrice’s appeal that he left early was denied.
Goldpanners’ second baseman Bramasco saved a run in the first with a running backhanded catch of a flare that threatened to drop into short center field with a man on third base and two outs.
The standing room only crowd was smaller than 2005, but still overflowing from the bleachers into a grassy area along the first base fencing and behind a special barrier set up in foul territory down the left field line.
The chilly night brought out more fans wearing jackets than T-shirts and shorts. Dark clouds threatened to the south but rain never materialized, and smoke that was bothersome late Tuesday night from the Parks Highway Fire also thankfully stayed away. The sun even made an appearance from about 11:15 p.m. to midnight.
Fans came from near and far. Army retiree Dave Johns, who attends virtually every Goldpanners and Athletes in Action game at Growden Memorial Park, found a spot standing in the top row of the first base bleachers. Wednesday left with him with a rooting dilemma.
“I like the Panners but I’m originally from Nebraska,” said Johns, 50. “I’m a transplant so I gotta go with the Panners.”
Meanwhile, Melanie Gambill and Vickie Jones, wearing yellow sun visors given away as a promotion, came all the way from Milton, Fla., (near Pensacola) especially for the game.
The ceremonial first pitch was thrown by Charlie Cole, the winning Midnight Sun Game pitcher 50 years ago, and a former Alaska attorney general.
The pitcher’s duel sped along until the game was stopped before the bottom of the eighth inning, at 11:55 p.m., for Sally Ann Thibedeau, a local attending the University of Northern Colorado, to sing the Alaska flag song, another tradition at the Midnight Sun Game.
Before the game, Goldpanners President Bill Stroecker, whose father played catcher in the original Midnight Sun Game a century ago, entertained the crowd by playing trumpet as a member of the Frigid-Aires along with accordion and stand-up bass players.