The Tomcats are the top cats.
No longer can the Riverhead Tomcats be called the only one of the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League’s seven active teams to have never won a league championship. Instead, just call them league champions.
The third time was the charm for the Tomcats in their third league championship series. Eduardo Malinowski drove in three runs, Chris Stefl homered and Casey Aubin pitched six innings of scoreless, one-hit ball as the Tomcats turned in a convincing Game 3 performance against the defending champion Long Island Road Warriors Wednesday. After closer Beau Keathley induced Marcos Perivolaris of Mattituck to pop up, the ball settled into the glove of Malinowski, the second baseman, and it was over. The Tomcats were 8-4 winners and, more importantly, league champions for the first time in their 10-year history.
Gloves flew and then a dogpile formed on the side of the pitcher’s mound at Veterans Memorial Park in Calverton. A couple of Tomcats snuck up behind general manager Patti Moore-White and dumped a bucket of water over her head in celebration.
“This group has been through a lot,” said the Tomcats’ rookie coach, John Galanoudis, referring to injuries and off-the-field issues. “They’ve faced a ton of adversity, things not going our way. We’ve had to grind it out the entire summer.”
And what a summer it has been. The Tomcats finished the regular season in first place (one point ahead of the Road Warriors) for the first time, putting up a 24-13-3 record. They entered the playoffs on a seven-game win streak, having won nine of 10 games. And then they went 4-2 in the playoffs.
What was their secret?
Staying loose and having fun.
“We decided to start playing carefree because we were stressing about some stuff that was going on on the side, and that’s when we were getting pulled apart and we lost a couple of games that we shouldn’t have lost,” Malinowski said. “We started playing stress-free baseball and carefree baseball, and that’s when we started stringing wins together.”
The Tomcats, oozing with confidence, looked loose Wednesday. It showed in their offense. Right off the bat they hit well, as is their custom. They looked locked in and led, 3-0, after one inning, stretching that to 8-0 by the seventh.
“I knew if we just pitched decently we were going to win because we have the bats,” said Stefl, the designated hitter whose opposite-field homer to lead off the seventh made it 8-0.
Two innings earlier, Josh Greene had made it 7-0 by banging a two-run single past third baseman Ben McNeill.
Malinowski (six RBIs in the series) and Stefl (seven hits in the three games) were named the championship series co-MVPs.
Aubin, normally a reliever, shut the Road Warriors down through the first six innings. He had seven strikeouts, walked two and hit a batter. That wasn’t all, though. Aubin made one of the plays of the year in the fifth when he used lightning quick reflexes to nab a line drive hit back at him before throwing to first base to complete a double play.
“Once I saw that, I knew this game was on our side,” said Stefl.
Aubin’s pitch count was 91 when the ball was handed over to Joe Murphy before Keathley, the sidearmer, worked the final 1 2/3 innings.
The second-year Road Warriors, who were trying to become the first HCBL club to win back-to-back titles, raised an eyebrow or two when they struck for four runs in the eighth. Matt Stepnoski of Southold singled in a run, another scored on an Eric Roubal groundout and then two more came in on a Thomas Colombo single.
Long Island put two runners on base in the ninth through walks, but Keathley left them there.
Malinowski, who stole three bases, described the Tomcats’ play as “scrappy. We had the stolen bags. We had timely hitting. We had the pitching today. Everybody did their job. We came out on top.”
That’s exactly where this team that doesn’t doubt itself expected to finish.
“They’re a special group,” Galanoudis said. “I think it got to a point where guys showed up at the ballpark and expected to win.”
This is the second championship Stefl has been a part of this year. His St. John’s team won the Big East championship. Of course, that didn’t detract from his desire to add another title to his résumé.
“You always want to win,” he said. “You never want to lose.”
That’s especially true for these cool cats.
Photo caption: The Riverhead Tomcats celebrate the first league championship in their 10-year history. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)