As he stepped into the batter’s box for the biggest at-bat of his career, DJ Brown already knew the sign his third base coach was about to flash.
His job was to lay down a bunt. And with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh of a tied game, that meant the chance to drive in the game-winning run against Miller Place.
“All I had to do was get the bunt down and the run was going to score,” said Brown, a junior in his first year on varsity.
On the second pitch he saw, Brown raised his bat high to reach for a pitch off the plate and bunted the ball back toward the pitcher. At third base, Tyler Widercrantz broke for home. Pitcher Tom Nealis fielded the ball and flipped it toward his catcher, who caught the ball a split-second after Widercrantz slid into home plate for the game-winning run that lifted the Wildcats to a 2-1 victory.
The top-seeded Wildcats, now 2-0 in the playoffs, advance to play the winner of the loser’s bracket on Wednesday back in Shoreham. A loss Monday would have meant the Wildcats needed to play again Tuesday needing to pull off three consecutive wins. Now, they have two chances to win and advance into the best-of-three Class A county championship to defend their title.
“I said to the guys this is our most important game,” said Shoreham coach Kevin Willi. “If we win this, it puts us in good position. The only problem is, I say that about every playoff game.”
Ryan Mullahey pitched a complete game to earn the win for the Wildcats. He was dominant, mixing a curveball and slider with his fastball to record 12 strikeouts. He gave up three hits.
He retired the Panthers (14-7) in order to start the seventh, setting up his teammates for a rally in the bottom half of the inning. Widercrantz reached base first when he was struck by a pitch. Nick Bettenhauser followed with a big blow the team had been waiting for, lining a double down the left field line to set up second and third with no outs. It was the only extra base hit in the game. The Panthers went to the bullpen to bring in their ace in Nealis, who was on three days rest.
Willi elected to let the next batter, Mason Kelly, swing away hoping he could lift a fly ball to the outfield. Kelly struck out on a 3-2 pitch, and Willi signaled for a bunt as Joseph Brown stepped to the plate next. Brown laid down a bunt that was quickly fielded by the pitcher and the runners held. It set up a bases loaded situation and even with a force at home, the Wildcats went back to the safety squeeze with DJ Brown at the plate.
It was a situation that Wildcats (17-3) had practiced many times before, especially more recently as the playoffs neared.
“We haven’t done it that much this year [in games],” Willi said. “We’ve just been waiting kind of for the opportunity.”
“The past few weeks with playoffs coming up and games getting tighter, big situations coming up, we had to be prepared and coach really helped us out with that practicing a lot of squeezes and small ball,” Mullahey said.
Mullahey said he made a few adjustments on the mound after giving up more hits than he would have liked his previous outing at the end of the regular season. He changed the grip on his off-speed pitches. During warm-ups, he felt good and was confident in using all his pitches.
“I like the pressure,” he said. “I think I play better under pressure. I live for those situations and I’m glad our guys came through.”
The Wildcats grabbed a 1-0 lead in the third when catcher Ethan Baumack was hit in the head by a pitch with the bases loaded.
One run looked like it might be all Mullahey needed as he mowed through the Miller Place lineup through the first four innings. But he ran into trouble in the fifth with a couple walks and the Panthers loaded the bases with one out. A sacrifice fly tied the game and Mullahey escaped further damage by getting a groundout to end the inning.
“He’s always going to give a good performance, a gritty performance,” Willi said. “When the intensity level rises, he matches it.”
Monday’s game had originally been scheduled for Saturday but was postponed due to rain. The Wildcats can now turn back to their No. 1 pitcher, Gabriel Romano — who won the team’s playoff opener against Bayport-Blue Point Thursday.
Miller Place drops into the loser’s bracket to face either Hauppauge or Bayport Tuesday. The winner of that game then plays Shoreham Wednesday.
The Wildcats had no interest in playing again Tuesday.
“Definitely not,” Mullahey said.
Top photo caption: Tyler Widercrantz slides into home for the game-winning run in the seventh inning Monday for Shoreham-Wading River. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)