By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Cyclones manager Rich Donnelly could sense the anxiety in the locker room.
His 40-man squad, most of whom had spent the better part of the winter and spring playing before sparse crowds in high school, college or extended training camp, was about to hit the diamond at MCU Park before a raucous crowd of 6,718 on Coney Island for Monday night's season opener against arch rival Staten Island.
“There was a lot of jitters," Donnelly admitted after watching the youngest unit in the 12-year history of Brooklyn's Class A short-season franchise by the sea pull out a 2-0 victory over the defending New York-Penn League champion Yankees. "Guys were hyperventilating all over the dugout. We almost needed to bring in an oxygen tank. We’ve been playing in front of crowds of four and six people [during extended Spring Training in Florida]."
Fortunately for Donnelly, the oxygen tanks remained on stand-by, thanks in large part to a brilliant performance by the pitching triumvirate of starter Gabriel Ynoa, reliever Darwin Frias (1-0) and closer Tyler Vanderheiden.
Ynoa, one of a team-record eight teenagers on this year's squad, scattered three hits while striking out four without issuing a walk over the first six frames, going pitch-for-pitch with Staten Island starter Taylor Morton, who set down the first 10 Brooklyn batters he faced.
Frias worked in and out of trouble in the eighth before Vanderheiden, whom Donnelly tabbed as his opening night closer based on his collegiate resume as a late-inning reliever, slammed the door shut with a 1-2-3 ninth, fanning Yankees slugger Matt Snyder to lock down Brooklyn's 10th Opening Day triumph in 12 seasons.
Eight of those wins have come at the expense of the Baby Bombers, who ended the Cyclones' bid for the NY-Penn crown in the opening round of last year's playoffs.
"If you throwstrikes, you don’t have to throw 100 miles per hour," insisted Donnelly, referencing the eight strikeouts against only one walk issued by his inexperienced hurlers. "They did that tonight. They threw strikes. They all did. Our pitching coach [Marc Valdes] always tells them that."
Of course the combined shutout wouldn't have meant much without some offensive production. In a game reminiscent of last September's season-ending 1-0, Game 3 loss to the Yanks, both teams struggled to come through in clutch situations throughout the contest, with Brooklyn leaving the bases loaded in the fourth before putting together what proved to be the game-winning rally in the eighth.
Brandon Nimmo, the Mets' first-round draft pick in 2011 out of Cheyenne, Wyoming, got things started by drawing a one-out walk off S.I. reliever James Pazos. The 19-year-old center fielder gradually got around the bases thanks to a walk by fellow teen Phillip Evans, a sharp single to left by designated hitter Alexander Sanchez and left fielder Stefan Sabol's bases-loaded free pass that plated the game's first run.
Brooklyn's returnee first baseman Cole Frenzel, a sage veteran compared to his neophyte teammates at 22 years of age, followed with a deep sacrifice fly to center, capping the scoring and paving the way for another successful start to the 76-game grind of a schedule these players will undertake over the next three months.
“I would have settled for a half a run the way things were going," jabbed Donnelly, who watched Morton toy with his lineup before Evans, who played two games in Brooklyn last summer, delivered a line drive single into center field with one out in the fourth.
“I didn’t think it was gonna be me to get the first hit, but I came through and it just felt good," noted Evans, who finished 2-for-3 with a walk and a run scored while helping Brooklyn to an error-free night from his shortstop position. "They’re a strong team, we’re a strong team, but we came out on top tonight.”
Vanderheiden, the Mets' 12th-round pick out ofSamford earlier this month, energized the crowd with a fist-pump after whiffing Snyder to end the game.
“I read that he’s a one-inning pitcher, and for tonight, he was our closer," revealed Donnelly, who will employ a bullpen-by-committee routine throughout the campaign. "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 hear.”
"I was excited with all the fans here," Vanderheiden confessed. "Just going out there my mentally was 3-up, 3-down, and at the end you shake the catcher's hand. You always want to win the first game."
At 65, Donnelly is in his second year with the 'Clones after guiding them to a wild-card berth in his first summer on Surf Avenue. He's well aware that the jolt of going from high school or college baseball to the pro circuit in the heart of bustling Brooklyn will be a tough adjustment for some, if not most, of his players.
“We have 40 guys here, I’m just going to hope they make the bus on time," he said. "It’s like when they tie the kids together with a rope [during a class trip]. That’s how we’re going to be on the road. I just hope we don’t lose any. I couldn’t even wave bye-bye when I was in high school. I have a grandson that’s older than 12 guys on this team. Some of these kids have never been in a building that’s more than one story.”
MCU Park has two levels, with room for a third to be added if the Cyclones continue to set NY-Penn attendance records. Nimmo, for one, soaked up the excitement of his first Opening Night under the lights and in the shadows of one of the world's most famous amusement parks.
“I love it. It’s fun," he gushed after scoring the season's first run for the Baby Bums. "It makes the game even more exciting and I love the atmosphere here. You can feel the energy in that stadium. It’s very, very big."
Though most of this year's 'Clones are new to our fair borough, all are quite familiar with the heated rivalrly against the Yanks. Brooklyn won last year's regular-season series from S.I., 9-5, and holds a 74-67 edge in the all-time series, though the Bombers have captured five NY-Penn titles to the Cyclones' one and only crown in 2001.
“Always gotta beat Staten Island," Evans emphasized during the post-game celebration outside the 'Clones locker room. "Yankees-Mets is a crazy rivalry and we try to keep it going down here. We always try to win that ballgame for sure.”
The teams will continue their season-opening four-game set Tuesday and Wednesday night at Richmond County Bank Ballpark before returning to Coney Island Thursday night for the finale.
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This, That and the Other Thing: C Kevin Plawecki, the Mets' supplemental first-round pick out of Purdue, did not get the start on Opening Night as Donnelly went with Nelfi Zapata behind the plate. Zapata, who finished 0-for-3, hit .269 with two homers and 14 RBIs in 20 games for Brooklyn last year. ... The closest thing to a local product on this summer's roster is LHP John Mincone from Dix Hills, NY. The 22-year-old southpaw signed with the Mets as a minor league free agent earlier this year. He pitched at Suffolk County Community College. ... The Cyclones put together a moving pregame video tribute to their long-time radio voice Warner Fusselle, who passed away from a heart attack just over a week before what would have been his 12th Opening Day broadcast. Fusselle's "Catbird Seat" in the press box remained empty, but the Cyclones will wear a special "WF" patch on their jerseys in his memory throughout the summer. ... Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz threw one of the ceremonial first pitches before the game, but there was no one behind the plate to catch it. "I don't need a catcher!" Markowitz exclaimed before moving up to his box above home plate.