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Baseball: Riverhead has no room for error

It wasn’t as if things were going well for the Riverhead High School baseball team, but at the same time, they weren’t going too badly. That is, until the fifth inning.

It was in the fifth when the wheels started flying off. Smithtown West struck for 13 runs in the fifth and sixth innings combined to turn a 3-1 Suffolk County League III game into a 16-4 laugher that was stopped after six innings because of the mercy rule Tuesday at the Pulaski Sports Complex in Riverhead.

The Blue Waves weren’t laughing.

Both teams entered the game with identical records and fading playoff prospects. The loss left Riverhead (2-10, 2-10) needing to sweep its final eight regular-season games in order to sneak into the postseason. Not very likely, especially the way the team has been playing.

“We just got to come out here and scrap, inning by inning, and try and get wins,” catcher Chris Jehle said. “We can’t lose any more. It’s going to be tough.”

Short of a minor miracle, Riverhead will miss the playoffs for a third straight year. Last season the Blue Waves showed significant improvement from the previous year, going 8-12 and falling one win shy of a playoff spot. The sense was that the team would take pivotal steps forward, but that hasn’t happened.

“I really thought we would have started off better as a team,” Jehle said. “We looked good in the workouts before the season started. So 2 and 10 is really surprising to me and most of the guys on the team.”

Riverhead coach Rob Maccone is puzzled. “It’s just not where we wanted to be,” he said. “It’s tough to be 2 and 10. We tried different options and nothing seems to work so far. Last year we executed and won the close games and didn’t have the bad innings like we had today in the fifth and the sixth. I don’t know what it is.”

No thanks to two first-inning errors, Riverhead’s starting pitcher, D.J. Chandler, escaped a major jam in the first when Smithtown West (3-9, 3-9) loaded the bases with none out. Chandler struck out two batters looking at third strikes and induced a groundout to end the threat.

Instead of being energized by that, though, Riverhead fell into a 3-0 hole in the third, thanks to an RBI infield single by Chris Pratt (2-for-5, two runs, two RBIs) and a two-run double that Joe Pileski (3-for-4, two runs, three RBIs) banged into centerfield.

Riverhead looked to be back in the game when Jehle (2-for-3, RBI, stolen base), who had slid in head first for a triple, scored on a Tommy Powers grounder in the third.

But that didn’t last too long. Smithtown West blew the game open with a seven-run fifth and a six-run sixth. The Bulls had 10 of their 12 hits in those two innings, which also featured three Riverhead errors.

“It’s a 3-1 ballgame going into the fifth, then all of a sudden we’re down by double digits,” Maccone said. “It’s tough.”

Christian Amoruso had all five of his RBIs during those two innings, including an in-the-park grand slam that skipped past the rightfielder in the sixth, making it 16-1. Brian Delaney stroked a two-run single an inning earlier.

“For every game it’s always been that one inning where we let up about four or five runs and then it goes downhill,” Jehle said. “We can’t fight back.”

Smithtown West starter Alex Gross allowed five hits and two walks over five innings. He had six strikeouts.

One of Riverhead’s bright spots this season has been Powers, a senior centerfielder who is hitting over .300 this year after being a .240 hitter in 2017.

“He’s hitting the ball hard the whole time,” Maccone said. “He’s getting quality at-bats all the time, and defensively, he’s playing very well for us. He’s a big plus for us this year.”

Powers didn’t have a hit, but he had two RBIs Tuesday.

“He’s probably one of the only guys on the team who’s hitting better than last year,” Jehle said. “He’s something else. He just sees the ball a lot better than a lot of guys on the team. I’m happy for him.”

As for Riverhead’s feelings about this season, that’s another story. Powers needed only two words to describe this campaign: “A disappointment.”

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Photo caption: Riverhead coach Rob Maccone addressing his players before their 16-4 loss to Smithtown West in six innings. (Credit: Bob Liepa)