The Cyclones had won a big game against the hated Staten Island Yankees on Monday night — taking three-of-four from the first-place team and improving their chances of snaring the league’s lone wild card berth — but manager Rich Donnelly was in no mood to celebrate.
“Means nothing,” the shirtless skipper said as he dived into a plate of ribs as the cream of the Cyclones press corps surrounded him hungrily.
Means nothing? Taking three games from the New York-Penn League’s powerhouse squad — battering its much vaunted pitching for 30 runs? Certainly big wins mean something to a team hoping to play meaningful games well into September.
“It was a good series, but you have to move on,” Donnelly said. “A good series means nothing if the next series is a bad series. We got Batavia [on Tuesday night], and that’s all my guys should be thinking about. If they go to Batavia and lose three, the Yankee series was meaningless.”
So much for the celebratory post-game interview.
But Donnelly is onto something. A lifelong baseball man — he studied at the elbow of MLB managerial legend Jim Leyland for two decades as a coach — Donnelly is the Cyclones’ secret weapon in their quest to make the post-season. The secret? Prepare for the work at hand: winning tonight’s game.
“Will we make the playoffs?” Donnelly asked, mocking his questioner (me). “I don’t know! If they win their games, we’ll make the playoffs.”
I asked Donnelly if he’d apologize to the Cyclone fans if the team didn’t make the playoffs — something that has only happened three times in Cyclones history.
“I won’t say nothing,” he spat. “If we don’t make the playoffs, we weren’t good enough, and I’ll go home to Steubenville [Ohio] and the kids will scatter for the off-season. We played our asses off, but it wasn’t good enough.”
I’ve been around a lot of great Cyclone managers — Backman, Alfonzo, Tuefel — and Donnelly shares one thing with those legendary skippers: he’s a real baseball man who understands that winning is part talent, part temperament.
No, this Cyclones team is not the best squad that the Wilpons have ever put together, but Donnelly’s clubhouse reflects the skipper’s seriousness about the task at hand. After Monday’s big win, for example, the locker room was silent, as if the players knew that there was no value in back-patting over the three-of-four demolition of the hated Yankees. No, this team was busy packing up and getting ready for the long bus ride to Batavia, where the 24-26 Muckdogs were lying in wait.
Donnelly wasn’t in the locker room giving a Hollywood-style pep talk — that’s not his style. But he was focusing on the key to the next three weeks: starting pitching and fielding.
“Every winning team I’ve been associated with has had pitchers that pitch deep into the game and keep runners off base,” he said. “The hits come when you do that.”
Cyclone starters seem to have a mental barrier at 4-2/3 innings, meaning that the bullpen, which has been excellent, will have to step up again.
“It’s unbelievable,” Donnelly said. “I’m ready to put up a bounty. I’m beginning to think I should go out to the mound with two outs in the fifth and wave a $50 bill and say, ‘If you finish this game, this is yours.’ ”
Over the past two weeks, the hitting has been solid, with the team hitting .261, or third best in the league.
The team is also 23-1 when leading after seven innings.
“Big deal,” Donnelly said. “Most teams have a great record when they’re ahead after seven. But it makes the point: Get ahead early and give yourself a chance.”
The road to the playoffs — and a slim chance of winning the ultimate prize in sports, a New York–Penn League championship — appears to be smoothly paved for the Cyclones, with 16 of the final 26 games coming against under-.500 teams. But 15 of them are on the road.
And the last three are against the best team in the league, the Staten Island Yankees.
Even Donnelly was pleased.
“I don’t believe in rivalries, especially in short-season ball,” he said. “Every game is important. But if we’re playing the Yankees in September and it means something, that’s a rivalry.”
Here’s a brief summary of the Cyclones-Yankees series:
Aug. 5 at Staten Island
The Cyclones got on the board first, with two runs in the fourth — both unearned, thanks to two Yankee errors.
Starter Carlos Vazquez gave up a solo shot in the fifth to halve the lead, and then lost his lead in the next inning when the Yanks tied it up on a triple.
But the Cyclones busted out for five runs in the seventh inning. The barrage started slowly, as the Clones loaded the bases with a single and two walks. A passed ball scored the first run before Richard Lucas knocked in two with a single. A hit batter loaded the bases again, and Travis Taijeron singled home another. The scoring was capped by a wild pitch.
Two more runs scored in the eight on Lucas’s single.
The Yankees did rally in the ninth, but came up short, putting up a two-spot against reliever T.J. Chism.
Aug. 6 at MCU Park
One really bad inning is the story of this loss.
The Cyclones had a 2–1 lead, thanks to Travis Taijeron’s RBI single in the second.
But in the fifth inning, the wheels came off the bus for starter Jeffrey Walters — all with two outs.
Walters yielded three singles in a row before being replaced by Ernesto Yanez, who promptly gave up a two-run triple and an RBI double.
Aug. 7 at Staten Island
Cyclone hitters treated the Yankee pitching staff like it was tossing batting practice, pounding out 10 runs on 14 hits in one of the best wins of the year.
After falling behind 2–0 after three innings, the Cyclones came alive, scoring 10 unanswered runs.
The barrage started in the fourth with five runs. After a walk Chase Greene singled and Daniel Muno knocked in two with his 13th double of the season. Ismael Tijerina followed with a single that put runners on the corners before Javier Rodriguez hit his fourth homer of the year, a three-run blast.
Two more runs came in during the fifth on a Muno groundout and a Tijerina double.
In the eighth, Tijerina led off with a single and moved to third on Rodriguez’s 16th double of the season. Brian Harrison hit a SAC fly before Travis Taijeron knocked in a run with a single.
The final run of the game scored on Rodriguez’s SAC fly in the ninth.
Aug. 8 at MCU Park
The Yanks got on the board first against starter Randy Fontanez, but the Cyclones scored four runs after Brian Harrison and Travis Taijeron singled and Xorge Carrillo and T.J. Rivera followed with singles. Charley Thurber then knocked in two more with another hard blast.
The Yanks got one back in the fourth on a two-out RBI single. And the baby Bombers tied up the score in the fifth on another two-out rally that include an RBI double and single against reliever Jeremy Gould.
But the Clones fought back, scoring on a bases-loading double-play in the fifth and adding a run after a Yankee error in the sixth.
The Cyclones finished their scoring with another two-out RBI, this time by clutch-hitting Travis Taijeron, who was 2-for-3 on the night.
Fontanez didn’t make it to the sixth, a major barrier for Cyclone starters all year long, but the bullpen was solid with Jeremy Gould eventually putting out the fire in the fifth, and Todd Weldon yielding just a meaningless solo shot in the eighth for the save.
The Cyclones are two games back in the wild-card race with 26 games left to play. Will the struggling squad make the post-season?