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Baseball: Fentress gets his swing up to speed

Riverhead Tomcats centerfielder Kiambu Fentress 071216

For a player who relies so much on his legs, Kiambu Fentress must have felt as if his legs had been taken out from under him.

The Nashville, Tennessee, native had suffered a double blow with a torn labrum in his left shoulder and a torn meniscus in left knee. Both injuries cost him his high school senior season at The Ensworth School.

“It was devastating,” he said.

Fortunately for Fentress, he underwent successful surgeries. Following a three-week stay at Western Kentucky University and then at a prep school in Connecticut, he listened to the advice of his high school coach and called Vanderbilt University coach Tim Corbin. Vanderbilt, which Fentress described as his “dream school,” started recruiting him his sophomore year and retained interest in him even through the injuries.

Fentress red-shirted his freshman year at Vanderbilt and is spending the summer with the Riverhead Tomcats in the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League in preparation for his sophomore season with the Commodores. Considering he hadn’t played competitive ball in a couple of years and hadn’t seen live pitching in about four months before debuting with the Tomcats, a slow start was expected. Fentress managed only three hits from his first 24 at-bats.

“I felt like a fool at the plate,” he said.

But as Fentress noted, “It’s baseball; you can’t just pick it up like that.”

The speedy Fentress’ confidence came back, fittingly, with the help of his legs. It was a slow dribbler past the pitcher that he ran out for an infield single, and just like that, his confidence was back.

Fentress’ speed is his best weapon. He has been timed running 60 yards in 6.29 seconds, said Tomcats manager Alex Nikolic.

“I really just try to put the ball on the ground, actually,” he said. “There’s no speed in the air.”

A player who can turn a single into a triple, Fentress has found his game. He entered the All-Star break with a .292 batting average, 18 stolen bases and 17 runs scored in 22 games, and was selected to this past Monday night’s All-Star Game, going 0-for-2.

Fentress has played centerfield for the Tomcats, but he said he can handle any outfield position. Asked how good a defensive player Fentress is, Nikolic called him “the best I’ve seen. He’s incredible.”

At the plate, Nikolic said Fentress wreaks havoc. “Who knows where he’s going to be in a couple of years?” said the manager.

How far does Fentress want to take his talents?

“To the top,” he said. “That’s why you play baseball.”

The Ping dynasty

Westhampton Aviators second baseman Aaron Ping was on the verge of setting a club single-season record or two, but the Tomcats put those plans on hold in their 3-2 victory last Thursday.

Ping went 0-for-4 against the Tomcats and finished the game one home run and one RBI away from separating himself from Kevin Heller and Mark Osis. Ping and Heller shared Westhampton’s marks of 11 homers in a season. Meanwhile, Ping, Heller and Osis were all even with 30 RBIs.

Ping has since grabbed both club records for his own. He is making a run at the Triple Crown. At the All-Star break, he held the HCBL lead in homers (12) and RBIs (33) while ranking second in batting average (.349).

That’s not to say Ping didn’t have his chances last Thursday. With runners at the corners in the first inning, he bounced into a fielder’s choice for the third out. He flied to right in the third. With two runners on in the seventh, and history beckoning, he grounded out to the pitcher. In the ninth he led off by striking out on three pitches.

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Photo caption: Kiambu Fentress, playing competitive baseball after a break of two years, has his timing back to go with his speed. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk, file)