Mike Amendola noticed an interesting change in attitude in his Riverhead Tomcats. During the dog days of the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League season, the coach said, his players looked forward to returning home after a long, grueling stretch of baseball. And then, a funny thing happened: the playoffs.
Suddenly, the Tomcats were in no hurry to go home.
“I think we all realized we didn’t want to leave and we wanted to keep it going,” said shortstop Jackson Olson.
A switch flipped Thursday when the playoffs began with the opener to their semifinal series against the defending champion Westhampton Aviators. The Aviators pulled out a wild 20-16 win on their home field.
The series then went from slugfest to pitching duel Friday as Westhampton squeezed out a 2-1 triumph at Veterans Memorial Park in Calverton to sweep the series and return to the finals. They will face either the Long Island Road Warriors or North Fork Ospreys for the title in a best-of-three series starting Monday in Westhampton.
The end had come for the Tomcats.
“Ah, it’s baseball,” Tomcats rightfielder George Bell Jr. said. “You don’t know what to say.”
While Westhampton’s T.J. Harmon and Riverhead’s Darren Williams matched their pitching skills, the Aviators carved a 2-0 lead for themselves. With two outs in the second, Joe Curcio (3-for-3) singled and Chaney Dodge did the same, breaking his bat in the process. An errant throw after Dodge’s hit to rightfield enabled Curcio to cross home plate. Westhampton doubled its lead in the fourth with another two-out hit, this one a roped double down the leftfield line, bringing home A.J. Montoya.
“They don’t have a weak spot in their lineup,” said Olson, who went 3-for-4. “We knew that coming in. We knew that every pitch was going to be important.”
The Tomcats showed fight to the end, though, posing a threat in the ninth and making reliever Richard Jackson III sweat it out. With one out, the Tomcats strung together successive singles by Bell, Olson and Jacob Abbott for their only run. Jackson, though, was able to get Preston Pilat to bounce into a fielder’s choice before fanning Duncan Hewitt to end it.
“We hung right in there with them and it was awesome,” Amendola said. “It was an awesome experience.”
The season ended a little earlier for Amendola. Riverhead’s new coach was ejected in the seventh inning for arguing a double-play call against his team. That left pitching coach J.J. Bessell in charge of things the rest of the way.
Amendola wasn’t the only Tomcat ejected. Later in the inning, Nick Arnold was tossed from the bench for words he had after the home-plate umpire ruled that Abbott not be awarded first base after being hit by a pitch, contending that Abbott had walked into the pitch.
Harmon threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out 10 and allowing three hits. He did not have a walk. Of his 99 pitches, 70 were strikes.
Williams also lasted 6 2/3 innings, giving up five hits. He registered seven strikeouts and two walks.
“The two best pitchers on both teams went at it and they did what they were supposed to do,” said Amendola.
Afterward, while the Aviators celebrated, the Tomcats consoled and hugged each other. Shortly after, they were smiling and joking.
The Tomcats went 21-18-2 during the regular season, their most wins in a season since 2012, according to league statistician Greg Diener.
“I think it went fast,” Bell said of the season. “I wish we had one more month.”
“It’s one of the best summers of my life,” he continued. “I made some friends here. I’m going to keep in touch with them for the rest of my life.”
Furlong Award Goes to Tomcat. HCBL president Henry Bramwell presented the first Bob Furlong Award to Tomcats infielder Jacob Abbott in a pregame ceremony. The award, named after the former Tomcats general manager who died in February, goes to the HCBL player who best exemplifies the highest level of integrity, teamwork and leadership, on and off the field. Tomcats general manager Patti White and Furlong’s widow, Shirley, took part in the ceremony.
Photo caption: The Riverhead Tomcats during the playing of the national anthem before their final game of the season. (Credit: Bob Liepa)