This West Babylon pitcher catches on

With the way the Riverhead High School baseball team’s pitching staff has been keeping the Blue Waves afloat in this young season, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that pitching made the difference last Thursday. The twist is, it wasn’t Riverhead’s pitching, but that of West Babylon’s Shane O’Connor, a converted catcher, that stole the show.

In his first career starting pitching assignment, O’Connor helped the Eagles avoid a three-game sweep in their Suffolk County League IV series with Riverhead. Though he was far from unhittable, O’Connor was effective, scattering 10 hits and giving up one earned run for a 9-2 complete-game victory in Riverhead. The senior right-hander struck out five, hit one batter and did not allow a walk. He was also supported by two inning-ending double plays (and struck by a ball that had been thrown back onto the field after it was fouled off in the third inning).

“I think I’ve come a long way,” said O’Connor, who throws four- and two-seam fastballs, a knuckle changeup and a slider. “There’s nothing wrong with the arm. So far, so good. I feel I’m stronger than ever right now.”

After catching last season, O’Connor spent the off-season working on his pitching. A good deal of preparation went into his starting debut.

“He had a long fall and a long winter and put his hours in on the mound,” West Babylon Coach Mike Rayola said. “He’s been waiting for this, and I’m happy for him.”

O’Connor helped give West Babylon (3-3, 2-2) the shot in the arm that it needed with its second win in five games. Riverhead, which fell to 4-3, 3-3, had posted a pair of one-run wins in the first two games of the series.

Pitching had been a strength for Riverhead. Coach Rob Maccone said his team has three interchangeable starting pitchers in Mike Napoli (1-2), Steve Kimmelman (1-0) and Greg Zilnicki (2-1), who could compete for the No. 1 job on just about any other team. All three are senior right-handers. “I like our pitching,” Maccone said after last Thursday’s game. “I know today was a bad pitching performance, but other than that, our pitching has been great.”

Some tough luck has affected Napoli and Zilnicki. Napoli was burdened with four unearned runs in a 5-3 loss to the Bellport Clippers, and Zilnicki gave up two unearned runs in another loss to Bellport. Place the blame on untimely errors.

“Our pitching staff is excellent,” Riverhead third baseman Bryan Palermo said. “We have three solid pitchers … They’re doing a great job.”

Until last Thursday.

That was when Napoli hit a bump in the road and was torched for eight runs that came within a two-inning span. West Babylon broke the game open with four-run rallies in both the third and fourth innings when it collected seven of its nine hits. Nick Disanza and Chris Doyle drove in three runs apiece for the Eagles. Disanza’s runs batted in came from a pair of doubles. Doyle knocked in his runs on a groundout and a two-run single.

Sam Miraglia added an RBI double. Nick Messina and Dan Penna each singled home a run.

Riverhead picked up its runs on RBI singles by Rob Pisano and Jon Tucci, who went 3 for 3.

“We have talent,” said Kimmelman, who played center field last Thursday.

Rayola readily agrees. “They have a tough lineup,” he said. “Their pitchers are tough. They battle, they throw strikes. They have tough bulldogs out there, diving all over the place to make plays. They really impressed me. I think they’re going to have a good year.”

Riverhead recovered from the loss to post an 8-3 win over the Walt Whitman Wildcats on Monday.

From the pitching end of things for West Babylon, O’Connor delivered just what the doctor ordered last Thursday.

“Shane, he’s been impressing us all year,” Rayola said. “He was getting ahead [in the count]. He was never really behind. All day he was getting ahead and he was able to throw his slider a little bit … As the game went on he got stronger, and to me that’s the makeup of a good pitcher.”

O’Connor said he wasn’t nervous, but rather pumped up before the game. “I wanted to come out, not get swept, do well for the team,” he said. “We’re looking to work off this and just [have] a great year.”