WESTHAMPTON — After being briefly dislodged from second place in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League Hampton Division, the Riverhead Tomcats were back in their familiar slot.
Two-run homers by Nathan Pittman and Chase Fowler helped boost the Tomcats to a 7-1 win over the Westhampton Aviators and into a second-place tie with the Aviators on Saturday.
Both teams were left with 18-18 records with five games remaining in the regular season and the second seed in the division playoffs still very much up for grabs. They have beaten each other five times this season and will not meet again this year, unless it’s in the playoffs.
Pittman and Fowler both swatted their second home runs of the season, tying them with Matt Fleishman and Kevin Needham for the team lead.
Needham was hit on the back of his head by a pitch in the second inning and left the game at Hite Field in the fourth to go to a hospital to be checked out. Tomcats Manager Randy Caden said it was a precautionary measure.
Aviators pitcher John Soldinger, who brought his record to 3-3, coasted through the first four innings, during which he allowed only one hit. But he ran into trouble in the fifth, when the Tomcats picked up four runs from five hits and two errors. One of those hits was Pittman’s home run. A single by Jeff Welsh brought in the first run of the rally. With two out and runners on first and third, Eric Schlitter scored the fourth run on an errant toss off a grounder hit by Fowler.
The Tomcats’ starting pitcher, Joey Novak, allowed five hits over five innings in picking up his third win in four decisions. He struck out six and walked two in addition to hitting a batter.
Games between these two teams seem to have an edge to them, and this contest was no different. A pitch by reliever Steven Roche in the sixth flew behind Pittman’s head and hit the backstop. Was it a message pitch for Pittman’s earlier home run?
“Yeah, it was definitely a message pitch,” said Pittman, who took umbrage at it. After he popped up, Pittman had words for the Aviators, but nothing more came of the incident.
“We always have trouble with these guys,” Fowler said. “We don’t really like them that much.”
He added, “I think it gets the dugout going a little bit. It’s not bad, but at the same time we’re not out here to hurt anybody or anything.”
Aviators catcher Chris Griffin offered his take on the incident. “That’s just good, healthy, competitive baseball,” he said.
The Tomcats were the beneficiaries of another two-run homer in the eighth, this time by Fowler, who delivered a shot over the left-field fence, making the score 6-1.
In the ninth, the Tomcats twice loaded the bases without the benefit of a hit. Four walks that inning helped, though, and the Riverheaders tacked on an insurance run, courtesy of Tyler Brant’s sacrifice fly.
“I thought we played good all the way to the ninth inning,” Fowler said. “We made the plays in the infield and we backed up our pitchers.”
The Aviators scored first in the game, in the second after Kevin Heller and Griffin led off with singles. One out later, Heller slid home on a chopper to Novak, whose toss to catcher Mike Lonsdale wasn’t in time.
Four of the five Hampton Division teams will qualify for the playoffs. The division semifinals will be single-elimination games leading to the best-of-three division finals. The No. 2 seed in the division will receive a home game in the division semifinals, and that’s motivation enough for Griffin, who is the only returning player from Westhampton’s league champion team last year.
“We would really love to have a home game, especially for the first game because it’s one and done, and we feel more comfortable playing here than anywhere else, so getting that would be huge for us,” he said.
With a 12-5 loss to the Sag Harbor Whalers on Tuesday, the Tomcats dropped back into third place, one game behind the Aviators.