STATEN ISLAND, NY – Let the games begin! Forty-eight hours after the bedlam and euphoria of clinching the McNamara Division in Brooklyn against the rival Cyclones, the Staten Island Yankees found themselves in the postseason, facing the Houston Astros affiliate, the Tri-City ValleyCats, winners of the Stetler Division title. Competing under the bright spotlights of the playoffs, the New York-Penn League semifinals represent the first step for these first-year professionals towards achieving a possible championship. On Wednesday, the Yankees inched closer towards that goal after upending the ValleyCats 3-2 in eleven innings with a chance to advance on Thursday.
Staten Island struck quickly against the Astros’ 24th-round pick Chris Murphy in the bottom of the first inning. Trey Amburgey, a .367 hitter in 79 at bats with Staten Island, clubbed a double over the head of left fielder Aaron Mizell to provide early run support for top pitching prospect James Kaprielian, who drew the mound assignment in Game 1. Resilient and undaunted by challenges, the ValleyCats evened the ledger in the ensuing frame when fourth-round selection Anthony Hermelyn looped a single in front of Amburgey to plate the tying run.
Utilizing his offspeed pitches against right-handed hitters, Kaprielian settled into a groove, allowing just four hits and one run in his first five innings of work and one in his last eight frames against Tri-City, dating back to last Thursday. Murphy, who also opposed Kaprielian that day, posted similar figures in the early going and escaped a fourth inning jam with two men aboard and left unscathed. Kaprielian, meanwhile, lasted six innings for the longest start in his professional career.
“He looked good,” Staten Island manager Pat Osborn said. “He was dominant. He looks a lot older than he is. He conducts himself like he is 35 years old. With his stuff, we have a good one.”
Facing the ValleyCats six days earlier, Kaprielian showed the poise of his days pitching in the College World Series at UCLA during his first postseason start in the professional ranks.
“We had a little scouting report on these guys and lock in on what we wanted to do,” Kaprielian said. “The playoffs are always different. The dugout was lively. Both teams were fighting their tails to win the game. It was a good experience.”
Kaprielian’s stellar outing opened the door for Staten Island with runners at the corners for Eduardo de Oleo, who atoned for being unable to capitalize in the fourth inning by driving home Kevin Cornelius on a 60-foot infield single along the third base line to give the Baby Bombers the lead and send Murphy to the showers in the sixth inning. Canadian southpaw Jeff Degano relieved Kaprielian in the seventh and once again Hermelyn came through, driving home the tying run for the ValleyCats and erasing a potential victory for Kaprielian.
With the pendulum once again swinging in Tri-City’s favor, Staten Island appeared to regain the momentum. Loading the bases to open the bottom portion of the inning, the Baby Bombers were poised to surge ahead, but the Tri-City bullpen tight-roped out of danger on a pop up, strikeout, and ground out to preserve the draw. The score remained tied into the night and Game 1 marched on into extra innings. In the tenth, the Yankees looked to take care of business, but for the second time on the evening the Baby Bombers loaded the bases with none out and failed to score.
Left fielder Zack Zehner struck out with two outs after opening the at bat with a 3-0 count, slamming his bat in frustration as the game extended further into extra innings. Absent the pressure of a bases loaded situation in the subsequent inning, Staten Island took advantage in their final at-bat. With runners at first and second, Junior Valera smacked a game winning double to score pinch runner Danienger Perez as the Staten Island Yankees walked off against Tri-City, one win away from competing for the New York-Penn League championship.
“The pitchers were fantastic tonight,” Osborn said. “Junior Valera came up big like he has done all year. It is a season-changing win.”
After 48 hours of exhilarating baseball, the Staten Island Yankees currently find themselves one win shy of a berth in the New York-Penn League championship series and three victories short of their seventh New York-Penn League title. From short-season baseball through the Bronx, the New York Yankees organization commits itself to excellence and, most importantly, sustainability. In a season filled with pressure and adversity, their counterparts in Staten Island place themselves on the precipice of minor league greatness.
A veteran-laden team comprised of college draft picks, the Staten Island Yankees are a team founded on experience and the ability to withstand any situation. The Tri-City ValleyCats, a team which qualified for the postseason for five consecutive years, once again faces the prospect of a season hanging in the balance. As demonstrated this evening, Tri-City has a knack for answering difficult situations. Perhaps their most arduous test comes on Thursday with 6’7″ right-hander Domingo Acevedo taking the hill for Staten Island.
Acevedo, who emerged as one of the Yankees top thirty prospects this season, has a fastball clocked in the triple digits and continues to improve with each passing start. Twenty-sixth-round pick Ralph Garza will oppose him in just his fourth professional start. With the venue shifting to Troy, New York, for Game 2, the ValleyCats have a opportunity to even the series, but facing a Staten Island team that performs better away from home makes this task a monumental one.