Grace wasn’t always amazing all of the time, but she was pretty darn good when it really counted.
Called into the Suffolk County League III softball game as an emergency relief pitcher in the second inning, Grace Dillingham helped Riverhead overcome not one, but two deficits before shutting down Northport over the final two innings en route to an exciting and dramatic 8-7 win on Thursday afternoon.
“We showed heart at the end,” coach Jackie Zilnicki said. “I know this is what the team is capable of all season.”
Dillingham, a senior righthander pitched six innings to keep the Blue Waves’ playoff hopes afloat in a game that lasted just shy of 2 1/2 hours.
“I was pretty nervous going in,” Dillingham said.
And for good reason. It was only Dillingham’s second game as a pitcher in a year. She was the winning hurler in an 8-4 win over Central Islip three days earlier.
“Definitely coming in today down by two runs, there was a lot of pressure, but I believe in myself,” Dillingham said. “So, I think that’s why I got myself and my team through it.”
Dillingham got the call when starter Katie Lusogorski was pulled with an ailing hip after the first inning. Her warmup on the sidelines was interrupted because she had to hit in the top of the second.
“She did great,” said second baseman Emily Bazarewski, whose two-run single in the seventh inning flipped a 7-6 deficit to an 8-7 advantage. “It was definitely one of her best games pitching. I’m really proud of her.”
The Tigers had taken a 2-0 first-inning lead before the Blue Waves’ five-run rally in the fourth that was punctuated by shortstop Casey Dunbar’s two-run single.
But Northport pulled ahead, 7-5, with two runs in the bottom of the inning and another three in the fifth. The Tigers’ fifth was cut short when a sacrifice fly was turned into a double play when the third-base runner left early.
Arianna Lusogorski’s RBI single in the sixth brought Riverhead (6-6, 1-1) within one to set up a memorable final inning.
Leading off, Ashley Columbus surprised Northport (0-12, 0-4) with a two-strike bunt single.
“She’s fearless for doing that,” Zilnicki said.
“We thought that if she can do that, we have to really step up,” Dillingham said.
Allyson O’Kula walked and Brooke McKay reached safely when second baseman Sophia DeFalio decided to throw to third, but couldn’t get the lead runner. With the bases loaded, Bazarewski rapped a single to center on the first pitch, driving home two runs.
“I was just telling myself the first pitch that I liked I was going to swing hard,” Bazarewski said. “I just try to calm myself down and just tell myself, ‘See the ball, hit the ball and make it as simple as possible.’ ”
Dillingham was like a different pitcher over the final two innings, retiring six of seven batters. That included all three hitters in the seventh, two on infield popups and the third on a strikeout.
“She was nervous, but I’m like, ‘Listen, throw strikes and your defense will work for you’ and she focused in and she got it done,” Zilnicki said.
Added Dillingham: “Our coaches always say that we should leave it out on the field. So I dug deep and I just left my heart out on the field. When I was younger, my favorite thing was pressure and I just believe in myself and I know that I can do it. And I love to win, too.”
Riverhead will have to do some more winning if it wants to reach the playoffs. Since the Blue Waves play in the five-team League III, results in games against League I and II teams are counted toward the team’s postseason possibilities, Zilnicki said.
“We still have a shot,” she said. “We can make that happen. We just have to show up every day. Sometimes it takes us a while to get going in the game where we don’t score right away. So, we have to figure out how we can get going in the first inning.”
Especially if the Blue Waves continue to show the resiliency they displayed Thursday.
Photo caption: Grace Dillingham kept Riverhead’s playoff hopes alive with her emergency six innings of relief work against Northport. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)