This pitching was way much more than OK. It was more like, oh Ks!
The Ks — as in shorthand for strikeouts — just kept coming Friday as Miller Place’s Tom Nealis and Shoreham-Wading River’s Gabe Romano mowed down one batter after another in a classic pitching duel. It was one of those enthralling high school baseball games in which every pitch has so much meaning.
“Every pitch counts,” said Romano.
The two senior righthanders did their thing for the duration of the Suffolk County Class A Tournament game at Kevin Williams Memorial Field in Shoreham. There were strikeouts aplenty.
Not too many of those, but there was lots of drama.
Tyler Widercrantz’ fourth-inning home run and a masterful performance by Romano made Shoreham a winner, giving the Wildcats a 1-0 triumph and sending them into the county finals for the second year in a row. Romano pitched his first career one-hitter with 13 strikeouts, one shy of his career high from his previous outing.
Top-seeded Shoreham, the League VII champion and defending county champion, will face either No. 2 Rocky Point or No. 3 Sayville in the best-of-three finals, scheduled to be played Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, if necessary.
“That means everything,” Widercrantz said. “Coming into the season, not everyone thought we were going to be that good. Losing 16 guys from last year, no one really gave us any recognition and we came out and proved people wrong and we’re back in the counties.”
Thanks in part to Romano’s strong right arm. Romano’s tale is an interesting one. Playing on last year’s team, packed with 16 seniors, he hardly got to pitch at all (one inning, to be exact). This year he’s the No. 1 pitcher on Shoreham’s talented starting staff.
“He’s put a lot of work in to get to this point, considering last year he … didn’t get many innings,” coach Kevin Willi said. “This year he better prepared himself. He had a better mentality coming in, more confidence, and confidence enough in a big game, trust in his stuff, throwing breaking balls with full counts.”
The 6-5 Romano (6-1) was in the zone, figuratively and literally. With four-seamers, two-seamers, a split-changeup and a curveball to draw from, he made life difficult for Miller Place’s batters.
The second batter of the game, Kevin Bowrosen, grounded a single through the left side of the infield after Gavin McAlonie drew a leadoff walk (one of only two issued by Romano). But No. 4 Miller Place (15-8) was held without a hit the rest of the way, and Romano found a way to get out of that first-inning jam. With two runners on and none out, Bowrosen was thrown out by catcher Ethan Baumack on a delayed steal attempt. Then Romano struck out Rob Morales and Steven Patterson.
Romano looked sharp and Baumack called all but three pitches, said Willi. Eight Panthers struck out, five twice each. Eight of Romano’s strikeouts came on called third strikes. He retired the side in order five times.
“He was sitting in the upper 80s,” Willi said. “He touched 90 [mph] a couple of times. He was really dealing today.”
Romano, who threw 108 pitches, said: “My arm feels really good and definitely whenever it’s a big game like this, the adrenaline is going. I don’t even think about throwing hard. It just comes out.”
Meanwhile, Shoreham’s batters had difficulties of their own against the hard-throwing Nealis. He fanned 11 without issuing a walk, allowing three hits. Seven Wildcats struck out at least once.
Willi, a former pitcher himself for Longwood High School and Stony Brook University, may not have liked that, but he appreciated the quality pitching. “I love the art of it,” he said.
Shoreham lost the services of its starting first baseman, Ryan Mullahey, in the first inning. Mullahey had reached base on an error. An attempted pickoff attempt by the catcher, Morales, sent Mullahey scurrying back to the bag where he knocked down first baseman Coleton Reitan. Mullahey was called out and he was ejected after having some words with the first-base umpire.
The break Shoreham was looking for came in the fourth. After Nealis fanned the first two batters, Widercrantz clubbed a first-pitch fastball over the leftfield fence. His fourth home run of the season was estimated to have traveled about 360 feet.
“I called it, too,” Romano said. “I said, ‘We need to turn on one right here, Widercrantz.’ The next pitch, that’s what he did.”
In the seventh, Miller Place hopes were raised when Bowrosen worked a full-count walk. But a strikeout, a flyout and an infield popup put an end to things.
“Pitchers duals are always fun to watch because it’s always a nail-biter and the defense has to be spot-on every single inning,” said Widercrantz.
Afterward, with a large ice bag taped to his right elbow, Romano spoke about his enhanced role this season. “It’s been good to be the number one guy,” he said. “My team trusts me and I just hope to do that again, every start, just keep getting wins.”
That would be more than OK for Shoreham.
Photo caption: Mike Smith touches gloves with his Shoreham-Wading River teammates before the Wildcats defeated Miller Place to return to the Suffolk County Class A finals for the second year in a row. (Credit: Bob Liepa)