D.J. Hicks and the Elizabethton Twins dug out of a big hole and went deep into the night for an Appalachian League championship Monday — and Tuesday — at the Twins’ Joe O’Brien Field.
Hicks delivered a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the 12th inning on a 3-2 fastball with two outs to beat Burlington 10-6 for the title, and that wasn’t even the feat generating most of the discussion.
The Twins forced extra innings when Adam Walker’s three-run home run capped a five-run, two-out rally in the bottom of the ninth.
All three games in the series went extra innings. Two had long rain delays. The championship game ended at 12:28 a.m. Tuesday.
Elizabethton general manager Mike Mains said he has now been part of six Appalachian League titles in his 13 years with the Twins, but he hadn’t experienced anything like the final game of a remarkable series.
In the ninth, when the Twins trailed 6-1 and were one out from elimination, Mains had already told staff to make sure Burlington got the bottles of white grape juice that were on ice in a large laundry tub for their champagne-simulating celebration.
“I said, ‘They can have a good time with it,’” Mains said some 16 hours later before pausing as if he was still computing the shocking comeback, “and it never got to that point. There are certain moments where you can see a play that affects the game. Being a Braves fan (growing up), I can remember Kirby Puckett running around the bases to beat us in the World Series.
“In this case, I will always remember the two home runs that I saw, especially the one to tie it. … I was working on trying to make the Burlington team have a good (postgame) experience — working on some music, working on some announcements for our PA guy. And then all the sudden, we’re tied.”
Despite long odds, Hicks never let his mind drift to defeat.
“It never crossed my mind,” said Hicks, who led off the 11th with a hit and scored the winning run in the Twins’ victory in game two. “At no point was I really down. I told some teammates, ‘When we get around we have a shot. We have the offense to do it.’”
The Twins faced Royals closer John Walter in the ninth. He struck out 35 and walked seven in 27 1/3 innings in the regular season and had a WHIP of 0.88. But he walked three, hit a batter and threw a wild pitch before being taking deep by Walker, the former Jacksonville standout who tied Burlington’s Patrick Leonard for the regular-season home run title with 14.
“It’s definitely one thing that’s running in your mind, you know, when Walker comes up in that situation,” Hicks said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, he’s for sure hitting a home run.’ And sure enough, they kept a pitch down and he hit it a mile.
“Walker is a clutch guy. He hit an absolute shot.”
Hicks got an elevated fastball close to the center of the plate.
“It felt good when I hit it,” said Hicks, who was suddenly remembering winning a state championship in high school after jubilantly rounding the bases.
Hicks and Twins outfielder Kelvin Mention drove home to Florida on Tuesday, and discussed the series seemingly every mile.
“For 10-plus hours all we did was talk about the game, the series and every game going extra innings,” Hicks said. “It was ‘Can you believe (Jorge) Polanco made that diving play? Can you believe Walker hit that home run, how the pitchers stepped up?’
“It’s still hard to grasp what all happened with all the extra innings and late homers. … I’m still wired.”
So was Mains. For him, the dramatic comeback was the culmination of a surreal series, an extra-long weekend that he began by seeing his beloved Clemson Tigers football team beat Auburn in the Georgia Dome and a grueling Appalachian League season.
“It is the most gratifying title,” Mains said, “and I’ll tell you why: there was so much hard work put into this season by our staff and grounds crew. I mean, the last two nights summed up the entire summer. We battled rain or storms or floods, wind, it seemed like almost every night we played at home. And the amount of work that went into the last two nights to get the fields ready to be played on.
“And then just the team itself; this was a good group of young men that worked hard … and helped promote the team, and up until the last out last night, they just kept battling.”
Veteran Twins manager Ray Smith and hitting coach Jeff Reed were credited by Hicks and Mains.
“For my first year in with the Twins, they’ve been great,” Hicks said. “Ray’s a special guy. He makes the transition super easy, and if you have any problems the door is always open.
“Getting a chance to work with Jeff was awesome. I think he played for, like, 17 years in the bigs — some crazy number — and he can tell you everything. He can look at you from two swings and tell you what’s wrong with what you’re doing, and the best part’s the solution. He can give you the tips to fix the problem, which not every coach can do.”
The Twins had to tip their caps to Burlington. It was hard to imagine walking in Royals’ spikes after coming up a pitch short in a three-game, 35-inning see-saw of emotions.
The Twins lost game one Saturday in Burlington 3-2 in 12 innings after Burlington rallied from a 2-1 deficit in the eighth. The Twins overcame a three-run deficit to win game two at Elizabethton in 11 innings.
“It was a crazy three games,” Hicks said. “I’ve never been a part of a series like that before. It was a great season with great coaches … and for it to come down to that, you know, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 12th, man, it’s crazy. It still really hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Mains suggested this wasn’t the E-Twins’ best collection of talent, but was arguably the best team.
“I’ll always remember something (Niko) Goodrum said to (Max) Kepler when I was walking through the locker room last night,” Mains said. “He said, ‘Man, the thing about it is we were a team this year, we were a team.’ And that’s the way we saw it all summer.
“We’ve been blessed here. We’ve been in the playoffs a lot, won a lot of titles. But this is one I’ll never forget.”