Two Tomcats have home-field advantage

Kevin Curtis, left, and Jimmy Powers have returned to their high school team’s field as members of the Riverhead Tomcats.

Players come from all over the country, many travelling considerable distances, to play in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League. And then there are those lucky few like Kevin Curtis and Jimmy Powers, who are essentially playing in their own backyard.

Curtis and Powers might have thought they’d said goodbye for good to the Pulaski Street baseball field when they graduated from Riverhead High School, but that was before the formation of the Riverhead Tomcats, one of the five teams that plays in the ACBL’s Hampton Division. Now, with the two former Blue Waves playing for the Tomcats, it’s as convenient as it gets. Curtis lives a mere five-minute drive from his team’s familiar home field; Powers’ home is only 15 minutes away.

“It’s weird,” Curtis said after taking batting practice before Friday’s home game against the Southampton Breakers (a 5-0 Southampton win). “I haven’t been on this field in three or four years. It’s fun to get back out here. My four years here [in high school] were great.”

Curtis, a first baseman, and Powers, a pitcher, were high school teammates for one year when Curtis was a senior and Powers a sophomore.

Curtis recently completed his junior season at Farmingdale State where he hit .310 with a home run and 21 runs batted in. The Rams captain made the All-Skyline Conference second team. The year before he hit .407 and was selected the conference’s player of the year. In Curtis’ three years at Farmingdale, the Rams won three conference titles and made an appearance last year in the Division III World Series.

Because of a torn quadricep that Curtis suffered during the 2009 college season, he had to bow out of playing in the ACBL last year. Not that Curtis talks about it (he didn’t mention it during an interview with a reporter), but he has also had to deal with torn ligaments in his left thumb. That makes life difficult for a player who throws and bats left-handed.

“He’s got a lot of guts because that’s an injury that doesn’t get better,” said Tomcats Manager Randy Caden.

Caden, who also coaches St. Joseph’s College, recalls a playoff game two years ago when his college team went up against Farmingdale State, and Curtis pulled a hamstring yet refused to leave the game.

“He’s just tough as nails, a football mentality,” Caden said. “He’s not an excuse guy. He’ll never give you an excuse.”

Eight games into this season, the 6-foot 3, 210-pound Curtis was hitting .214, with one RBI and a stolen base.

“I’m not hitting the ball so hot right now,” Curtis said. “It will come around. I’m not worried about it.”

“I’m here to get better,” he continued. “We got great coaches here teaching us. Everybody’s trying to get to the next level. Everybody’s trying to excel. We’re all in it together.”

Powers, a left-handed pitcher for Temple, is in his second season with the Tomcats. Through eight games this season, he had an 0-1 record with a 7.00 earned run average. Last season he went 0-1 with a 7.71 ERA. In his recently completed freshman season with Temple, Powers went 0-0 with a 6.46 ERA.

“Jimmy had struggled his first start the first inning and then he got on track,” Caden said. “He just has to pitch. He needs innings. Like all these kids, they need to play. So Jimmy, the more he plays, the better he’s going to get. You can see it.”

Although the playing field remains the same, Powers isn’t the same pitcher he was when he played for the Blue Waves.

“I changed quite a bit,” he said. “My look at pitching is a lot different. When I was in high school I would just reach back, throw as hard as I could and try to strike everybody out. And now it’s more like pitch where they can get themselves out.”

With a repertoire that includes a fastball, curveball, slider and changeup, Powers said he wants to work on his velocity this summer.

For Powers, the big difference he sees in the brand of baseball played in the ACBL as compared to high school baseball is in the quality of pitching and fielding. “Everything’s faster,” he said.

Curtis agreed. “It’s not what you see in high school,” he said. “It’s a big step up.”

Playing with wooden bats means there is no such thing as a cheap hit, he said.

For these two Tomcats, though, the home field hasn’t changed. It has largely remained the same since their high school days. Powers said he loves the field. He said, “It’s home, you know.”