Reliever Blake McGinley’s fastball cut through the cheers of the Brooklyn faithful Saturday night smoother than a Staten Island Ferry sailing through New York Harbor, and left a first-ever playoff series victory in its wake.
Less than a second after the ball landed in catcher Brett Kay’s mitt, umpire John Blackburn bellowed “Strike three!” over the raucous cheers of a packed house at Keyspan Park brought to their feet with every two-strike count. The call signaled the start of a major-league celebration.
After a season of battling, Brooklyn’s newest boys of summer had finally swatted the fly known as the Staten Island Yankees, taking the New York-Penn League’s McNamara Division with a 4-1 triumph over their cross-Narrows rivals.
While McGinley’s pitch closed out the game, the chore of actually winning it landed squarely on the shoulders of Kay, who ably handled the task at hand with his glove, bat, arm and brain.
It was Kay’s decision, with runners on first and second and the Cyclones clinging to a 1-0 lead, to field the bunt laid down by Todd Faulkner and throw to third where he nailed Shelly Duncan trying to advance. And it was Kay who one batter later used what he called a “dead man’s play” to fool Yankee Jason Turner into thinking he didn’t have to slide into the plate.
With Turner at second and Todd Faulkner at first, Robinson Cano lined a double into left-center field where John Toner cut it off before it rolled to the wall for what everyone in the park was sure would be a run-scoring double. Especially when Toner’s throw darted high and far toward home plate — with no hope of hitting the cutoff man.
As the ball headed toward home neck-and-neck with Turner, Kay just stood there on the plate, his hands at his sides as if the sphere wasn’t even on its way. But a split-second before Turner could step on the plate with the tying run, Kay raised his glove, caught the ball chest-high, and tagged the upright, running Turner for an amazing out.
Had he not used the decoy, and had Toner’s throw not been on the money, Kay figured, the run would have scored.
If that play didn’t win the game for the Cyclones, what Kay did the next inning surely did.
After the Cyclones and Yankees traded runs in the bottom of the seventh and top of the eighth, Kay blasted a ball midway off the scoreboard in left for a two-run homer, scoring himself and Jay Caligiuri, who had singled, and giving the Cyclones a three-run lead.
Starting pitcher Ross Peeples, who led the New York-Penn League with a 1.34 ERA, was up to form, throwing seven shutout innings to earn the win, while McGinley, who also pitched the eighth, earned the save in a well-played, exciting game befitting a division series.
That much couldn’t be said for the first two match-ups.
Despite the fact that the Cyclones had beaten the Yanks six times in eight regular-season meetings and had finished the season at 52-21, four games better than the Staten Island squad, the ‘Clones lost the best-of-three series opener at Richmond County Bank Ballpark Thursday night.
Sloppy play — five errors (three by shortstop Robert McIntyre and two by third baseman Joe Jiannetti) — was blamed on first-playoff-game nerves, but it didn’t hurt the Cyclones until the seventh.
Relieving Luz Portobanco (six innings, two runs) and trailing 2-1 at the time, McGinley was greeted in the seventh with a four-run outburst — thanks much to Jiannetti’s two miscues and Turner’s two-run, two-out triple.
That put the game out of reach and sent the ‘Clones back home with elimination staring them in the face.
Back at Keyspan Park Friday night, things didn’t start off too well.
After Staten Island right-hander Jason Alexander struck out the top of the Cyclones order — looking — in the bottom of the first, Staten Island took a 3-0 lead in the top of the second.
Duncan led off with a solo homer to left and, after the next two Yankees were retired, Turner and Chris Martin singled and were driven home with a double by Omir Santos.
But the Cyclones struck right back, tying the game at three in the bottom of the inning. After both Kay and Frank Corr walked, Toner drove in Kay with a single. With the throw going to the plate, Toner was able to advance to second, and Angel Pagan drove in both Corr and Toner with a double.
From that point on, the Yankees would never enjoy another lead in the series.
The ‘Clones took the lead in the bottom of the third when, with two out, Kay was hit by a Jason Anderson pitch. Corr followed with a booming double to left-center that sent the hustling Kay through manager and third base coach Edgar Alfonzo’s stop sign and towards home plate — where he beat the throw and got his team the lead.
Two errors in the bottom of the fourth — the Yanks finished with six errors on the night — helped lead to three more Cyclones’ runs to give them a three-run cushion they would never relinquish.
After the Yanks’ three-run second, Cyclones starter Michael Cox settled down and ended up pitching five innings of five-hit ball while striking out four. Harold Eckert earned the save by pitching four innings of three-hit ball, giving up just one run and striking out four.
The win set the stage for Saturday night’s division-clincher and the chance to play the Williamsport Crosscutters for the New York-Penn League title.