While warming up in the bullpen Saturday night for Class AA Northwest Arkansas, Matt Fields made the decision to go with a sidearm delivery for his pitching debut.
The Naturals, who are a Royals affiliate, were locked in a tie game at Springfield when Fields got the call -- in the 18th inning.
“As soon as I got on the mound, I threw the first one and it was wild and high,” said Fields, the Naturals’ first baseman. “I said forget that idea. Scratch that. I’m just going to throw over the top.”
Over the top is a good way to describe Saturday’s game, which the Naturals won 5-4 in 20 innings. No typo there. It took 5 hours, 38 minutes to complete and was the longest in Northwest Arkansas history, both in innings and time. There were 617 pitches thrown, including 47 by Fields.
“That’s baseball for you,” Fields said in a phone interview. “We have conversations all the time that in baseball you never know what’s going to happen. It’s crazy. That’s why we love the game of baseball so much, just for the fact that the possibilities are endless.”
Case in point: Who’d have ever thought Fields would outduel former Royals infielder Ruben Gotay?
Fields got the victory after pitching three innings and allowing one run on four hits and three walks. He relieved Mitch Canham, a catcher who played the first 14 innings at left field, then tossed three scoreless innings before taking Fields’ spot at first base.
“I ran from the bullpen smiling,” said Fields, who is 6-feet-5 and 235 pounds. “I thought this is going to be interesting. I told our catcher I have a fastball and change-up. I literally threw three change-ups and I spiked all three of them.
“It was straight four-seam fastball (after that). I thought I was throwing hard, but I looked up and I hit 84 or 85 once, but everything else was 78 or 80. I was pitching below hitting speed, so that was good.”
Catcher Juan Graterol, whose two-run homer in the top of the 20th won the game, nearly left in the third inning after fell down the dugout steps in the third inning trying to catch a foul ball.
Yordano Ventura, one of the Royals’ top prospects, started the game and pitched five scoreless innings, striking out four and allowing just two hits. Fields’ two-run homer in the fourth inning and Yem Prades’ solo shot in the sixth staked Northwest Arkansas to a 3-0 lead.
But Springfield tied it on Gotay’s three-run homer in the eighth and then the zeros piled up.
When Fields, 27, entered the game, it was his first pitching appearance since high school in 2004. That was the year he was drafted by Tampa Bay.
Things didn’t start well for Fields, who gave up a single and two walks to load the bases. Remarkably, Fields induced consecutive pop-ups on the infield and got out of the jam with a flyout to center.
“Truthfully, I was thinking I was a pitcher, which is not the right thing to do as a position player,” Fields said with a laugh. “So I was trying to aim the ball and hit spots. Once I loaded the bases, I thought, ‘I’m just going to throw strikes and see what happens. I’m not going to aim.’ That’s what I did and I just happened to get out of it.”
In the 19th inning, the Cardinals had a runner on with one out but Fields “induced” a line-drive double play.
That set up the 20th when Graterol hit his home run off Gotay, who was the second Cardinals position player to pitch. In the bottom of the frame, Springfield got three straight one-out singles and scored a run. After a flyout moved the tying run to third, Fields got a groundout from Audry Perez to end the game.
“Getting out of that jam, even with the tying run on third, I’m still in awe now,” Fields said this morning, “because my arm is hanging off my shoulder.”
What makes the story more remarkable is that Fields had quit baseball. After being released by the Rays in 2010, he signed with the Southern Illinois Miners of the independent Frontier League. But after the 2011 season, he retired.
“At the time, I was engaged and trying to figure out what else would make me happy in life,” Fields said. “What’s the next thing after baseball? As the (2012) season got closer and closer, I realized that I can’t give it up yet. I still have a dream that I need to accomplish, and I have the skills and ability to go do it, so I need to give it a shot until I can’t go anymore.”
Fields returned to the Miners, and he caught the eye of the Royals, who signed him last June. He was assigned to Class A Wilmington where he hit 17 home runs with a .904 OPS in 67 games.
The Royals promoted him to Northwest Arkansas this year, and Fields has been on a tear recently. On Friday, he homered in both ends of a doubleheader.* He has five homers and nine RBIs in his last nine games.
*The Naturals and Cardinals played two seven-inning games Friday, 20 innings on Saturday and nine more on Sunday afternoon. All told it was 43 innings in about 48 hours.
And, as his teammates pointed out, Fields now has more victories this season than some of the Naturals pitchers, although Canham has a 0.00 ERA after his three scoreless innings.
“Truthfully, that is going to be a game that I will never, ever forget in my whole life,” Fields said. “It was just a special night. I’m definitely going to keep that in the memory bank.”