The Mud Hens spilled disbelievingly onto the field while the visitors stormed off of it.
Of all the oddities and quirks inherent in a 144-game Triple-A baseball season, little will top the ending to Toledo’s 3-2 win over Syracuse on Thursday night at Fifth Third Field.
On the brink of being shut out in back-to-back games, the Mud Hens rallied for three runs in the ninth — the final one crossing on a walk-off balk by Chiefs reliever Daniel Stange.
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The Hens were tied with runners on second and third and one out when Stange rolled his shoulders slightly forward as if to begin his pitching motion, only to pause a beat later. Plate umpire Brian De Brauwere shot out of his crouch and called the balk, sending Ben Guez home with the winning run and Stange into a fury.
Stange stalked off the field, blistering the umpire all the way.
"It was just a start-and-stop balk where he started his motion and stopped," De Brauwere said inside the umpires’ locker room. "Our job is to enforce what we see."
Hens manager Larry Parrish called the balk obvious while his Syracuse counterpart, Billy Gardner, Jr., said he did not notice the pause.
"[The umpire] said he moved his shoulder and then stopped, and that [call] isn't going to change," Gardner said.
In any case, the night ended with the Hens’ sixth win in seven games. No victory this season was more improbable.
Remember all that momentum Toledo hoarded earlier this week? It all vanished over 17 numbing innings. Proving it might be easier to pinpoint the date of the Rapture than the pulse of a baseball club, a Mud Hens team that scored 33 runs over their five-game winning streak was nearly shut out in consecutive games for the first time since last July.
And then ...
"Everything changed," Parrish said.
With a lift from an unlikely star, the Hens set off on their rally.
After Mike Hessman hit a lead-off single, Jordan Lennerton smacked a run-scoring triple, and Guez was hit by a pitch, a worn-down Wade Gaynor came to the plate for the final at-bat of his first Triple-A game.
The 26-year-old Gaynor had learned a night earlier that he was being called up to Toledo in place of injured outfielder Daniel Fields. On the road with Double-A Erie in Trenton, N.J., he woke up at 5 a.m. to fly from Philadelphia to Detroit before shuttling to the Glass City. Yet by the end of the night, he could not have been better.
Gaynor, who hit .293 with six home runs and 16 RBIs in 27 games with Double-A Erie, sent a game-tying double off Zach Jackson just beyond the center fielder’s reach. "I was just trying to get a good pitch," said Gaynor, who finished 2 for 4. "That was awesome."
With runners on second and third, the Chiefs then summoned Stange to face Brandon Douglas. He would not get the chance.
"The balk is a quirky way to win, but we were sitting in a pretty good situation," Parrish said. "But you don't know if it's going to happen, so we'll take it."
NOTES: Hessman served as Toledo's DH Thursday after suffering an ankle injury Sunday. He did not play Monday or Tuesday and was limited to a pinch-hitting appearance Wednesday. ... OF Tyler Collins, who missed Wednesday's game with a stiff neck, returned to the lineup and played centerfield Thursday.