Opening night has its share of quirks

Riverhead first baseman Kevin Needham stretched to catch a throw by shortstop Jeff Welsh on a groundout by North Fork’s Brendan O’Brien in the second inning.

Baseball’s charms and quirks were on full display Friday night when the 2010 Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League season started for the Riverhead Tomcats and the North Fork Ospreys. Talk about oddities, this game had them.

Riverhead was leading 3-0 without having a single hit through the first four and two-third innings. The Tomcats managing only one over the course of the first eight innings and just three for the entire game.

Yet the Tomcats and their new manager, Randy Caden, walked away from Jean W. Cochran Park in Peconic as 5-0 winners.

Go figure. That’s baseball.

“It’s always nice to win the first one,” Caden said. Then he joked, “Now I can lose the rest of the games and at least we won one game.”

Not that the Tomcats are counting on going 1-40 this season, but it helps to start off on the right foot.

Team rosters on the opening week are on the light side, with 16 players in the league’s Hampton Division still playing with their college teams in the NCAA regional playoffs. The Tomcats, for example, were still awaiting the arrival of six players, and Caden was fully aware that he had only eight pitchers available as his team started a stretch of three games in five days. With only two practices behind them as they entered the season, the Tomcats have two former Riverhead High School players on their roster, Farmingdale State infielder Kevin Curtis and Temple pitcher Jimmy Powers.

North Fork’s manager, Shawn Epidendio, has returned, but the Ospreys’ player personnel has undergone a dramatic change from last year, when the team went 25-15 during the regular season before losing to the Westhampton Aviators in the division finals. Sacred Heart outfielder/catcher Rocco Gondek and C.W. Post pitcher Brian Tardif, who played for Mattituck High School, are North Fork’s only returning players.

After Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell threw out the ceremonial first pitch, the Tomcats went to work, and they really didn’t need a bat.

Riverhead put up three runs in the first inning without the benefit of a hit. Five walks and a hit batsmen did the trick in a 37-pitch inning that saw Casey McKay, Kevin Needham and Eric Schlitter cross home plate.

What started out looking to be an offensive showcase turned into anything but as both teams combined for 23 strikeouts. North Fork failed to capitalize on scoring opportunities, leaving 12 runners on base.

“It’s all timing,” said Epidendio.

The Ospreys threatened to get on the scoreboard in the fourth when they loaded the bases on three straight walks, forcing starting pitcher Jack Lane out of the game. Lane shared the five-hit shutout with Joey Novak and Dom Macaluso. Novak retired the next two batters to end the inning unscathed. Novak picked up the decision. In three and two-third innings, he gave up one hit, one walk and struck out six.

North Fork’s first two batters in the game, Dan Muscatello and Ryan Lee, both singled in the first, but were left on second and third.

The pitching settled down for both sides after the first inning. Riverhead had to wait until there were two outs in the fifth for its first hit, a lined double by Needham to center field.

North Fork saw another good opportunity squandered in the seventh when its first two batters reached base. Ryan Brockett was awarded first base on a fielder’s interference call and Brendan O’Brien walked. They later advanced a base on a passed ball, but Novak buckled down and struck out the next three batters.

Then, in the eighth, more frustration for the Ospreys. They managed to load the bases on a pair of errors and an infield single by Brockett, but Macaluso got a big groundout for the third out, leaving three Ospreys on base.

Two of Riverhead’s three hits came in the ninth, and they led to a pair of runs. After leading off by cracking a well-struck double to right field, Eric Romano stole third base and then scored on a wild pitch that bounced out of play. Later, Matt Fleishman clubbed a solo homer over the center-field fence, making it 5-0. “We didn’t hit that great, but we played good defense and our pitchers pitched great,” said Romano, a center fielder from Franklin Pierce. “We played good defense behind them and squeezed out the win.”

Eleven of North Fork’s strikeouts came from the top four batters in its order. Mike Czenszak, a pitcher who worked three innings of one-hit, scoreless relief for the Ospreys, pointed out that many of the players were adjusting to hitting with wooden bats after swinging metal bats for their college teams. If nothing else, the Tomcats showed that there are more ways to score than by just hitting. Patience and a good eye at the plate help.

“It’s early, but everybody comes from pretty respected programs and we think together we could beat anybody,” Romano said. “Everybody’s going to go out there and fight to win games.”