It was all right there in front of them. And then it was gone.
With news circulating throughout the crowd of 6,716 at MCU Park Tuesday night that first-place Aberdeen had suffered an 8-2 loss at Lowell, LJ Mazzilli stood at the plate with an opportunity to finally push the Brooklyn Cyclones into sole possession of first place for the first time this season.
Mazzilli, Brooklyn's most consistent everyday player, had blasted a solo homer, his fourth of the year, in the bottom of the eighth inning to deadlock the contest at 3-3.
Now, he faced newly installed Tri-City reliever Charles Basford with runners at first and second and just one out in the bottom half of the ninth, needing a base hit to push the Baby Bums one-half game in front of the IronBirds for the McNamara Division's top spot.
The fourth-round pick out of the University of Connecticut and 22-year-old son of Mets icon Lee Mazzilli couldn't send the Brooklyn faithful home happy, however. He banged into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play that signified a night of tantalizing hope followed by heartbreaking frustration as the Cyclones dropped a 5-3, 16-inning decision to the ValleyCats.
From the bottom of the division to the precipice of the top, the Cyclones (35-32) were unable to cash in on several more golden opportunities during the marathon game. They left runners in scoring position in four of the next six frames before Brooklyn reliever Cristian Chivilli yielded a pair of runs in the top of the 16th.
Gavin Cecchini, Mazzilli and Jared King struck out in the bottom of the inning as the Cyclones were left to wonder what could have been on a night they seemed destined to finally climb atop the perch they've been trying to land atop virtually all summer.
The painful defeat snapped Brooklyn's four-game winning streak, and left the Cyclones with only eight more games, including two against the division-leading IronBirds this weekend in Coney Island, to grab their fourth straight playoff spot, and third in a row under manager Rich Donnelly.
Matt Oberste had three hits, Cecchini doubled and drove in a run and Alex Sanchez singled and drew three walks, but Brooklyn went a dismal 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position.
Cyclones starter Darwin Frias yielded three runs on five hits and two walks with a season-high 11 strikeouts over six solid innings before the Brooklyn bullpen put together a stretch of nine scoreless frames.
Paul Paez, Johnny Magliozzi and key returnee Tyler Vanderheiden, an All-Star member of last year's relief corps, held the ValleyCats in check.
Chivilli, having worked a scoreless 15th, finally faltered in the next inning, absorbing his first loss of the season.
In many ways, the game was a microcosm, albeit a lengthy one, of the Cyclones' 13th season on Coney Island.
Brooklyn has drawn to within a half-game of Tri-City on several occasions during the past month, only to be denied its ultimate goal of grabbing the McNamara lead during what has been an impressive stretch run toward the postseason.
If this year's squad is ultimately unable to find its way to the McNamara mountaintop, it may look back on Tuesday night as the moment it failed to seize the division by the throat.
But don't expect one gut-wrenching home loss to derail Brooklyn's hopes of playing beyond its Sept. 4 regular-season finale at Tri-City.
Maybe the Cyclones can celebrate the crown in front of the ValleyCats that very night at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium.
It would certainly provide a sweet measure of revenge after Tuesday night's series of missed opportunities.
This, That and the Other Thing: Tuesday's loss dropped Brooklyn to 4-6 in extra-inning games this season. ... 2B Mazzilli is enjoying a late-summer power surge, with three homers in his last five games. He's only one long ball behind OF James Roche (5) for the team lead. ... RHP Robert Gsellman, who struck out 13 Vermont batters over the weekend while yielding only two hits over a season-high eight innings, was named the NY-Penn's Pitcher of the Week. ... Weather permitting, the Cyclones were scheduled to close out their three-game set with the ValleyCats on Wednesday night at MCU Park at 7 p.m. Brooklyn will host Staten Island on Thursday and visit the Yankees Friday before welcoming first-place Aberdeen to Coney Island both Saturday and Sunday. For tickets to this weekend's epic first-place showdown, call 718-507-TIXX. … For Thursday’s game, the Cyclones and Yankees will take a trip back in time as we celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the first game played at Ebbets Field. The first 3,000 fans in attendance will receive a 1913 style jersey courtesy of MCU.