Baseball: Tomcats trio is back for an encore

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Eric Romano, shown making contact, is one of Riverhead's three returning players.

When it came to plans for the summer, at least three college baseball players were thinking the same thing: They wanted to return to Riverhead.

Eric Romano, Eric Schlitter and Jeff Welsh were happy to come back to the Riverhead Tomcats for a second season in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League, and the Tomcats are apparently happy to have them back. They are the only three returning players from last year’s team, which took the North Fork Ospreys to three games in the Hampton Division finals. Aside from their experience and skills, they undoubtedly made the Tomcats’ transition to the new season smoother.

“I think with three returning guys, we help to break the ice,” said Schlitter, a junior third baseman for Bridgeport who had a team-leading .379 batting average for the Tomcats through Monday. “The team got real close real quick.”

The players said the good experience they had last summer with Coach Randy Caden and the community was a positive influence.

“I had a good experience last year,” Romano, a sophomore center fielder for Franklin Pierce University (N.H.), said. “I had a good time on the field, Coach Caden was great, and my host family was great. When I had a chance to come back, I didn’t think twice.”

Welsh, a sophomore shortstop for SUNY/Albany, had two words when he was asked if wanted to play in the league again: “Of course.”

For his part, Caden could be grateful he was dealing with known quantities in the three players. “I knew they were good ballplayers,” he said. “I knew I didn’t have to worry about certain positions, and they’re good guys.”

While the threesome provides the Tomcats with some stability, they also find themselves in a much more comfortable situation, knowing what to expect from their coach and surroundings.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead pitcher Aaron Slegers retired the game's first 13 batters.

Caden and his three returning players all agree that the team is stronger than it was last year, even if the Tomcats hit a bit of a stumbling block recently. They had dropped three games in row before almost losing a fourth on Monday. After building leads of 4-0 and 6-2 and seeing their starting pitcher, Aaron Slegers, retire the first 13 batters, the Tomcats watched uneasily as the Westhampton Aviators tied the score at 6-6 when Mike Rosenfeld led off the top of the eighth inning with his first home run of the season.

But the Tomcats prevailed, 7-6, when Keith Herring scored from third base on a wild pitch by Brandon Kuter with two out in the ninth. Herring had drawn a one-out walk, moved to second base on a pickoff attempt gone wrong, and then to third on a groundout.

The Tomcats pulled their record to 6-6 while the Aviators dropped to 7-5.

It wasn’t the cleanest-played game. The Aviators had as many errors (five) as hits, and there were nine errors altogether.

Then again, the Tomcats weren’t about to quibble about style points. The mark in the win column is what counted for them.

Caden said, “We had the game and we gave it away, and we gave the last two games away, so it was big that we won, no matter how we won.”

The Tomcats built a 4-0 lead by the third inning as Zach Mathieu (single), Patrick Jones (fielder’s choice), Romano (single) and Mathieu again (ground-rule double) each knocked in a run. Mathieu went 3 for 5 with a pair of doubles and two runs batted in.

Meanwhile, Slegers was cruising. He did not allow a base runner until Jordan Patterson placed a bunt single with one out in the fifth. He was the first of four straight Aviators to reach base. One of those four was Ray Ortega, who socked a two-run homer, his second of the summer.

In the bottom of the fifth, Romano scored on a balk and Jones singled in a run, making it 6-2.

The Aviators pulled to within 6-5 in the sixth when the Tomcats made three errors. Dan Sorine brought in the first of those runs on a groundout, Kyle Lombardo came home on a wild pitch, and Patterson scored on an error.

Slegers was relieved shortly after that. Over five and two-third innings, he gave up four hits, one walk, two earned runs and struck out five.

“We were on a three-game skid and, truthfully, we didn’t play well enough to win the game,” Welsh said. “We pulled it out. We have a lot to work on for the next 30 games.”

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