Joe Tardif’s glove, Matt Stepnoski’s bat and Cameron Burt’s right arm.
All three factored prominently Friday as the Mattituck Ospreys advanced to the Boys of Summer Baseball League 18-and-under National Division championship game with a thrilling 1-0 semifinal victory over the Massapequa Cyclones.
It was a defensive play more than anything else that this game will be remembered for. The Ospreys’ swift center fielder, Joe Tardif, may have saved the game — and the season — for his team with his tremendous running catch for the game’s penultimate out.
With the Cyclones trailing with one out in the top of the seventh inning at Jean W. Cochran Park in Peconic, Matt Diesel drove a hard-struck fly toward the outfield. To some it may have looked like extra bases, but not to Tardif, who said he read the ball well off the bat before making the catch at full speed about a step away from the center-field fence.
“I’ve never seen anyone make a better catch in my entire life,” said Burt, the Ospreys’ pitcher, who went the full seven innings for a six-hit shutout and 10 strikeouts. He did not issue a walk, and hit one batter.
“We say that when the ball is smoked to center field, you can start coming in if there’s two outs because that’s what Joe does,” said Ospreys manager John Tardif, who is Joe’s father. “That’s why he’s out there.”
Joe Tardif, who rated the catch as “probably” the best he has ever made, said he felt sure he would get to the ball; his only concern was he wasn’t quite sure where the fence was. “I didn’t know where the fence was until I turned around and I hit it,” he said.
The next batter flied out, and the top-seeded Ospreys bought themselves a ticket to Monday’s championship game against either the North Shore Cougars or the Long Island Titans Gold in Peconic.
The Ospreys, who are in their first year in the league, finished the regular season in first place, and may have taken teams from larger towns by surprise. John Tardif called the league “the top high school prospect league on Long Island.”
With 10 players from Mattituck, Cutchogue and Southold, two from Shoreham-Wading River (Jack Massa and Chris Moran) and two from Westhampton, the Ospreys are what their manager referred to as a “true community team.”
And they sure can play.
Their semifinal opponent was hardly a slouch. The Cyclones, with players from Massapequa High School’s recent Nassau County Class AA champion team, were tough. A half-dozen or so of them are headed to college baseball in a couple of weeks.
Among the more impressive Cyclones was their pitcher, Rob Fitzpatrick. Over six innings, the left-handed sidearmer limited the Ospreys to three hits. He had seven strikeouts with one walk.
“Definitely a tough pitcher to hit,” Stepnoski said. “He’s coming in sidearmed with a low, tailing fastball. It was hard to see and hard to catch up to.”
But Stepnoski eventually did catch up to a two-out, two-strike fastball from Fitzpatrick in the sixth, socking a double to the center-field fence and scoring Tardif from second base. Tardif had reached base on the game’s only error.
“He had me on my heels and just put a fastball up there, tried to blow it past me, and I got it,” said Stepnoski, who has batted anywhere from ninth to fourth in the batting order this summer, but was in the cleanup spot on Friday.
The Cyclones had put runners on second and third in three innings, only to come away empty-handed each time as Burt got out of trouble. He escaped the first inning with a groundout that stranded two runners, was directly involved in a rare 1-1-5 double play to end the fourth, and produced a huge strikeout to finish the fifth with two runners in scoring position.
“You can’t forget Cameron Burt,” Stepnoski said. “He threw an amazing game.”
Defense has been the Ospreys’ strength, and that Tardif catch was a genuine web gem. But as his manager and father will tell you, more than speed was involved in that play.
“He’s fast, but he’s field fast,” John Tardif said. “Some guys are fast from point A to B, but he reads the ball instantly, and that’s the key. If you hesitate at all on that ball, I don’t care how fast you are, you’re not catching it. He’s been doing that all season long for us, as have all the rest of our players. This is a defensive team, the likes of which I haven’t seen. … For people who love defense, this is a fun team to watch.”