By John Torenli
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Cyclones manager Rich Donnelly began the season wondering if he'd have to pick his relievers out of a hat.
Brooklyn's 65-year-old skipper had little to no knowledge of the young men, some of them teenagers, he'd have to bring to the mound during critical late-game situations as the aptly nicknamed Baby Bums began the 76-game grind of the New York-Penn League campaign.
But on Opening Night, and virtually every time he's been called on since, Tyler Vanderheiden has delivered the type of end-game performance any manager would appreciate out of his bullpen.
The 21-year-old right-hander out of Samford University in Alabama has made more than good on his 19th-round selection in the June draft thus far this summer, registering a team-high six saves while posting an anemic 0.77 ERA over 13 outings.
The side-winding Mississippi native gained Donnelly's confidence just before the June 18 season opener against archrival Staten Island, when he asked for the ball in the ninth inning, citing his 29 relief appearances during his recently completed senior year.
"I read about all our pitchers. I read that he's a one-inning pitcher," noted Donnelly, who didn't get a chance to see Vanderheiden's awkward but effective sidearm delivery during Spring Training. "I asked him, 'Do you like to come in when the game's on the line?' And he said, 'Yeah.' That's all I needed to here and so he was my closer for [that night]."
Vanderheiden rewarded Donnelly's confidence by tossing a 1-2-3 ninth against the Yankees before a crowd of 6,716 on Coney Island, striking out two and establishing himself as Brooklyn's go-to guy in the clutch by closing out a 2-0 win over the defending champions.
"The emotions were there, definitely. I just try to take every inning like it's not the last, even though in the back of my mind I know it is," Vanderheiden noted after shutting down the S.I. Bombers. "I wanted everyone to know that I was good and I'm here for a reason. It always helps to win the first game. For us new draftees to come in and find a role is really important."
Not content with the first notch on his belt, Vanderheiden began his first professional summer with a scintillating stretch of 10 2/3 scoreless innings over 11 appearances before finally surrendering a run on two hits over one inning at Batavia in Brooklyn's 2-0 loss at Batavia last Friday night. He hasn't pitched since, but is doubtlessly hoping to rebound during Brooklyn's current six-game homestand, which was scheduled to open Wednesday night against Connecticut (weather permitting).
“I don’t want to be that guy who messes it up for everybody. I’m just thinking about throwing a strike for the first pitch and getting that first out," the 6-foot-1, 174-pound hurler said in a recent interview on the team's web site.
Due in part to his drop-down style, Vanderheiden has been particularly stingy against right-handed hitters, limiting them to five hits over 7 2/3 scoreless innings.
Of course, a bullpen cannot survive a long, hot summer without the efforts of several strong relievers.
Las Vegas native Paul Sewald, the Mets' 10th-round pick out of the University of San Diego, has shared some of the closing duties with Vanderheiden this summer, registering two saves while running off 16 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings over nine outings to begin his pro career. Sewald has fanned 17 while walking only two, further bolstering a Brooklyn bullpen that ran off an amazing streak of 28 scoreless frames last month.
"If [our starters] can get in the fifth or sixth innings and you bring in a [reliever], then you can use those five or six guys in the bullpen properly," Donnelly said. "That’s what these guys do."
Left-hander John Mincone, the closest thing the Cyclones have to a home-grown talent out of Suffolk County Community College, has also been a key to Brooklyn's bullpen dominance. The 23-year-old southpaw from Huntington, L.I., is 2-0 with three saves and an 0.44 ERA in 12 appearances, spanning 20 2/3 innings.
“He’s done great," Donnelly said of Mincone. "When I first met him, I thought, 'This is the kind of kid who can handle stuff.' He’s had to grow up quick. Sometimes that helps you on the mound.”
"Growing up quick" and "handling stuff" is something Brooklyn's pen men appear to have mastered over the first 42 games of the season.
However, with just over a month remaining in the campaign, the Cyclones' relievers will ultimately be judged not by how they started, but how they close.