Enter Final 24 Games of Season Deadlocked for Playoff Spot
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
And down the stretch they come!
No, this isn’t Churchill Downs, but the Brooklyn Cyclones are in the midst of a neck-and-neck, down-to-the-wire race for the New York-Penn League’s final playoff spot entering the final 24 games of the regular season.
Following Wednesday night’s heartbreaking 2-1, 12-inning loss in Mahoning Valley, the Baby Bums (27-25) found themselves deadlocked atop the NY-Penn Wild Card Standings once again with Connecticut (27-25), which saw its ninth-inning rally fall just short in a 5-4 home loss to Jamestown.
Despite the setback, Brooklyn has won seven of its last 10 games and is 12-6 since Mets’ first-round pick Michael Conforto arrived in Coney Island on the heels of a season-high eight-game losing streak.
“With  to go, we’re even with Connecticut for this wild card,” noted first-year Brooklyn manager Tom Gamboa. “Our fans are going to see some exciting baseball down the stretch. Our guys are fired up about it.”
Though it may have sounded like wishful thinking, if not outright lunacy, to suggest several weeks ago that this club had what it took to challenge for the franchise’s first league title since 2001, the Cyclones could be primed to do just that.
Brooklyn boasts the top starting staff on the 15-team circuit, spearheaded by the likes of Marcos Molina (5-1, 1.27 ERA), Corey Oswalt (4-1, 2.68) and Octavio Acosta (3-3, 2.80) – all three of whom rank in the top 10 in the NY-Penn in ERA.
All three are also candidates to earn spots in the upcoming NY-Penn All-Star Game, which will take place at MCU Park on Aug. 19.
“[The pitching has been] great,” said Conforto, who took just his second collar in 18 games as a professional Wednesday night, finishing 0-for-5 with a strikeout, as his average dropped to a still-sizzling .328.
“It takes a little bit of pressure off where we don't feel that we need to do too much out there,” the bonus-baby slugger from Oregon State added. “It gives us a couple of innings to settle in and that does a lot for an offense.”
The Cyclones’ bullpen has also been up to the task when the starters run out of fuel, thanks mostly to the late-game contributions of closer Shane Bay.
The 22-year-old left-hander from Tulsa, Okla., has converted 10 consecutive save opportunities, ranking second overall in the league in that category, escaping numerous jams that threatened to derail Brooklyn’s late-season resurgence in the standings.
“He’s just been cool as a cucumber when he comes in out of the bullpen,” Gamboa said of his trusted southpaw after he closed out Monday night’s 4-3 triumph over the wild-card rival Tigers. “He’s done it 10 times in a row.”
“I just go out there and do what I need to do,” added Bay, who did not get an opportunity for his 11th save Wednesday as Brooklyn failed to take the lead in extra innings. “I don’t think about it. I just go out there and throw strikes and whatever happens, happens.”
Though Conforto shies away from taking credit for his role in the Cyclones’ recent run, Gamboa is always willing to heap praise on his everyday left fielder.
“Michael’s done not only everything as advertised, but from day one, his defense and throwing, which was described as adequate, has been much better than advertised,” Gamboa gushed, adding that he likens his top player to a young Carl Yastrzemski, Boston’s legendary Hall of Fame outfielder.
With all the attention Conforto has received since inking a reported $3 million signing bonus with the Mets, it has been easy to overlook the offensive contributions of those who have been in Brooklyn since the summer began.
Jhoan Urena, for one, has been Brooklyn’s most consistent performer at the plate. He is batting .274 with three homers and 27 RBIs while manning the hot corner at third base.
Outfielder Michael Bernal, who made a game-saving throw to the plate earlier this week in a key victory over Connecticut, paces the Baby Bums’ attack with five homers, 30 RBIs and 10 stolen bases.
First baseman Michael Katz (.275, 18 RBIs) and shortstop Amed Rosario (.294, 14 RBIs, 7 SBs) round out a suddenly formidable lineup after nearly a month and a half of offensive futility.
“Conforto extends our lineup,” Gamboa said. “With him batting third and Urena batting fourth, we have so much more depth than we had before.”
That offensive depth, coupled with a league-leading pitching staff and solid bullpen could take the Cyclones all the way to a Surf Avenue parade in early September.
But first, they have to find a way to beat the Tigers down the stretch.
“I think we have a good chance of making the playoffs,” said Bay.
This, That and the Other Thing: The Cyclones were scheduled to continue their three-game set in Mahoning Valley on Thursday night, and will play in Batavia over the weekend before returning home to kick off a three-game series with Lowell on Tuesday evening. … RHP Scarlyn Reyes was brilliant despite not qualifying for a decision in Wednesday’s loss at Mahoning Valley. The Dominican hurler yielded two hits over six scoreless frames, striking out four and walking one, to lower his ERA to 1.87 in his ninth outing, including four starts, this summer. … CF John Mora, who began the season in the Gulf Coast League, is hitting .300 with three RBIs and three runs scored in his first five games with the Cyclones. He had a double and a triple Wednesday night in Mahoning Valley.