COPIAGUE — Greg Zilnicki knows what it feels like to be on the mound, watching his teammates turn possible hits into certain outs.
Riverhead’s defense came to Zilnicki’s aid when he shut out Copiague, 8-0, last Thursday.
“I give up hits all the time,” Zilnicki said on Friday. “The defense helps me win games.”
He may not have known what pitcher Mike Napoli was feeling on the mound during Friday’s 7-5 win at Copiague, but he knew how it had to be different. Zilnicki was a big reason why Napoli was on the hook for a loss as the Blue Waves (8-3 overall, 6-3 in Suffolk County League IV) came to bat in the top of the seventh inning, trailing 5-4. But his chance for redemption was coming.
Three batters into the game, Riverhead had a 3-0 lead. As he was last Thursday, with a two-run double to spark a seven-run first inning, catcher Bryan Palmero was the light under the Blue Waves’ fire again. On Friday, by the time Palmero strode to the plate to face Copiague’s Anthony Giordano, Riverhead led by 1-0 and had a runner on third. Palmero turned on a 3-1 fastball, sending it sailing over the 352-foot mark in left-center field.
“We still had a lot of confidence in our team and our pitching,” Copiague Coach Ken Rittenhouse said.
And for good reason. Napoli set down the first two batters he faced in the second inning, but lost designated hitter John Bartlett, walking him on a 3-2 pitch. Bartlett was the sixth batter Copiague (3-10, 3-9) had sent to the plate at that point, but the fourth to go to a three-ball count.
After a double put runners on second and third with two outs, Robinson Caba grounded to Zilnicki at shortstop. Zilnicki’s throw might not have beaten Caba had it been on target, but it sailed wide of first base and rolled to the fence, allowing Daniel Beyer to score from second base.
The play clearly rattled Zilnicki. When the next batter, shortstop Alex Marcello, golfed a lazy pop fly his way, Zilnicki dropped it.
A triple from Jonli Falk, the fifth batter to bat with two outs, cleared the bases and gave the Eagles a 4-3 lead.
Zilnicki’s day at the plate was not going any better. After Steve Kimmelman tied the score with a one-out, run-scoring triple, Zilnicki, batting behind him, had a chance to ignite a rally. He struck out. Two batters later, Kimmelman was thrown out at home on a failed double-steal attempt.
The Eagles went ahead again in the fifth, but this time Zilnicki helped contain the damage. On the run-scoring groundout from Marcello, he dove to his left in front of second base and threw Marcello out from his knees.
The Blue Waves had nothing going again offensively until the seventh inning. An error by Caba at third base, sandwiched between two walks, loaded the bases for Zilnicki with one out.
Though he grounded out to second base, Zilnicki had driven in the tying run and moved the runners to second and third with two outs for Jordan Demchuk.
Meanwhile, Copiague had relief pitcher Kirk Yackel warmed up and ready to enter the game. But he stayed on the side and Rittenhouse left Giordano on the mound.
“It wasn’t like he was getting rocked too hard,” Rittenhouse said.
The decision looked solid when Demchuk fell behind 0-2. He swung slightly ahead of and under the next pitch, lofting it into shallow center field.
Zilnicki said he noticed left fielder Damian Lester playing deep, so he was certain the ball would drop. So was Riverhead Coach Rob Maccone, who immediately started waving Palermo home from second base.
“When it drops, we need to get both runs and we did,” Maccone said. “It’s a bleeder, but it’s a line drive in the box score, so that’s all that matters.”
The blooper fell between Marcello and Lester for a two-run double and a 7-5 Riverhead lead.
Napoli immediately gave up a single to start the bottom of the seventh, bringing the potential tying run to the plate in Michael Ferro. Ferro grounded to Demchuk at first. Instead of stepping on the bag, Demchuk fired to second. Zilnicki arrived at the same time as the ball, stepped on second and rifled it back to Napoli at first for the double play. Two batters later, the game was over.
Zilnicki said, “It felt good after I made two errors and almost cost my team the game.”