Cool Hand Carlos

Last season, one of the key factors in the failure of the Brooklyn Cyclones' quest to repeat as New York-Penn League champions was the lack of a standout pitcher in the bullpen.

"We just don't have a closer," said former 'Clones skipper Howard Johnson said in late August last year. "We'll just keeping throwing guys out there in those spots, and see what happens."

Not much, as it turned out. This year, the bullpen is much improved. The main reason for that state of affairs has been the emergence of Carlos Muniz.

The easygoing Muniz is quick with a smile, and unlike many of his peers, avoids the intimidation mind games that other closers revel in. Perhaps it's modesty, but after you watch him pitch, one realizes it's that unflappable personality that is his weapon.

Drafted without much fanfare in the 13th round of this year's amateur draft out of Long Beach State, the first-year right-hander has played a major role in the team's success this season.

Like teammates Brian Bannister (USC), Shane Hawk (Oklahoma State), and Rashad Parker (UCLA), Muniz enjoyed a measure of success at a major university's baseball program, which, according to Mets' assistant general manager and Director of Scouting Gary LaRoque, is a valuable asset.

"The players that come from those strong programs have an immediate edge," LaRoque said. "Theyre already aware of the high expectations, that has obviously helped them."

Despite leading the Big West conference in saves with 11, and helping his team get the College World Series _ eventually falling to eventual champion Stanford in the NCAA Super Regional _ Muniz received only honorable mention All-Big West honors.

That oversight could be because seven other players from Long Beach State got drafted from this year's team, most notably two-time Big West Pitcher of the Year Abe Alvarez, drafted by the Red Sox in the second round and currently with Boston's NYPL affiliate, the Lowell Spinners.

Or it just could be that he doesn't have what scouts feel is a "closer-type" arm.

The numbers say different.

Looking at his totals at press time; 19 2-3 innings, 12 hits, one run, 23 strikeouts and just five walks allowed, you might think the Cyclones' right-hander was a hard-throwing, 90-plus fastball-type.

Instead, much like Mets' captain John Franco, Muniz's off-speed and breaking pitches are his main tools. Muniz works off his slider and changeup, mixing in a fastball here and there to keep hitters honest. Truth be told, it is preparedness and work ethic that sets him apart.

"I watch the game for five innings, making sure I know each hitters tendencies then I go down to the pen," Muniz said. "I just don't go into the game just throwingI'm prepared."

Unlike many other young pitchers, Muniz doesn't overthink his approach to each hitter.

"Keep it simple," Muniz said. "Thats the key. No matter what the situation is, bases loaded, nobody out, just keep it simple."

It's an approach that has served him well. Unlike in years past, closers are being groomed earlier and earlier in the low minor leagues. Usually, a club takes a hard-throwing starter and converts him to relief. Muniz, who's never thrown with a tremendous amount of velocity, took a different route. A successful starter in high school and junior college, he was put in short relief at Long Beach State to ease him into the rotation.

Much to his pleasure, Muniz has never returned to his former role.

"I love coming out of the pen!" exclaimed Muniz, when asked if he would prefer to be a starter. "When you come into a game, men on base and less than two out, you have no room for errorthats a challenge, I love that."

Muniz, as does most of the pitching staff, credit first-year Cyclones' pitching coach Hector Berrios for preparing them for success.

"Hector runs things smoothly," Muniz said of his pitching coach, who in his first season has the staff atop the league with a 2.32 ERA. "Everyone knows what is expected of them, and each guy knows his role. Sometimes during a game, it can get real hectic down in the pen. When the phone rings, we need to be ready to go into the game, and Hector's done that."

For all of his success on the mound, the most impressive thing about this young man is his interaction with the fans. He's always ready to sign autographs, shake a young fan's hand or talk baseball with the older ones. According to Muniz, who grew up a big Dodgers' fan, he feels privileged to be here.

"Hey, (just like the fans at KeySpan) I was a big baseball fan growing up," Muniz said. "I know all about the (Dodgers') Brooklyn roots, and I'm having a blast playing in front of these fans. These are savvy fans, they really know their baseball. Its a great atmosphere to play in."

Especially when your team is in first place.

1B Ian Bladergroen, after seeing his average dip below .265, is hitting the baseball with regularity. At press time, "Blade" is at .295, with four homers and a team-high 21 RBIs. ... OF Seth Pietsch contiues to struggle, and is down to .176. ... After leading the team with 49 strikeout in just 138 at-bats, 3B Shawn Bowman has been demoted to Single-A Kingsport in the Rookie League. To replace him on the roster, the Mets moved 3B Aaron Baldiris (.313, six HRs, 68 RBIs at Single-A Cap City) to Brooklyn to help boost one of the league's worst offenses. ... RHP Bannister is 4-0 with a league-best 1.49 ERA.

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