Beginning the last day of the season, the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Connecticut Tigers were locked in a tie for the only New York-Penn League Wild Card slot. Connecticut held the tiebreaker, meaning Brooklyn needed both a win and a Tiger loss to make it to the playoffs. The dust finally settled three hours after the Tigers started their final game of the season on on a Monday night to remember for New York – Penn League fans.
Let’s start with Brooklyn’s game, which was a must-win if the team wanted any chance at a playoff berth. After Casey Meisner for the Clones and Sean Carley for the Yankees threw up zeroes in inning number one, Brooklyn struck first in the top of the second. With runners on second and third, and two outs, Jean Rodriguez singled on a grounder to right field. Jhoan Urena scored from third, but 20 year-old Austin Aune nailed Tomas Nido at the plate to limit the damage to one run.
Meanwhile in Norwich, the Lowell Spinners were giving the Connecticut Tigers everything they could handle. After Chase Edwards and Kevin McAvoy, both the aces of their staffs, chalked up three shutout innings for the Tigers and Spinners respectively, Jordan Betts put a jolt into the Lowell offense. Leading off the fourth inning, Betts lined a homer over the left field fence, putting the Spinners up by one. This blast was just the beginning of a productive fourth inning, as the Red Sox affiliate would tack on two more runs in the frame.
In the bottom of the fifth, Tigers’ star Brett Pirtle knocked a line drive double to the right field wall, scoring 2014 1st rounder Derek Hill. Lowell answered right back in their next turn at bat, when Mike Meyers hit a sacrifice fly to right fielder Ben Verlander. Both teams would score once more in their next turns at the dish, and after six and a half innings the Spinners were leading 5-3.
Back in Brooklyn, things were looking up heading into the eighth inning. The Cyclones were controlling the game against their crosstown rivals: Brooklyn was leading 3-0 with only six outs remaining. However, in the bottom of the eighth, the Staten Island Yanks would finally get something started. Isaias Tejeda led off the frame with a double by the left fielder Michael Conforto. After both Austin Aune and Vincente Conde had unproductive at-bats, the lineup turned over to leadoff hitter Collin Slaybaugh who got a pitch he liked and drove it into right field, closing the gap to only two runs. After Bill Fleming grounded out to shortstop, the game would head into the ninth, and final, inning. With the Spinners leading and Brooklyn dominating the Yanks, the Cyclones were in a prime position to grab the coveted playoff spot.
Entering the seventh inning, Lowell had a comfortable two run lead over Connecticut. And after Derek Hill led off the bottom of the seventh by striking out, it seemed the Spinners were going to spoil Connecticut’s playoff hopes once again.
But the Tigers’ youngsters never said die. Will Maddox reached base on a fielding error by first baseman Cisco Tellez. Then Brett Pirtle singled to left, with Maddox moving first to third on the play. Anxious over a potential comeback, Spinners’ right-hander Kuehl McEachern proceeded to throw a wild pitch, which scored Will Maddox from third. After a Steven Fuentes struck out, third baseman Joey Pankake stepped up to the plate. The 2014 7th round draftee did not disappoint, lacing a line drive single to score Mike Meyers from third. After seven innings, this crazy game was knotted at five apiece.
The fans at MCU Park were feeling good about their team’s playoff chances. Although the Tigers had just tied the Spinners, the Cyclones only had three more outs to get in order to win their final game of the season. Kelly Secrest, sporting a 1.82 ERA in 24 innings with Brooklyn, was called upon to close the game for the Cyclones. The 22 year-old southpaw easily sent the Yankees down 1-2-3, with the final two batters striking out swinging. The Cyclones’ playoff fate now hung in the balance of a game being played over 140 miles away.
In Norwich, lock-down reliever Gage Smith came in to pitch the eighth inning for the Tigers. Smith sent the Spinner batters down in order, allowing his team a chance to take the lead in the bottom of the eighth.
Carlos Pinales came in to face Franklin Navarro in the bottom of the eighth inning. Navarro had seen Pinales one week earlier, when he hit a grand slam off the right-handed hurler. Unfortunately for Pinales, history repeated itself. After fouling off a pitch straight back to the backstop, Navarro lifted a home run over the right field fence, giving the Tigers their first lead of the night. After giving up the long bomb to Navarro, Pinales lost his composure. He walked the next two batters, and gave the runners second and third thanks to a failed pickoff attempt. After Derek Hill failed to lay down a bunt, Pinales buckled down and struck out the struggling center fielder. Then the Lowell bench made a questionable call. They beckoned the righty to intentionally walk leadoff hitter Will Maddox, which loaded the bases, so he could face Brett Pirtle, who was 2-4 on the day. Pirtle made the Spinners pay in a big way, clearing the bases with a three-run line drive double down the right field line. Connecticut was now leading 9-5 heading into the ninth inning, and Brooklyn’s playoff hopes had all but faded at this point.
Gabe Hemmer, with his impressive 2.13 ERA, was brought in to close down the game for the Tigers. The inning started off well, with Hemmer striking out leadoff batter Mike Meyers for the first out of the frame. However, the Spinners were not going to go down easy. The next man up, David Sopilka, singled on a hard line drive to left field. Hemmer, who boasted an impressive 1.5 BB/9 entering the game, fed the Lowell rally by walking outfielder Bryan Hudson, which moved Sopilka to second. Deiner Lopez continued the comeback by ripping a double in the center field gap, scoring the runner from second. The Spinners now had men on second and third with just one out. Next, Mauricio Dubon hit a deep fly ball to center field, which scored Hudson from third base but left the Spinners down to their final out of the season.
With the score at 9-7, Jordan Betts, who previously homered in the game, stepped up to the plate in hopes of tying the ballgame with one swing. However, Betts’ hopes would not come to fruition, as the former Blue Devil hit a routine pop-fly to second baseman Brett Pirtle. After a valiant comeback attempt, it looked like the Spinners had come up just short. Shockingly, Pirtle flat-out dropped the fly ball, scoring the runner from third and cutting the Tiger lead in half. Hemmer went on to walk Nick Moore, which put the tying run in scoring position. With Joseph Monge batting, the Spinners successfully pulled off a double steal, meaning a base hit would put the team ahead. With two outs and the game on the line, Monge popped up to second baseman Brett Pirtle, who this time caught the ball.
The Connecticut Tigers had clinched a playoff victory in nail-biting fashion, leaving Brooklyn at home in the process. September 1, 2014 will go down as one of the greatest nights in the New York-Penn League’s history. I can only hope next year’s final game will carry the same excitement.