MERIDEN — It ended, finally, at 10:41 p.m., 14 innings and 281 minutes after it began.
But, really, Thursday night’s Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League game at Ceppa Field between the Record-Journal Expos and East Hartford Jets is still going on and it will always be going on.
When these 20-something Twilight baseball players from Meriden are in their twilight years they’ll still be talking about the night they erased five deficits, including in the bottom of the seventh and then twice more in extra innings, before finally putting the Jets away 11-10 when Sebby Grignano beat it down the line to force an errant throw from short that enabled Will Kszywanos to score from third base with two outs in the bottom of the 14th.
(Of course, there were two outs. Virtually every run in this game of four lead changes and three ties was scored with two outs.)
They’ll be talking about how Jonny Walter jacked his first home run since high school and then spent the next 2-3 hours of that hot night seizing up with cramps whenever he so much as moved on the base paths or in the outfield, yet still managed to throw a runner out at third base in the top of the 14th.
They’ll be talking about how second baseman Hector Gonzalez, cracking clutch hits to keep them alive and wisecracks to keep them loose, volunteered to pitch the last four innings and took a line drive off the arm, yet still made the play to keep the Jets at bay in the 12th.
And, above all, they’ll be talking about Charlie Hesseltine, who at age 35 struck out 11 batters pitching seven innings in relief — the last two on fumes and sheer guts — and then went out to right field and made two diving catches, including one that would have awed Willie Mays.
Racing for a rocket over his head, falling backward, Hesseltine threw his arm up and, well, let’s just say midnight is not the only hour reserved for fairy tales.
“It was fading behind me as I was running, so as I tried to turn I must have caught something and I fell back,” Hesseltine said. “The ball looked like it was in reach at that point as I started to fall. I just stuck out my glove and I felt it go in. I squeezed as hard as I could. When I hit the ground and rolled over, I saw it still in my glove and I just raised it up.”
Hesseltine’s catch kept East Hartford off the board in the top of the 14th. Coming off the field to the applause of his teammates, Hesseltine took a mock bow and then, all too aware his Friday work day would be starting in Stamford at 6 a.m., pleaded, “Can we please win now?”
The Expos did just that — and, in the context of this 4½ hour odyssey, did so with remarkable dispatch.
By this point, the game was being played on “California Rules.” Each inning started with one out and a man on second base.
Kszywanos, having made the last out in the 13th, was the R-J’s man at second to start the 14th. He took third on a groundout by Matt Fusco, which set him up to score when Grignano grounded to short and forced a wild throw with his hustle down the line.
The Expos surged out of the dugout and onto the field in celebration, relief and exhaustion.
“I’ve never been so happy to take off a baseball uniform,” Hesseltine remarked not long afterward standing by his truck in the parking lot. “There were a lot of points in that game where I think all of us were just like, ‘Can this game just be over already?’
“Give it to these guys not to give up,” Hesseltine added. “14 innings and we went down two runs with one out to live at least two or three times tonight — it’s crazy. It was a crazy game.”
Crazy, indeed, because no lead was stable, especially with two outs.
Gonzalez erased a 4-3 East Hartford lead with a bases-loaded single with two outs in the bottom of the sixth. In turn, the Jets erased the R-J’s 5-4 lead in the top of the seventh with a pair of two-out doubles.
The Expos, down to their last out in the home half of the seventh, tied it up on a bases-loaded walk drawn by Fusco.
The Jets twice appeared to have the game won in extras. They scored two runs in the 10th. They scored two runs in the 11th.
Each time, the Expos answered.
Gonzalez plated Kszywanos with a sacrifice fly and Fusco scored on a wild pitch in the 10th. Joe Gulino, a galloping terror on the bases every time he got aboard, roped a RBI double to deep left and later slid home just ahead of the throw on a right-side groundout in the 11th.
The Expos did leave the bases loaded in the 11th, and as the game spilled into the12th they seemed ripe to fall. Only two players — Kszywanos at first and Jason Sullivan at third — were in their original positions.
Gonzalez, the second baseman, was pitching. Grignano, the shortstop, was catching. Mike Gulino, the catcher, was at short. A.J. Hendrickson, the starting catcher, had been out of the game since Fusco pinch-hit for him in the seventh.
Walter and his cramping legs were being shifted between left field and center with Joe Gulino. Hesseltine was out in right.
As it turned out, every Expo was exactly where he was meant to be. And no Expo was thinking about defeat.
“Not with this group of guys,” Gonzalez said. “We always fight. We’ve been playing together since we were, what, 15 years old, all of us, with Legion and travel ball. We always fight no matter what, even if we’re down five. If we lose, we lose, but we’ll always put up a fight.”
“That’s our biggest thing. We just come from behind; we do it really well,” said Walter. “Whenever any team in this league puts pressure on us, we always try to come out on top. We don’t give up until the last out.”
There were 79 outs in this game. There were 128 at-bats. Each team went through its order seven times.
Grignano, the R-J’s leadoff hitter, was up for the eighth time when he rolled that grounder to short. After 4 hours and 41 minutes, Grignano managed to find another gear. The East Hartford shortstop, who had played superbly all night, was forced to hurry his throw.
So it was that this game ended on an E. That hardly made it any less a perfect classic.