Baseball: Hepner fans 12, Ospreys roll over Tomcats

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Alec Sole, who had two of Riverhead's three hits against North Fork, shattering a bat on a swing.


Perhaps the first person to know that Justin Hepner was on Monday evening was the North Fork Ospreys’ pitching coach, Paul Speckenbach. Speckenbach let the Ospreys’ coach, Bill Ianniciello, know that Hepner’s breaking ball looked good during pregame warmups in the bullpen.

It wasn’t long after that when everyone else at Jean W. Cochran Park in Peconic, including the Riverhead Tomcats, saw for themselves just how sharp Hepner was.

Hepner threw a season-high 12 strikeouts over seven innings of two-hit ball while Ryan Solberg, Darrin Standish and Alex Perez knocked in two runs apiece for the Ospreys in their 6-1 win in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League game.

“I was hitting all my spots, and I just kind of knew from the get-go that it would be a solid game,” Hepner said. “I felt really good.”

One could tell. Two of Hepner’s strikeouts came with batters looking at the third strike, and five of them came on a dropped third strike in which catcher Tim Panetta either had to throw to first baseman Dan Kerr or tag the batter out himself. It was quite a performance by the junior right-hander from San Diego State.

“Excellent game,” Ianniciello said. “Justin’s been outstanding all along.”

Hepner started this past college season as a closer for San Diego State. Playing for former major leaguer and National Baseball Hall of Fame member Tony Gwynn, he had the most saves (seven) and the lowest earned run average on the team (2.94) to go with a 5-3 record. He also showed a knack for chalking up strikeouts. He rang up 50 of them in the 52 innings he pitched for the Aztecs.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | North Fork pitcher Justin Hepner registered 12 strikeouts over seven innings of two-hit ball against Riverhead.

With Monday’s result, Hepner brought his summer record to 2-1 and his earned run average to 2.03. He has 34 strikeouts (against five walks) over 17 2/3 innings.

Strikeouts involve a lot more work for a pitcher (Hepner threw 114 pitches on Monday), but it’s well worth it to him.

“I love knowing that I struck someone out,” he said. “Give them three pitches and they didn’t succeed on any of them; it’s a great feeling.”

Standish, the Ospreys third baseman, has been impressed by what he has seen from Hepner. “He’s good,” the former Southold High School player said. “He’s one of the better pitchers that I’ve seen in this league so far.”

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Hepner, who allowed three walks, relied on his 12-to-6 curveball and slider to get out of trouble, which didn’t happen often.

Hepner said he is fine-tuning his changeup this summer. It’s ironic that he threw only one changeup on Monday, and that was for a ball. “I only threw one today,” he said, “but my changeup, I want to get good control of that, be able to throw it any count I want, whenever I want.”

As it was, the Tomcats had a tough enough time dealing with the offerings from Hepner.

All of the runs scored by the Ospreys (7-3), who hold first place in the Hampton Division, came on two-run hits.

North Fork took a 2-0 lead in the second inning when Solberg ripped a two-run single up the middle. The two batters before him, Kerr and Panetta, had walked and doubled, respectively. Solberg went 3 for 3, scored two runs, walked and stole a base.

In the fourth, singles by Panetta and Solberg (the latter on a bunt), set up a two-out, two-run double that Standish socked off the left-field fence for a 4-1 lead.

The game’s last two runs came in the sixth. Solberg walked, Vinny Citro reached base on an error, and Perez singled them both in.

The Tomcats (5-4) managed only three hits, and two of them came off Alec Sole’s bat. One of those hits, a double, scored Josh Smith in the third for Riverhead’s only run.

For the Ospreys, it was an impressive way to conclude the first quarter of their season.

“We had some timely hits tonight,” Ianniciello said. Reliever “Jared [Weed] did a good job closing it out. We caught the ball in the field. It’s all good stuff.”

Weed pitched the final two innings, allowing one hit and one walk, with three strikeouts. That had to feel good to him.

Hepner knows what it’s like when just about everything is working for a pitcher. He said, “It’s a great feeling.”

GIANTS DRAFT FORMER OSPREY For the second straight year, former North Fork Ospreys standout Andrew Cain (UNC-Wilmington) heard his name called in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. This time it was the San Francisco Giants who recently picked up the 6-foot-6 first baseman/outfielder, doing so in the 24th round. Cain, who played for the Ospreys in 2009, hit .322 with 12 homers and 42 runs batted in as a senior, earning himself first team All-Colonial Athletic Association accolades. The Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League, which has sent players like Frank Viola, Craig Biggio, Jamie Moyer and 2011 National League All-Star Ryan Vogelsong to the big leagues over the years, had 21 of its alumni selected in 2012.

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