Tyler Buckley trotted toward the pitcher's mound Friday night, maybe the loneliest spot in Bowman Field, surrounded by an air of confidence. He was the only person who was going to prevent Jamestown from breaking open a tight game.
Bases loaded, one out, and no room for a mistake was nothing new for potentially Williamsport's top relief pitcher. It's what he did in college at Arkansas-Little Rock. So when he entered a one-run game in the top of the seventh inning Friday, he went back to what's made him so successful.
Throwing strikes is the most basic philosophy of pitching, but Buckley has latched on to the concept since being drafted by the Phillies in the 27th round last month. It worked perfectly Friday, taking just one pitch - a strike - to get a ground-ball double play to escape the jam.
"No pressure," Buckley said Saturday afternoon following the Crosscutters' round of batting practice. "Just throw as many strikes as you can. If you throw more strikes than balls, then you'll probably get a good outcome."
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound right-hander has grasped the strike-throwing concept more than many of the pitchers in the New York-Penn League. He carried a team-best 1.10 ERA into Saturday night's game against Jamestown which would have been tops in the NYPL had he enough innings pitched to qualify.
And it's really all fallen into place because of maintaining the philosophy of getting ahead early in the count which pitching coach Les Lancaster has preached.
"Strike one is the key. In college they always told me to throw the first two out of three for strikes. So even if you do fall behind 1-0, just make sure the next two are strikes," Buckley said. "Usually you'll get good outcomes, and if you get outcomes in the first four pitches, you're probably getting outs."
Buckley has been the most reliable arm in the Cutters' bullpen, and his most recent outings have proven it. Eight of his first nine outings this year lasted 1 1/3 innings or less. But over his most recent two outings he's pitched six innings.
He was brilliant over the final 2 2/3 innings Friday night as Williamsport tried to rally back from a one-run deficit. He escaped the bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning with just one pitch. He then recorded four of his six outs over the next two innings by strikeout.
He walked the leadoff batter in the eighth inning after not getting two borderline calls with two strikes on the batter. But he stranded Danny Collins on second with a pair of strikeouts.
He allowed a one-out single to leadoff hitter Adam Frazier in the ninth, but got a strikeout and a routine ground ball to end the inning.
He threw 26 of his 36 pitches for strikes in his 2 2/3 innings, and threw first-pitch strikes to seven of the nine hitters he faced. It was a perfect execution of the gameplan for Buckley.
"It's all about throwing strikes and letting them decide whether or not they get on base," Buckley said. "If I throw strikes early and get ahead, then I can throw whatever I want."
"He's been money every time he comes out," said Williamsport's Andrew Knapp, the Phillies' second-round pick in last month's draft. "He has that confidence on the mound where he knows what he can throw and then he throws it. He's going to get guys out. To have a guy like that in the pen you can rely on, it's big for our confidence as a team."
Buckley has done the most of his damage out of the pen utilizing just two of the three pitches in his arsenal. Cutters catcher Gabriel Lino has been notorious this year for getting pitchers to work ahead with their fastball and it hasn't been any different with Buckley.
A fastball which was clocked in the mid-90s in college may have lost a tick or two since being drafted, Buckley said, but he's also added movement. The combination of a fastball he can spot up and a knee-buckling curveball have proven to be too much for opponents.
Opposing batters are hitting just .115 against Buckley as he's allowed just six hits in 16 1/3 innings pitched. He's never allowed more than one hit in an outing. He's given up just two earned runs this year on a home run against Auburn on July 8 in the nightcap of a doubleheader.
Opponents are 0 for 11 against Buckley leading off an inning, and are just 1 for 23 against him with runners on base. Of the six baserunners he's inherited this year, none have scored.
"His fastball is not really plain," Williamsport manager Nelson Prada said. "He's got some movement, he has good angle and he gets ahead of hitters. He's been doing pretty good for us."
"My ball has been running a bit more now and I don't know why," Buckley said. "Maybe it's just being in this place. In college I was mid-90s and I might have dropped down a little bit, but the movement is pretty good, so I'm not trading it for anything."
ABOUT TIME: Andrew Knapp let out a big sigh of relief even before the question being posed to him was finished. There was a weight lifted off Knapp's shoulders Friday night when he hit his first-inning, two-run home run to right field.
The second-round draft pick out of Cal has never described himself as a home-run hitter, but he felt like he had more pop than to have gone more than the first month of the season without a home run. So when he hit a majestic blast over the Williamsport Sun-Gazette sign, he was relieved to have the first one out of the way.
"I was wondering when it was going to happen," Knapp said following the 4-3 loss to Jamestown. "I was hoping it wouldn't take this long. I've been grinding at the plate a bit and I'm starting to feel better."
Despite the home run drought, Knapp has been one of the Crosscutters' most consistent offensive players this year. He's hitting .271 with 12 RBIs and he's been a mainstay in the three-hole for the past couple weeks.
It hasn't been the ideal season for Knapp as he's battled an elbow injury which has allowed him to catch in just two games since being assigned to Williamsport. But his bat has been in the lineup nearly every day, missing only about a week after traveling to Philadelphia for an MRI on his right elbow in early July.
"I went through a stretch where I didn't feel that comfortable, but I've been working with (hitting coach Lino Connell) and (coach Shawn Williams) and other guys and I've been trying to smooth it out and be relaxed and try not to do too much," Knapp said. "I think with that home run, it'll make it easier."
Knapp described himself during the Crosscutters' media day back in June as being a gap power hitter more so than a home-run hitter. Cutters manager Nelson Prada think he's got more power than that, and as he becomes a more consistent hitter it will shine through.
"He has a nice an easy swing," Prada said. "He can get pull happy sometimes, but I think he's a guy that when he makes it to the big leagues he can hit 10 to 15 home runs a year. That's a little more than gap power."