The 3,560 fans who packed the stands and temporary bleachers at Growden Memorial Park for the 114th Midnight Sun Game got quite the show Friday night: a sunset to left field, a rainbow to right field and, of course, a baseball game starting at 10 p.m. played without artificial light.
The tradition originated in 1906 as a bet between two local bars, the Eagles Club and the California Bar. A game has been played on the summer solstice every year since and the Alaska Goldpanners became the host in 1960. Baseball America has called it one of the "12 Must-See Events for the Baseball Fan."
The second of a four game series between the Goldpanners (8-5) and the Seattle Studs played host to this year’s event, and the action on the field did not disappoint. The Studs (11-4) held off a late Panners rally to win the game 5-4 in the 11th inning. Seattle leads the series 2-0. The loss marks only the 12th host team loss in the history of the game.
“It was one of the better baseball games I’ve been a part of with meaning, competing and how tight the game was the whole time,” said Goldpanners head coach Miles Kizer. “To go down four-nothing early, and to scratch, claw, fight and get all the way back to force extra innings is just a testament to our guys competing and wanting to be here.”
Matt Becker, in his third appearance of the season, got off to a rocky start on the mound for the Panners. Becker walked the first batter Landon Riker. Kyle Strash then hit a grounder down left center field to reach first and advance Riker. One strikeout later, Ryan Budnick’s bloop to center field brought home Riker, putting one run on the board for the Studs.
The Studs continued their first inning roll when Becker walked Henry Cheney to load the bases. RJ Green hit a routine grounder to Panners third baseman Collin Runge, but it turned into two runs after he threw the ball over the first baseman’s head. A single from Brady Hinkle tacked on another run. With two outs and Seattle at the bottom of their lineup, Alaska putout RJ Green at third base to close out the top of the first inning with the Panners in a 4-0 hole.
Seattle brought their best arm to the mound with Joe Rogers, who was drafted in the 5th round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the Detroit Tigers and elected free agency in November 2018. The veteran, who’s no stranger to playing in front of a few thousand fans, showed no sign of nerves in the first inning, retiring the top of the Panners lineup in order with two strikeouts.
Alaska slowly picked away at Seattle’s lead and, despite the shaky start, the Panners pitching staff held the Studs at four runs for the next nine innings. Becker pitched three more innings, allowing no more hits or walks.
Joe Riley picked up where Becker left off and added to his impressive summer resume, throwing three more scoreless innings with five strikeouts, two hits and one walk. After Friday’s game, Riley holds a 0.69 ERA with 13 innings in the books.
“What helped me today was just hitting my spots and trusting my slider,” Riley said. “I got ahead with my fastball, so when it came to my slider I believed in it and I trusted my pitch and it did its job tonight.”
The Panners saw their first spark on offense in the bottom of the second when Cole Carder put down a perfect bunt along the left sideline to reach first. Aaron Kim followed up with a ground ball to center field, which was bobbled by the Studs second baseman, advancing Carder and putting Kim on base. Ben McKay’s sacrifice bunt put Carder in scoring position and a Braxton Inniss single brought him home on a fielder’s choice. A fly out ended the inning with the Panners trailing 4-1.
The offense continued for the Panners in the bottom of the fourth with two singles from Aaron Kim and Ben McKay. One out later, Tony Riley reached first on a walk to load the bases. Grant DeLappe hit the ball to center field scoring Kim.
Alaska made it a one run game in the bottom of the sixth. With Michael Warnick on the mound and one out, McKay reached first on a walk before stealing second and third base. McKay reached home on a Tony Riley single to right field.
In the bottom of the ninth, after a long battle at the plate with Studs reliever Jared Wilson and the score 4-3, Runge reached first on a walk and stole second on a wild pitch. With one strike remaining to end the game, Cole Carder hit a clutch single to bring home McKay and tie the game. Kim was putout at first to end the inning and send the game to extras.
In the top of the 11th with two outs, and Green on second base for Seattle, Riker hit a grounder to Alaska third baseman Runge, but he botched his throw to first base. The ball rolled past Konishi, giving the Studs the go-ahead run.
The Studs made quick work of the first two batters, putting them both out at first. Konishi reached first on an error to bring the go ahead run to the plate, but Carder struck out, giving the studs the 5-4 win.
“Our arms shoved, which was awesome to see after the first inning,” said Kizer after the game. “We played good defense and we had the one miscue, and you know what? That’s baseball.”
Despite the loss, the game was still meaningful to many of the Panners players including Joe Riley who was on the 2018 Goldpanners roster, but an injury sent him home the morning of the Midnight Sun Game.
“I finally got to experience it and it was awesome,” he said. “You can’t get better than that, playing in front of 3,000 people cheering for your teammates to go and win. Without that crowd it wouldn’t be the same.”
In the crowd was Gail Feeney, a Fairbanks resident since 1970, who was already staked out in a crowded bleacher behind third base an hour before the game. “The community here loves to join in and it’s just a great day to be part of,” she said.
Sitting behind Feeney was Josh Dryer, who was there for his fifth Midnight Sun Game. “I come every year and I’ll never miss it,” he said. “To think that a nine inning baseball game will be played under natural light is pretty spectacular… and it’s right in our backyard.”
While many in the stands are local community members, some are baseball fans from the Lower 48.
Marjorie Owens and her family traveled from Atlanta for the game. “It’s midnight and you’re out here and it’s still daylight,” she said, looking up at the sky. “We just had to come check it out.”
The series with the Studs continues today at Growden Memorial Park, but this time with an earlier first pitch. The game starts at 7 p.m.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Laura Stickells at 459-7530. Follow her on Twitter at @FDNMSports.