Christian James was drained.
The Cyclone starter had just cruised through five innings against the first-place Hudson Valley Renegades and his team was up by two in a battle for the top of the McNamara Division. But the heat was, for lack of a better term, hot, and the breeze off the Atlantic on this sticky night at MCU Park, on this night when the right-hander from Tampa was trying to win the most important game of his young career, only seemed to make things even hotter.
“Two more innings,” he may have thought to himself as he threw his final warm-up pitch. “Two more innings and I hand it over to the ’pen, they finish the job, and we’re just a game out.”
Renegade Ford Proctor, who has struck out in nearly a quarter of his at bats this season, fouled off the first pitch. Things were looking good. No one ever said Jay Clifford Proctor out of Beaumont, Texas had the best eye in the league — he’d walked just 19 times leading up to this at bat by the beach and players from Beaumont are know for their aggressiveness and penchant for swinging at balls more than a little bit off the plate — but he was somehow able to lay off the next three pitches, all out of the zone.
The crowd was anxious. The Renegades players were on their feet. Cyclone manager Edgardo Alfonzo watched from his perch in the first-base dugout.
A lead-off walk.
The cardinal sin of the pitcher.
In baseball, fortunes can change in a matter of minutes. Great starts can become bad ones if just a few pitches — sometimes even just one pitch — doesn’t hit the mark.
Knowing this, Alfonzo headed out to the mound to see what the big guy, all 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds of him, had left.
What was said during that visit may never be known. Maybe James convinced his skipper he could get through the inning. Maybe catcher Hayden Senger pointed out James had been squeezed by home-plate umpire Jose Lozada on those balls that weren’t as low and away as the umpire thought. Maybe Alfonzo was worried about a tired bullpen he turned to earlier than he would have liked the previous night.
So the former All-Star second sacker for the Mets stuck with his starter, kept the ball in the hands of a man who had fought his way to 4–1 record with an earned-run average right around two this season, his third in pro ball.
It was to be a move that would come back to haunt Alfonzo.
The 20-year-old righty threw seven more pitches on the night. Three of those pitches — half a pitch shy of half of those pitches — resulted in a single and two doubles.
The Renegades had the lead. Out came Alfonzo. In went James. The Cyclones never recovered.
Last year’s New York-Penn League champs tacked on a run in the seventh on a throwing error during a steal of third.
The win puts the Renegades up four games on the Cyclones with just four to play.
Worse, both the Auburn Doubledays and the Staten Island Yankees won last night, putting Auburn within half a game of Brooklyn for the Wild Card spot, and Staten Island only one game out. With the Cyclones and Yankees facing off against each other three times this Labor Day weekend, it seems it would take a miracle for either of the city dwellers to earn the lone Wild Card spot.
But this is baseball, where miracles — like turning a 2–0 deficit into a 3–2 lead in fewer than a dozen pitches — happen every night.
So maybe there will be a miracle sometime tonight, beginning at 6:40 pm at MCU Park, when Hudson Valley and Brooklyn go at it once again.
Stranger things have happened.
— with Vince DiMiceli