October 18, 2017

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Fish could win it all after late 'Nuts error

Fish looking to take advantage of balk and earn back-to-back championships

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Wichita thought they won the title on Monday, but Wingnuts players were shocked after a balk overturned celebrations. The Goldeyes capitalized on their opportunity and won Game 4 in 17 innings — the longest in league history.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Wichita thought they won the title on Monday, but Wingnuts players were shocked after a balk overturned celebrations. The Goldeyes capitalized on their opportunity and won Game 4 in 17 innings — the longest in league history.

Rick Forney said he’d be “throwing up” if it happened to his Winnipeg Goldeyes. But we can confirm that members of the Wichita Wingnuts have not spent any time recently perched over toilet bowls.

However, the team that is the talk of the sporting world is still trying to digest what went down at Shaw Park, which was the scene of one of the most surreal plot twists you’ll see in any sport at any level.

In case you missed it, let’s take you back to Monday night.

Wichita was clinging to a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning and were just one out away from capturing their second American Association championship in franchise history. Winnipeg’s Wes Darvill stood at second base, while Casey Turgeon was at the plate. The Wingnuts’ closer, Ryan Kussmaul, delivered a two-strike pitch that Turgeon hit to the third baseman. He made the routine play, throwing a hustling Turgeon out at first for the final out of the series.

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Rick Forney said he’d be "throwing up" if it happened to his Winnipeg Goldeyes. But we can confirm that members of the Wichita Wingnuts have not spent any time recently perched over toilet bowls.

However, the team that is the talk of the sporting world is still trying to digest what went down at Shaw Park, which was the scene of one of the most surreal plot twists you’ll see in any sport at any level.

In case you missed it, let’s take you back to Monday night.

Wichita was clinging to a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning and were just one out away from capturing their second American Association championship in franchise history. Winnipeg’s Wes Darvill stood at second base, while Casey Turgeon was at the plate. The Wingnuts’ closer, Ryan Kussmaul, delivered a two-strike pitch that Turgeon hit to the third baseman. He made the routine play, throwing a hustling Turgeon out at first for the final out of the series.

Wichita players and coaches came rushing out of the dugout to celebrate. They swarmed their pitcher, jumping and hugging and cheering. It was pure joy.

"When we thought that third out was made, I literally threw my drink up in the air," general manager Josh Robertson told the Free Press on Tuesday afternoon from the team’s hotel in downtown Winnipeg.

Only it wasn’t over. And they hadn’t won the title. Because out came home-plate umpire Joe Stegner, wildly waving his arms as if to usher them off the field.

Incredibly, he had called a balk just as Kussmaul was delivering what appeared to be the final pitch. But he made none of the usual hand signals to indicate what was happening.

The Wingnuts were stunned. The party was over. And Turgeon took advantage of his new lease on life by crushing a double to centre that scored Darvill to tie the game and send it to extra innings.

More than three hours later, just after 1 a.m. Tuesday, the Goldeyes walked it off in the bottom of the 17th inning before a smattering of the 3,505 fans who were there at the start of the game, which turned into the longest in league history.

The improbable 4-3 victory kept their season alive.

A winner-take-all game five was set to be played Tuesday night, but was pushed back until tonight because of rain in the forecast. First pitch is set for 6:05 p.m.

"For me, my staff and my owners, it was very emotional. I can’t imagine what it did to my players," Robertson said. "I got back here, after the game, and stared up at the ceiling for about three hours, trying to run everything through my brain."

What's a balk?

So what exactly did Kussmaul do wrong?

A balk is typically called when a pitcher is determined to have made an illegal motion on the mound meant to deceive a baserunner. Or, in the most basic of terms, faking an attempt to deliver a pitch in the hopes of catching the runner off guard.

There are a number of potential violations — suddenly changing his position without stepping off the rubber, not coming set on the mound by having constant motion, interrupting his delivery to try a pickoff — and it’s not clear exactly what Stegner saw in this case that caused him to make the call.

Robertson declined to offer an opinion on the call, saying the team’s owners wish to put the focus on what’s ahead, not what already occurred.

"It’s over, it’s done with, let’s just focus on Game 5," he said.

News spread across North America, with major publications including Deadspin and Sports Illustrated picking up on the Free Press coverage of the bizarre events that transpired. Robertson said his phone was "ringing off the hook" Tuesday for interview requests from far and wide.

'Rolled through the set'

Turgeon said following the game he heard Stegner yell "balk" right before he swung at the pitch. Video shows Wichita catcher Martin Medina as the only player from his team not celebrating. Medina simply stands at home plate as the chaos ensues, putting his hands on his head at one point in apparent disbelief. He heard the same call as Turgeon.

Turgeon said the explanation provided by Stegner was Kussmaul "rolled through his set" prior to delivering the pitch. Essentially, he didn’t come to a full stop while pitching out of the stretch.

Just a few pitches later, Turgeon drove a dagger through the Wingnuts with the game-tying hit.

"I think the pitcher kinda let his guard down there for a second thinking they won everything," Turgeon said.

Turgeon also factored into the winning run. He led off the 17th with a single, then scored on David Rohm’s double to right field. Now it was the Goldeyes’ turn to pour out of the dugout and celebrate.

As a result, Winnipeg can capture their fourth league championship in their 24-year history with another win tonight — and their third over Wichita following wins in 2012 and 2016 in Kansas.

It remains to be seen how Wichita will respond to adversity. Do they rally around this and use it as motivation? Or is it so deflating that it carries over? For what it’s worth, Wichita players gathered at Shaw Park on Tuesday afternoon prior to the game being postponed and appeared in good spirits, laughing and joking around as they played with a hacky sack.

"I think they’re ready to go. Everybody knows what’s on the line," Robertson said.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Mike McIntyre.

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History

Updated on Wednesday, September 20, 2017 at 4:17 PM CDT: Adds video

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