Most of his teammates had made their way back into the dugout when Nick Bottari grabbed a rake and began grooming the dirt around first base, the same piece of land he had spent the last seven innings patrolling.
Bottari had just capped off another stellar performance: three hits, two RBIs, two runs and a rocket of a home run, the kind of shot that makes Shoreham-Wading River coach Sal Mignano — more than 30 years into the job — wear a grin of equal parts exuberance and disbelief. Still, a 3-for-3 day at the plate didn’t release Bottari of his postgame chores.
After all, he still is the freshman.
Bottari’s big day at the plate helped propel the Wildcats to a 9-5 victory at home against Sayville Thursday afternoon, the second victory in as many games against the Golden Flashes. After falling behind 1-0 in the second, the Wildcats responded with four of their own in the bottom half and never trailed again.
For a lineup loaded with veteran players, it’s been the youngest player on the team who’s served as the driving force in Bottari. He bats third in the lineup, a much more prominent role than the sixth or seventh spot he hit last year as an eighth-grader. Bottari hasn’t flinched.
“He’s extremely dangerous every time he’s up there,” Mignano said. “His swing is clean and neat and compact. And if he has a swing that’s not, he adjusts.”
What’s stood out to Mignano most about Bottari has been his ability to make adjustments. The kid has ability, but he also has a knack for the game and understanding situations.
In the fifth inning with the Wildcats (4-1 League VI) leading 7-2, Sayville (3-2) made its first pitching change of the game. As Bottari watched the reliever warm up, he saw an average fastball, the kind of pitch he could easily handle.
“It was a new pitcher and I knew he wanted to get ahead,” Bottari said.
He took the first pitch for a ball, then geared up for a fastball. He got it and crushed it over the left-center fence to give the Wildcats a comfortable lead and to cap a four-run inning.
“The ability is one thing,” Mignano said, “but the mindset as a hitter is unseen. I’ve never seen it.”
A catcher as well as first baseman, Bottari said that experience behind the plate helps him as a hitter understand what the pitcher is thinking.
“It just depends how you look on pitches,” he said. “If you look foolish on the curve ball, you might see a curve ball again. If you’re really late on a fastball, he might try to throw it by you again.”
While last year Bottari snuck up on teams as an unknown eighth-grader playing mostly right field, there’s no secret anymore. Bottari said he could count on a heavy dose of fastballs last year, where now pitchers have to mix in more curve balls against him.
The biggest adjustment he’s had to make this year is in his approach to the plate, he said.
Mignano said so far this season teams have tried to be very careful pitching to Bottari. It helps that the Wildcats have the kind of depth in the lineup that makes it difficult to completely pitch around Bottari.
Hitting in the cleanup spot against Sayville, Matt Kneisel went 2-for-2 with a double, RBI and two walks. The No. 2 hitter in front of Bottari, Andrew Nicchi, went 2-for-3 with a double, 3 RBIs, two runs and a walk.
While Mignano has adjusted the lineup at some points this season, the top four, beginning with Ryan McAlary at lead-off, has remained constant.
Junior Danny Luppens, making his first start at designated hitter, had a big day batting eighth with three hits, an RBI and two runs.
Shoreham junior Mike O’Reilly picked up his second win of the season. He pitched into the sixth inning before being pulled with two on and no out for junior Dan DeVito, who closed out the final two innings. O’Reilly gave up four runs, six hits, struck out eight and walked five.
“He struggled a little bit today,” Mignano said. “He pitched outstanding last week at East Hampton. But he battled. The mark of a good pitcher is when you don’t have your best stuff and still win.”
The Wildcats weren’t their sharpest in the field, but came through with several nice defensive plays. Kneisel, who started in left and moved to center in the sixth, made a superb running catch going back on a ball at a key point in the inning with the Golden Flashes trying to creep back into the game. In the seventh shortstop Kevin Davis teamed up with Nicchi at second to turn a 6-4-3 double play to clear the bases before the next batter grounded out to end the game.
While the season may still be young, the win was an important one for Shoreham against one of the teams expected to vie for the League VI title with the Wildcats.
“We knew coming into this week if we had any league title hopes, we got to take at least two from them,” Mignano said.
The Wildcats will travel to Sayville Friday for the final game of the series, a game that was postponed from Wednesday.