Baseball: Tomcats see improvement in fulfilling season

Dan Popio of Riverhead, who tied for second in the HCBL with five home runs, sliding into second base while Sag Harbor second baseman Ted Shaw covers the bag. (Credit: Garret Meade)
Dan Popio of Riverhead, who tied for second in the HCBL with five home runs, sliding into second base while Sag Harbor second baseman Ted Shaw covers the bag. (Credit: Garret Meade)

In a season in which qualifying for the playoffs was almost akin to drawing straws, the Riverhead Tomcats drew the short one.

Tomcats manager Randy Caden and his players may appreciate what a tight finish to the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League regular season does for fan interest, but his team was left out in the cold, nonetheless. The Tomcats’ 20-20 record was a two-game improvement from last year, but still not enough to avoid missing the postseason for the second year in a row. They were officially eliminated Friday night when the Southampton Breakers beat the North Fork Ospreys. The Tomcats didn’t help their cause, either, dropping a doubleheader to the Westhampton Aviators earlier in the day.

Regardless, Caden said the Tomcats had a fulfilling season.

“I saw a lot of kids that might have struggled at the beginning come through at the end of the season, and that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “This is a developmental league. The kids that are going home, they had a good summer and I think it gives them a chance to show their coaches that they can play the game, maybe have a shot at getting on the starting team.”

Mike Donadio, Hunter Dolshun and Dan Popio have certainly showed they can play. The trio came close to bringing the Tomcats a consolation prize: a rare team triple crown. Donadio, who is in the running for the league’s most valuable player award, captured the batting title with a .378 average. (He was also fourth with 25 runs batted in). Dolshun tied for first with Mitchell McGeein of Southampton with 29 RBI. Popio tied with McGeein for second with five home runs.

(A Tomcats pitcher, Corbin Burnes, was second in the HCBL in strikeouts with 46.)

The three Tomcats sluggers all said playing in the HCBL and facing quality pitching helped their game.

“I definitely feel like I got better,” said Donadio, who may play in the famed Cape Cod League next summer. “I feel more relaxed and that’s what really helped me out hitting the ball well.”

Dolshun said: “I feel like I’m a better hitter. If you looked at my swing right now, you probably wouldn’t think it but I’m worrying about what I need to do to get stuff done. I definitely learned a lot toward the mental aspect of the game.”

Popio is an interesting study. Listed at 5 feet 8 inches tall, he said he is closer to 5-6 or 5-7. Surely, not your prototypical power hitter.

“I don’t look the part,” he said.

But he plays it.

Interestingly, Popio had been known more for doubles than home runs before this summer.

“I’m more of a doubles guy, but I got some extra carry on the ball this year,” he said. “That’s what I tried to work on, to get a little more backspin, and it seemed to work. That was one of the things I wanted to work on, and turn some of those doubles into home runs.”

At NCAA Division II Mercyhurst College (Pa.), Popio led the Lakers in doubles (15), RBI (41), runs (37), walks (32) and tied for the team lead in total bases (71). He didn’t hit any home runs.

Theoretically, batting in the HCBL, which uses wood bats as opposed to the aluminum ones more commonly used in college, should be more difficult. The wood bats don’t allow for many cheap hits.

“It’s a mental thing,” Popio said. “You know you’re using a wood bat, you can’t get away with much. You got to really be zoned in.”

Regardless of the score, the Tomcats never quit this season, Caden said, and that’s something he appreciates.

“I just hope they keep working hard … and they go into their college team with a positive mental attitude where they have confidence now that they can play baseball,” he said. “That’s a big thing.”

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