By John Torenli
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
With the McNamara Division title likely out of their reach, the Brooklyn Cyclones will have to play their best baseball of the season down the stretch to hold off the surging Batavia Muckdogs in the race for the New York-Penn League's coveted wild-card spot.
After losing three of their previous four games, including two of three to arch rival Staten Island over the weekend, the Baby Bums (40-27) were desperate for a win Monday night in Aberdeen.
As he has done virtually all summer long, Rainy Lara came up big when the Cyclones needed him most, pitching Brooklyn to a 2-1 victory over the league-worst IronDogs before 6,275 fans at Ripken Stadium.
Lara (8-2) matched Lowell's William Cuevas for the 14-team circuit's lead in victories by yielding three hits and a walk with four strikeouts over six scoreless innings as the Cyclones boosted their lead in the hunt for the NY-Penn's final playoff spot to 2 1/2 games over idle Batavia. The Muckdogs, who were rained out Monday, will play a critical doubleheader against Mahoning Valley on Tuesday, while Brooklyn finishes off its two-game set at Aberdeen before taking on McNamara Division-leading Hudson Valley in a home-and-home series to kick off what should be a dramatic final week of the regular season.
Just last week, the Cyclones were still taking aim at the McNamara crown, but have since slipped six games behind the Renegades with nine to play, meaning Hudson Valley can clinch the pennant with a pair of wins over the Baby Bums at home Wednesday and Thursday at MCU Park in Coney Island.
Meanwhile, the Muckdogs have won six of their last seven contests to put the heat on Brooklyn down the stretch. The wild-card contenders aren't scheduled to meet for the remainder of the campaign, but the Cyclones did take two of three from the 'Dogs in late July to earn a tiebreaker advantage in the event of a season-ending deadlock for the final spot.
Coming off his first loss in six weeks -- a 5-2 setback to visiting Tri-City on Aug. 21 -- Lara made sure the Cyclones wouldn't give up any more ground in the playoff race. He worked in and out of trouble in the opening frame before setting down 16 of the next 18 batters he faced. Florida State alum Jayce Boyd's two-out solo homer in the top of the sixth gave Brooklyn a much-needed 2-0 cushion before closer Tyler Vanderheiden ran into a potential mess in the ninth.
The hard-throwing right-hander got a couple of quick outs to start the final frame, but Cameron Edman doubled and scored on Will Howard's base hit to shave the 'Dogs' deficit to 2-1 before "Vandy" fanned Chase Weems to seal the win and record his team-high 10th save of the summer.
Following their home-and-home with the first-place Renegades, the Cyclones will engage in a three-game set with upset-minded Staten Island before closing the slate with three games against Vermont at MCU Park from Sept. 3-5. If Brooklyn manages to hold off Batavia, the Baby Bums would meet either league-leading Tri-City or Hudson Valley in an opening-round best-of-3 playoff series. The ValleyCats are currently two games in front of the Renegades in the race for home-field advantage throughout next month's postseason.
Last summer, the Cyclones won nine of 10 down the stretch to grab the wild card before losing a tough three-game series to the eventual NY-Penn champion Yankees in the first round.
Second-year Cyclones skipper Rich Donnelly oversaw that breathtaking run to the playoffs in 2011, and will likely have to whip the youngest team in franchise history down the stretch this year to avert a late-summer swoon that could see Brooklyn sitting out the postseason for the first time since 2008.
A long, blistering summer just got considerably hotter for the Mets' Class A short-season affiliate.
Brooklyn All-Star right-hander Hansel Robles won't just be taking the Cyclones' playoff hopes to the hill with him later this week against Hudson Valley.
The 22-year-old Venezuelan sensation will also be protecting a scintillating scoreless streak that reached a staggering 22 innings with Saturday's 11-0 blanking of Staten Island on Saturday night at MCU Park.
Robles, continually raising his stock as a Mets prospect, struck out eight and allowed only three hits over seven innings. He has not allowed an earned run over an even longer run of 31 frames, lowering his league-best ERA to a miniscule 1.20 while whittling his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) to a mind-numbing 0.75.
One of four Cyclones hurlers selected to compete in the NY-Penn All-Star Game earlier this month, Robles has helped Brooklyn to a league-best 2.63 team ERA and 1.06 WHIP. Brooklyn also paces the circuit in shutouts (10) while ranking second in strikeouts (575) to Vermont.