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A brief history of the Clinton LumberKings

They don't call them the Comeback Kings for nothing.

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The Mariners’ longest relationship with a Single-A team had finally been broken. After 16 years in the services of the Midwest League Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the Mariners signed on with the nearby Clinton LumberKings, who themselves were ending an eight-year agreement with Seattle’s division rivals, the Texas Rangers.

It had not been a prosperous stretch for either the Timber Rattlers or the neighboring LumberKings. The Rattlers finished over .500 nine times with the Single-A Mariners, but had failed to clinch a league title since the 1984 Chicago White Sox came to town. Clinton had not laid claim to either a division title or league championship in 16 seasons.

The changes proved fortuitous for both teams, though both would take a lengthy and arduous path to success. The Milwaukee Brewers drove a record-breaking 253,240 fans through Wisconsin’s turnstiles in 2009, over 60,000 from the Rattlers’ previous season, but spent another three years at the bottom of the league before getting a leg up in the Midwest League playoffs in 2012.

The LumberKings, too, found themselves struggling to break even in their first season. Despite a few flashes of greatness -- southpaw Bobby LaFromboise’s first eight-inning shutout, a stunning eight nominations for the Midwest League All-Star game -- the Mariners’ newest crop of Single-A prospects missed a wild card berth in a late-season collapse against the Royals’ Burlington Bees, ending their season at fourth place in the division.

In 2010, the LumberKings came into their own under the instruction of new manager John Tamargo. Tamargo came straight from the Mariners’ short-season Single-A club in Everett, Washington, where he guided the 2009 Everett AquaSox to a 39-37 finish. His season with the LumberKings would be his last as a minor league manager.

Clinton inherited both of the Mariners’ top draft picks to begin the season: 19-year-old shortstop Nick Franklin and 19-year-old backstop Steven Baron, each taken in the first round. Franklin took the Midwest League by storm, leading all batters with 25 home runs and tying outfielder Dan Carroll at the top of the Kings’ roster with 25 stolen bases. The highlight of his first year arrived not a month into the season, when Franklin delivered two home runs against the Cubs’ Peoria Chiefs and came within a base hit of running through the cycle.

On the mound, 20-year-old Nicaraguan right-hander Erasmo Ramirez made his professional debut for the LumberKings. His efforts yielded the second-lowest ERA among Clinton starters, at 2.97, accentuated by 10 wins and a team-best 117 strikeouts. As the Kings approached the postseason, Ramirez peaked in a 8-2 rally over the Cardinals’ Quad Cities River Bandits with a 12-strikeout performance and the end of a 20-inning scoreless streak.

Despite their reputation for extra-inning nailbiters, earning them the nickname "Cardiac Kings," the LumberKings marched to the 2010 postseason with far more confidence than they achieved the year before. They scooped up a second-half wild card berth on the back of a brutal, 13-5 loss by their division rivals, the Twins’ Beloit Snappers, but were forced to enter the playoffs without home run king Nick Franklin after his promotion to Double-A in early September.

Of course, earning a postseason berth was only the first step, and the easiest one to come by. The LumberKings found themselves outwitted in the first game of the first round against the Angels’ Cedar Rapids Kernels, necessitating a two-game rally by right-handers Erasmo Ramirez and Yoervis Medina to advance to the semifinals. The second round would prove even more difficult.

While the LumberKings had indeed claimed a victory over the Western Division champs, they met their match in the A’s Kane County Cougars, who blanked the Kings in the first game, 4-0. Again, Clinton’s reputation as the "Cardiac Kings" came back to bite them -- and, again, their pitching staff delivered in the clutch. In the series finale, Tom Wilhelmsen shut down the Cougars for seven innings, allowing six hits and striking out six while first baseman Mickey Wiswall came through with the game-winning two-run homer to send the Kings to the championship round.

By the title series, however, the LumberKings had lost a bit of their luster -- and their luck. They began the final five-set against the Indians’ Lake County Captains in much the same fashion as the previous two series -- with a loss -- but clinched a walkoff win and a stunning eighth-inning comeback in Game Four to tie the series. The finale was decided 3-1 in the Captains’ favor when the Kings failed to manufacture more than a single RBI, relying solely on an RBI base hit by the returning Nick Franklin.

Although the young Mariners returned to Clinton without a title, their streak of playoff success had only begun. In 2011, highly acclaimed right-hander Taijuan Walker was plucked from the first round of the draft and added to the LumberKings’ roster. He led all Clinton pitchers with 113 strikeouts in just 96 2/3 innings, accounting for a good slice of the Kings' second-highest strikeout total in the Midwest League, with 1,166 whiffs. In July, the 18-year-old hurler tossed six innings and a career-best 11 strikeouts, backed by a bullpen that delivered an additional seven strikeouts against the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Supplementing Walker’s efforts on the staff were two other pieces of the "Big Four," right-hander Brandon Maurer and southpaw James Paxton, as well as lefty Roenis Elias and right-hander Carter Capps, each of whom would make their MLB debut within the next three years.

Unlike the 2010 squad, which saw standout performances on the mound and at the plate, the Kings’ 2011 roster struggled to engineer adequate run support on a regular basis. The team scored the fewest doubles in the league, with 192, and held their .238 batting average and .311 on-base percentage were the second-lowest among Midwest League offenses.

By autumn, the Kings had dropped to sixth in the league with a 63-76 record, but held on in the second half for a 39-30 finish and a spot in the playoffs. Unfortunately, the 2011 postseason proved far more anticlimactic than its predecessor when the Quad Cities River Bandits made a clean sweep of the Kings in the first round, then went on to claim the championship title. Still, Clinton was left with something far more valuable than a trophy: Baseball America’s top prospect in the Midwest League, Taijuan Walker.

So it went for the next two seasons. The Kings cultivated the Mariners’ brightest prospects -- in 2012, it was Steven Baron (now in his third consecutive go-around with the club); in 2013, 21-year-old third baseman and first-round draft pick D.J. Peterson -- and clawed their way to the first few rounds of the postseason. In 2012, the team rested on the laurels of 22-year-old infielder Daniel Paolini, who placed third in the league with 18 home runs and 21-year-old lefty Jordan Shipers, who led Midwest pitchers with two complete games and two shutouts. The Kings went from last place in the first half to first place in the second half, helped enormously by a late-season winning streak and several impressive comebacks. At the end, though, they were done in by the Mariners’ old Single-A affiliate, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, in the semifinals of the Midwest League playoffs.

The 2013 season proved only slightly easier for the Kings. They returned with a dominant offense, leading Midwest clubs with a .268 team average and 1,244 hits, but struck out the fewest batters in the league and ended the season at fifth place in the Western Division. After clinching their fourth consecutive playoff berth, the LumberKings found their offense staggered by the A’s Beloit Snappers. The Snappers knocked out their divisional rivals with a first-round sweep following an extra-inning victory and a dominant 6-2 finale. For the fourth time in a row, the title-less Kings headed back home.*

After three successful seasons under the heading of manager Eddie Menchaca, the Kings welcomed back Scott Steinmann, who had manned the first crop of Mariners’ prospects in Clinton back in 2009. The change would not bring about the lucky break the LumberKings had been hoping for -- on the contrary, they not only failed to make the playoffs, but ended with the worst record in their history as a Mariners’ affiliate, with just 61 wins to their name. By September, only the LumberKings and the Beloit Snappers’ pitching staffs had accumulated fewer than 1,000 collective strikeouts.

While Clinton’s club struggled to construct something meaningful out of their season, they cemented their reputation as comeback kings with several jaw-dropping performances. The best game of the year was played in early May against the Angels’ Burlington Bees. Through the first five innings, the Bees plated 17 runs to the Kings’ lone run. It would take a miracle -- or sixteen -- to tie the game, let alone go home with a win.

In the sixth inning, the Kings woke up. Justin Seager battered a triple, Marcus Littlewood snuck in a double, and Zach Shank whacked his first home run of the season. Burlington starter Garrett Nuss was forced out of the inning with a six-run effort by Clinton, bringing the score to an improbable 17-7. A scoreless seventh followed, then another five-run eighth inning on the backs of Burt Reynolds’ home run, and RBI doubles for Ian Miller and Jeff Zimmerman.

Still, the 17-12 score proved formidable for Clinton. Marcus Littlewood, who had made significant contributions in both the sixth-inning and eighth-inning rallied, saved his best for last. He blasted a grand slam to tie the game in the top of the ninth, sending the game to extras and completing the LumberKings’ 16-run comeback.

Three innings later, in the top of the 12th, the Kings’ brought home the game-winner with a one-out double from the bat of Jeff Zimmerman. Burlington reliever Trevor Foss loaded the bases behind Zimmerman with a single and a walk to Joe DeCarlo and Burt Reynolds, then served up a grounder to Justin Seager. As Seager trotted down the first base line to complete the out, Zimmerman snuck around Bees’ third baseman Ismael Dionicio to score the Kings’ 18th run. Even more remarkable, Clinton infielder Lonnie Kaupella added runs #19 and #20 with a two-RBI double, then turned around and pitched the Kings to a stunning, 20-17 finish.

Perhaps the most lasting mark of Clinton’s success was found off the field. In September 2014, the Mariners renewed their partnership with the LumberKings through 2016, making Seattle the most prominent MLB relationship in Clinton’s history since 1994.

*For a rich, in-depth survey of the Clinton LumberKings’ 2013 season, check out Lucas Mann’s Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere.

Clinton trivia

  • Notable LumberKings: Carter Capps, Nick Franklin, James Jones, Bobby LaFromboise, Dominic Leone, Brandon Maurer, Yoervis Medina, Brad Miller, James Paxton, D.J. Peterson, Stephen Pryor, Erasmo Ramirez, Stefen Romero, Kyle Seager, Chris Taylor, Taijuan Walker, and Tom Wilhelmsen.
  • Back in 1969, the LumberKings were affiliated with another briefly prominent Seattle club: the Seattle Pilots. As a nod to their parent organization, they were known as the Clinton Pilots.
  • The LumberKings are not the oldest team in the Midwest League, as that title belongs to the 69-season Fort Wayne TinCaps, but have been established in Clinton, Iowa longer than any other Midwest team has patronized a single city. Their history traces back to 1954.
  • During Erasmo Ramirez’s first start in professional baseball, opposing pitcher Nick Struck no-hit the LumberKings on behalf of the Peoria Chiefs. The right-hander dealt one walk in five innings, then took to the dugout with the rest of the team when a vicious thunderstorm flooded O’Brien Field. After nearly two hours in the rain, the game was called and Struck’s name entered in the list of Midwest League no-hitters. It was the first time in 14 seasons that a LumberKings lineup had been no-hit.
  • Amid the LumberKings’ numerous extra-inning games came a debacle entirely outside their control. In late June of 2013, the Kings and visiting Wisconsin Timber Rattlers played out an 11-inning affair. In the ninth, with the score 2-1 in Clinton’s favor, Wisconsin’s Tyrone Taylor sent a fly ball curving foul along the left-field line. When Rattlers’ skipper Matt Erickson emerged from the dugout to argue the call, the umpires ruled the hit a home run. The reversed call knotted the score, sent the game to extras, and eventually gave Wisconsin the edge in a 5-4 win.