Since the New Orleans Zephyrs became the triple-A affiliate of the then Florida Marlins in September of 2008, none of the franchise’s notable prospects ever played in a game at Zephyr Field.
The team’s outfielders Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich, alongside pitcher Jose Fernandez — who will require season-ending Tommy John surgery — are all staples on the current Miami Marlins lineup, and each was sent from the double-A Jacksonville Suns straight to the majors.
So when the Marlins promoted left-hander Andrew Heaney, the top prospect in their organization, to New Orleans, it created a palpable buzz here. Heaney had seemingly mastered double-A ball, going 4-2 with a 2.35 E.R.A. in nine games with Jacksonville. His 52 strikeouts were second in the Southern League. His record earned him a promotion to New Orleans for his first start Thursday, which ended in a 3-2 victory in 10 innings over Oklahoma City.
With the Zephyrs trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the 10th inning, the second baseman, Jordany Valdespin, roped a game-winning two-run double into right-center field. Valdespin ran with arm raised and finger pointed to the sky as he rounded second base. He threw his helmet down as the winning run crossed the plate and he tried to avoid his mob of teammates spilling out of the dugout.
“What can you say about Valdespin?” said Andy Haines, the Zephyrs’ manager. “What a game. His passion, the energy he’s playing with. We had the right guy up there at the end.”
Valdespin’s heroics concluded a day that started heavy with anticipation surrounding Heaney’s first start.
Heaney said his heart was pounding slightly when he first stood on the mound to open the game, and said he did not settle in until after he gave up a single to the first batter.
When Heaney gathered himself, he retired the next three batters, striking out the last two. Although he allowed a runner to reach base in every inning, he did not allow a run until the fourth. Andy Simunic, the Redhawks right fielder, lined a ball just above the head of the Zephyrs first baseman for an R.B.I. single. But Heaney limited the damage and finished the inning by allowing one run.
”Poise, command, stayed ahead of hitters,” Haines said. “Very impressive.”
The Zephyrs received a bit of a scare with one out in the fifth inning. The Redhawks first baseman, Jon Singleton, hit a line drive that deflected off Heaney’s shin. Haines and the team trainer came out to the mound to check on Heaney, who quickly brushed them off and said he was fine. Heaney did not appear injured on the mound and retired the next two hitters in order.
Heaney’s pitch count was at 84 by the end of the inning, and Haines had expressed at the start of the game that he did not plan to overexert his left-hander with a high pitch count, so Heaney’s day was done.
The club plans to use caution with Heaney, the team’s ninth overall draft pick in 2012.
Heaney allowed one run on seven hits in five innings, while striking out seven and walking none.
“Everything felt good, I felt like the fastball command was good,” Heaney said. “I wasn’t happy about not having a clean inning, but everything felt good, body felt good.”
His performance was nearly wasted by the Zephyrs’ offense, which was held scoreless through the eighth inning, but they caught some breaks in the ninth.
Two Redhawks errors gave the Zephyrs runners at first and third with no outs. This was the first time in the game the Zephyrs advanced a runner to second base or beyond. They took advantage when the next batter, Mark Canha, hit a single into right field to tie the game at one. Despite loading the bases twice more in the inning, the Zephyrs could not push across the winning run and the game went into extra innings.
In the top of the 10th, the Zephyrs shortstop, Juan Diaz, booted a double-play ground ball that allowed a run to score and gave the Redhawks a 2-1 lead before Valdespin’s two-run double in the bottom of the inning.
Heaney’s next scheduled starts are Tuesday at Round Rock, Texas, and Sunday at Colorado Springs, so it is possible that Thursday was the only chance New Orleans fans would get to see Heaney play in the near future. The walk-off victory was a good consolation.