Needham’s 9th-inning blast lifts Tomcats

Riverhead third baseman Eric Schlitter and Blake Slattery of Westhampton were enveloped in a cloud of dust when Slattery stole third base in the second inning.

WESTHAMPTON — Kevin Needham knew immediately that something good was going to happen. He knew that, he said, because he couldn’t feel anything when his bat made contact with the ball.

“Those are the ones that are the best,” he said.

Needham sure did feel something, though, moments later when his Riverhead Tomcats teammates pounded on him in celebration after he crossed home plate following his home run in the top of the ninth inning. That shot gave the Tomcats a 5-4 triumph over the defending Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League champion Westhampton Aviators in a Hampton Division semifinal on Monday. It also sent the Tomcats into the best-of-three division finals, which started Tuesday against the North Fork Ospreys in Peconic.

Perhaps not surprisingly for two teams that had split their 10 regular-season games against each other, the score was tied at 4-4 going into the ninth inning. Relief pitcher D. J. Voisine entered the game in the ninth, and the first pitch he threw, an inside fastball, was clocked by Needham for a home run over right field. It was the fifth home run of the game at hitter-friendly Hite Field. “I was looking fastball in and I got it,” said Needham.

Needham, a designated hitter batting seventh in the order, was unfortunate not to have two home runs on the day. He was robbed earlier in the game by Aviators right fielder Kevin Heller, who himself belted two homers as part of his three-hit game.

Michael Zaccardo retired all six batters he faced — two on strikeouts — to pick up the win. He relieved the Tomcats’ ace, Dom Macaluso, who exited the game after seven innings.

Tomcats left fielder Matt Fleishman spoke about Needham’s timely home run. “In games like this, when somebody steps up like that in latter innings, the eighth or ninth inning, it decides the ballgame,” he said. “Zaccardo has been solid all year, and once [Needham] hit it, we knew the game was over.”

The game was not without controversy. In the fourth inning, Isaac Rodriguez laced a two-run double down the left-field line for the Tomcats. Then, with runners on second and third, a pitch by Donnie Hart appeared to hit Needham, who trotted to first base. (Asked after the game if the pitch hit him, Needham replied coyly, “I’m not going to say anything.”)

The pitch never made it to the catcher, Ramon Ortega, and Eric Romano ran home from third on the play. After the umpires conferred, Needham was called back to the batter’s box. The home-plate umpire, Rich Maggio, ruled that the ball did not hit Needham. The play was scored as a wild pitch, and Romano’s run counted. The Tomcats got a run, if not a base, and led by 4-2.

The controversy had repercussions. It led to the loss of the Aviators’ starting pitcher, Hart. Hart apparently said something in the dugout after the half-inning that the umpire heard, and the pitcher was ejected, forcing the Aviators to bring Matt Longfield in.

“He got hit by the pitch, and it’s really disappointing because that could be the difference in the game, and then my starting pitcher gets thrown out of the game,” Aviators Manager Jeff Quiros said. “It’s disgusting how that happened. He wasn’t even talking to the umpire.”

Glen Johnson uncorked a home run in the seventh for the Aviators, a solo shot. Two batters later, Heller followed that up with his second homer of the game, a moonshot into the woods beyond left field, tying the score at 4-4.

The Tomcats hit one home run in the second and nearly had a second the same inning. Fleishman led off the inning by juicing a 1-0 pitch well over the left-field fence. Later in the inning, Needham drove a ball high and deep that would have been a solo homer if not for Heller, who caught the ball before tumbling over the fence.

But the Tomcats found themselves in the hole in the fourth when Heller went deep to put the Aviators ahead, 2-1. Heller’s two-run blast travelled an estimated 340 feet, landing close to a basketball court beyond the right-center-field fence.

“It’s just what you expected with Westhampton and Riverhead,” Heller said. “We knew it was going to be tight. We knew it was going to be close. You know, it’s funny, with Riverhead, it’s always a tied game in the ninth, and then something crazy happens.”

Quiros, whose team had won eight of its previous 10 games, said: “Every game we play with them is like this. They got the better of us today. They were the better team today, and they’re moving on.”