BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — The California League is home to a wild game every night, it seems, and Saturday was no different. Out in Lancaster, a sixteen-run affair by the host JetHawks included a seven-RBI outburst and a grand slam from their nine-hole hitter—and that wasn’t even the best offensive output of the night from the bottom of a batting order.
Enter: the Bakersfield Blaze and Justin Seager.
Also batting ninth, Seager knocked two home runs in the Bakersfield victory, including a game-tying ninth-inning grand slam, to help the home club to a come-from-behind 11-inning, 14-13 win.
Finding themselves down to the Lake Elsinore Storm both 8-0 and 12-4 early in the game, Bakersfield never quit. For a team in the playoff race as they are, Saturday night loomed large—and Seager’s grand slam was a galvanizing moment.
— Bobby DeMuro (@BobbyDeMuro) August 14, 2016
Look at the bigger picture, though, and Seager himself was the one keen on shutting down any kind of rejuvenation talk around his offensive outburst, perhaps best understanding how to stay within his game even during his moment in the sun.
“I’m not looking at this as any huge goals, or me trying to save an average sort of thing,” he told Today’s Knuckleball immediately after the game, dismissing the idea that there’s a bigger comeback story at play. “I’m just trying to string good at-bats together, have a couple good ones a night, and try to finish strong, rather than make up for what’s done. I’ve been swinging the bat better, I’ve been hitting the ball hard, and it just paid off tonight.”
Pay off it did, and a wacky, see-saw game turned to Bakersfield’s favor in no small part thanks to Seager’s exceptional evening at the plate. Speaking to Today’s Knuckleball before the game, Lake Elsinore catcher AJ Kennedy seemed eerily prophetic in his stance towards the homer-heavy night in Bakersfield, and the Cal League in general, when discussing pitch-calling.
“We throw to our strengths and if they hit it, they hit it, but sometimes we do take the ballparks into account, if the wind is blowing hard out or something,” Kennedy said of his game plans behind the plate. “But even a place like this, we don’t really game plan around the weather or the park. And honestly, we take all these fields with a grain of salt, because relative to a lot of places, the ball flies out of every one of these ballparks.”
Kennedy is right about that, but hitters still have to get a barrel on the ball and put a good swing on it, as we’ve seen time and again in this league. And hitting the ball hard isn’t a new thing for Seager; the last time we spoke with the first baseman, he was adamant that although the statistics may not show it, he’s closer to turning a corner than what’s apparent. As nice as a two-homer night may be, the bigger picture seems to back up his feeling, too: hitting just .193 on July 1, Seager is up to .221/.338/.378 entering Sunday night’s game, and he’s slugged four of his nine homers and four of his six doubles in that time frame.
He needs to produce more, of course, but the development process here continues to inch along, and that’s sometimes how it goes. Considering his exceptional maturity and perspective in the Bakersfield clubhouse, then, it’s Seager himself who can best contextualize where his memorable evening fits. And as anti-climactic as it sounds, that means coming out the rest of the week with the same approach at the plate, forgetting the result and only seeking to win the process.
“It’s the same thing, just try to keep with the program, and keep trusting my at-bats, and keep having good at-bats and getting the barrel to the ball,” he said immediately after the game. “I was lucky to have a couple good ones tonight.”
All this isn’t to say Seager didn’t have a little fun with his late-inning heroics, though. While his first home run of the game was a no-doubter, the ninth-inning grand slam was a high fly ball that looked to be a productive out—but it never stopped carrying.
“Honestly, no, I didn’t think [it was gone off the bat],” Seager admitted, laughing. “I hit it, and I was like, OK, that’s at least a sac fly, but in the back of my mind I was like ‘come on, maybe get over his head, maybe it’ll hit the wall.’ I stopped at first because Austin [Wilson, the Blaze outfielder who was on first] had to stop, and after that, it was almost slow motion.
“I just watched it kind of go over, and I was so jacked,” Seager continued, beaming. “When I saw it go over, I don’t even remember what I did. I was pumped.”
Experienced in this game or not, players tend to become giddy in moments like Seager’s late-night magic on Saturday—and maybe that’s the takeaway here. Today, Seager will wake up, head to the field, and focus on driving a pitch back up the middle. A single or two would be nice. Maybe a double. A sterile, professional approach to the game that centers squarely on, as he says, stringing together good at-bats. Anything to help the team win, after all.
But last night, with mom and dad in town all the way from North Carolina, the first baseman had his moment. Moments like those are fleeting in baseball, and Seager is just as likely to fail in that same situation next time. The game can be brutal. But rounding the bases on Saturday night, for just a split second, you could see Justin Seager step back and take in one of the most memorable nights of his career. It had to feel good.
— JJFINFAN73 (@JJFinFan73) August 14, 2016