Bill Ianniciello didn’t do anything like mistakenly walk into the wrong dugout or give signs to the other team, but the Riverhead Tomcats’ new manager acknowledged that going up against his former club was a different experience.
“How about that?” he said after facing the North Fork Ospreys for the first time Tuesday. “It’s a little different. It’s a little strange. It would have felt a little stranger if it was at their park, I think, because I’ve been there for a bunch of years, but it’s a baseball game. You’re just trying to win it.”
And the Tomcats did.
The defending Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League champions won one for the skipper. Aided by four RBIs from their leadoff batter, Robert Gallagher, the Tomcats scored 10 runs over the final three innings to win the eight-inning game by the mercy rule, 11-1, at Veterans Memorial Park in Calverton.
“I think the Tomcats are hot,” Gallagher said. “We have really good pitching and our offense is coming along really nicely. I think we’re a force to be reckoned with right now.”
Ianniciello managed the Ospreys for seven seasons, taking them to the playoffs six times and winning the league championship in 2013. Asked about his transition to a new team, he joked about the shorter commute from his Dix Hills home.
“It’s baseball,” he said, adding: “It’s a good group of guys. I’m focused on the players. It’s not about what field or what team. I’m happy to be here.”
And Ianniciello sounded delighted with what he’s seeing from this new group of Tomcats, who have won three of their first four games.
“We’re doing a lot of good things,” he said. “First week, we’re still getting to learn guys and get familiar with their skills. I like the vibe. The players are into the games. They’re executing things, pulling for each other, focused on baseball.”
Tuesday’s game began as a pitching duel between North Fork’s Jared Bellissimo and Riverhead’s Bobby Vath. Things unraveled for the Ospreys in the sixth when the Tomcats snapped a 1-1 tie, with Bryce Willits driving an RBI double and Bryce Wallace doubling in two more runs.
Another three-run rally followed in the seventh. Gallagher (3-for-4, two runs, stolen base) swatted a two-run single and David Kale rang an RBI single for a 7-1 lead.
(A double that Gallagher jacked into the left-centerfield gap brought in Riverhead’s first run in the third).
“He’s a beast,” Vath said of Gallagher. “I love him. He scored that first run and then everything just exploded after that.”
Ianniciello said Gallagher, a second baseman from Massachusetts Lowell, has “been solid. He’s been hitting in the leadoff spot and he’s been doing everything. He’s getting on base. He’s knocking in some runs. He’s stealing bases.”
The league’s 10-run mercy rule came into effect in the eighth. In successive plays, Brian Craven was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, Gallagher produced a sacrifice fly and former Shoreham-Wading River player Nicholas Manesis and Craven both scored on an error, bringing the game to an early end.
The Ospreys, losers of their first four games, went in front in the first. After Javier Vaz’s leadoff double shot off first baseman Wallace, former Mattituck High School standout Joe Tardif knocked an RBI single.
Tardif, who hit a grand slam in his first at-bat on Opening Day, was tied with two others for the league lead in RBIs (six) and ranked fifth in batting average, going 6-for-15 (.400) through Tuesday.
Vath allowed four hits and three walks with eight strikeouts before he was pulled after throwing 88 pitches through 4 2/3 innings. Matthew Krutsch (1-0, 0.00 ERA) picked up the win in 2 1/3 innings of one-hit relief. Landon Smith pitched a hitless inning.
Last year Riverhead became the last HCBL team to pick up its first league title. Now the question is: Can the last team to win a league title become the first team to win back-to-back league championships?
“We’ll be the first,” Gallagher promised. “We’re going to do it.”
Of course, that would suit Ianniciello just fine. Meanwhile, a win over his old team wasn’t bad, either.
“This is a big one for him,” Gallagher said. “We had to win for him today. I’m happy we did.”
Photo caption: New Riverhead Tomcats manager Bill Ianniciello with his players after delivering the lineup card to home plate before Tuesday’s game against North Fork. (Credit: Bob Liepa)