By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
After nearly 30 years coaching at the Major League level and in his second summer as manager of the Mets' Class A short-season affiliate on Coney Island, Rich Donnelly doesn't have to pull any punches when it comes to describing what he sees on a ballfield.
"We have a bad offense," the Cyclones' 66-year-old skipper noted last week as his youthful squad continued to struggle at the plate while holding on for dear life to the New York-Penn League's wild-card spot.
Donnelly intimated that he'd had a recent phone conversation with embattled Mets manager Terry Collins, informing the parent club's leader that "our idea of a rally is a 2-0 count."
The numbers certainly back up Donnelly's grumblings.
Brooklyn's .231 team batting average ranks second-to-last on the 14-team circuit, while its 264 runs scored put them 10th in the league standings.
However, the Cyclones are also blessed with the top team ERA (2.62) and least runs allowed (214) in the NY-Penn as the season nears its final week, helping to offset the club's ineptitude at the plate.
“Our offense hasn’t always clicked this year and the [pitching staff has] really picked us up," admitted Brooklyn catcher Kevin Plawecki, who delivered a rally capping RBI single in the top of the 11th inning Tuesday night in Aberdeen to help the Cyclones escape with a much-needed 6-3 victory over the IronBirds before 6,399 fans at Ripken Stadium.
With the dramatic win, the Baby Bums (41-27) remained two games in front of red-hot Batavia (39-29), which swept a doubleheader from Mahoning Valley on Tuesday, in the hunt for the final NY-Penn playoff spot and a first-round date with league-leading Tri-City as the standings currently dictate.
By virtue of their head-to-head season-series advantage over the Muckdogs, the Cyclones would get the wild card if the teams finish in a dead heat.
But with eight games to play, including a critical home-and-home set with Hudson Valley, which was scheduled to begin Wednesday night at Dutchess Stadium, the Cyclones have little to no room for error in their quest to return to the playoffs for the fourth straigth summer, and second time under Donnelly.
Brooklyn's league-leading bullpen held Aberdeen in check after a solid six-inning performance by starter Luis Cessa Tuesday night. Princeton product Matt Bowman (2-2) tossed four scoreless innings of relief before All-Star left-hander John Mincone struck out the side around a walk in the 11th to pick up his fifth save of the year.
But the Cyclones' offense needed that effort before launching a three-run outburst in the 11th, powered by third baseman Dimas Ponce's tiebreaking two-run double. Brooklyn went a dismal 3-for-15 with runners in scoring position and left 11 runners on base against the league's worst team.
Cessa yielded three runs -- all in his sixth and final inning of work -- on three hits with four strikeouts and did not issue a walk. Bowman limited the Ironbirds to just two hits over his four frames before Mincone finished off the job. Meanwhile, the Cyclones pounded out 11 hits, but needed two extra innings to put Aberdeen away.
Jayce Boyd homered for the second straight night for Brooklyn, launching a fourth-inning solo shot to snap a scoreless deadlock. Brandon Nimmo added a double and an RBI and Ponce drove in three runs as the Cyclones won their second straight game after dropping three of their previous four contests.
Despite their tenuous position atop the wild-card standings, the Cyclones are putting playoff tickets on sale beginning Thursday at 10 a.m.
If Brooklyn ultimately secures the wild card, it will host the first game in each round, including the NY-Penn Championship Series.
But first things first.
The Cyclones, five games back of first-place Hudson Valley in the McNamara Division race, will host the Renegades Thursday night at MCU Park before engaging in a home-away-home three-game set with Staten Island, which would like nothing better than to spoil Brooklyn's playoff hopes. The Cyclones will complete the campaign with a three-game set against Vermont on Surf Avenue, likely needing a victory or two to wrap up a postseason spot.
Last summer, the Cyclones needed nine victories in their last 10 games just to reach the playoffs. Unless Batavia slows down a bit in its final week of play, Donnelly's team may have to muster a similar winning percentage down the stretch just to hold on to its hopes of capturing the organization's second title since arriving on Coney Island in 2001.
Scoring some additional runs to take the pressure off a pitching staff that has carried the bulk of the load thus far might help not only to complete what has been an exciting chase for the playoffs, but it could lighten Donnelly's attitude toward his struggling hitters.
"Some nights our offense is non-existent," Donnelly said. "We're the worst hitting team in the league."
Knowing Donnelly, these words are meant to fire his hitters up, not tear them down as they enter their most important stretch of the summer.
His vast experience along the third-base line, and in the dugout and clubhouse suggest he knows a thing or two about baseball.