For openers, it was a doozy.
By the time Tyler Webb, a 6-foot-6 left-hander, blew a fastball past Anthony Chavez for the final out with a festive crowd of 6,711 rising to its feet, the Staten Island Yankees had plenty of reason to celebrate.
Their 2-1 victory over the Brooklyn Cyclones had a little bit of everything on Opening Night in the New York-Penn League, from Amanda Lee Alicea, the reigning Miss Staten Island, singing the national anthem, to shorter food lines and overall good vibes at the Richmond County Bank Ballpark in St. George.
That last inning … two outs … two strikes … everyone getting on their feet … you have to get some goosebumps, said Staten Island manager Justin Pope. That’s nice. That’s baseball right there.
Heck, one lucky fan even won a CC Sabathia autographed baseball, and former New York Met first-round pick Lee Mazzilli was in the house to watch his son L.J. get two hits in his pro debut with the Cyclones.
The local franchise has been wildly successful on the field, capturing six championships in its first 14 summers, but not so much in season openers.
The Baby Bombers took a 1-13 overall record into Monday nights contest.
University of Michigan product Mike O’Neill was front and center on a team that rolled out sharp pitching, mostly excellent defense and speed on the basepaths. The nephew of former New York Yankee great Paul O’Neill obviously has commendable baseball bloodlines.
O’Neill, a recent third-round draft pick by the parent Yankees, made a diving catch in left field on Matt Oberstes sinking line drive leading off the second inning. He had a smash off starting pitcher Robert Gsellman for an infield single in the third before stealing second and third base, and ripped a double to left in the fifth.
What I like about him is that hes a student of the game, said Pope. Hes always talking baseball.
Winning pitcher Giovanny Gallegos worked five scoreless innings for the win, allowing three singles, and was backed by the bullpen work of Charles Basford, James Pazos and finally Webb in the ninth.
Brooklyn’s lone run came on James Roches two-out solo home run over the right-centerfield wall in the top of the seventh inning.
Staten Island had taken a 2-0 second-inning lead when Brandon Thomas led off with an infield single, stole second, and moved to third on Isaias Tejedas infield single. Daniel Lopez was beaned by an errant Gsellman fastball to load the bases, and Thomas and Tejeda scored when Brooklyn third baseman Chavez charged a grounder and threw wildly past first baseman Oberste.
O’Neill said Pope approached him at a Sunday workout and told him to take some fly balls in left field. He was primarily a right-fielder at Michigan with some duty in centerfield. He turned the first ball hit to him as a professional player into a highlight-reel play moving to his right.
It was a good night, exciting crowd, lots of noise, said O’Neill. Playing in front of the home fans is fun. It was neat, hearing them announce your name as you run out on the field. That doesn’t happen in college.
O’Neill said he regularly talks baseball with his uncle, but prefers to make his way through the professional ranks on his own merit.
They asked me if I wanted No. 21 and I said I didn’t, said O’Neill. I’m either going to make it on my own or I’m got going to make it.
My uncles definitely in my corner, I know that. He was very excited for me to get drafted because he can kind of go through the whole process again … from the outside looking in.
And that famous Paul O’Neill intensity?
My blood will flare up occasionally but I try to stay more level-headed than he did, said the rookie outfielder. But with him, it was never a show. That’s just how he is … the most competitive person I’ve ever seen in my life.
NOTES: The three-game series continues Tuesday night in Coney Island before returning to St. George for the Wednesday night finale … Shortstop and leadoff batter John Murphy went 2-for-3 with a walk in his debut while DH Yeicok Calderon and O’Neill also had two hits apiece … Gsellman went seven innings with six strikeouts and the two unearned runs in the second.