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Baseball: Tomcats lose fight for top seed

The Riverhead Tomcats will not be the top seed heading into the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League playoffs. Then again, the Tomcats are more concerned about being No. 1 after the playoffs are concluded.

The only game on the final day of the regular season — a makeup contest between the Tomcats and Southampton Breakers — might not have even been played Tuesday had it not been for the matter of determining first place and the No. 1 seed for the playoffs. Both the Tomcats and Westhampton Aviators had been tied atop the standings with 56 points apiece. With a tie or a win Tuesday against the Breakers, the Tomcats would have secured the top seed and with it, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

That didn’t happen. Breakers pitchers Joe Valentino and Robert Lewis saw to that, combining for a two-hitter to shut down the Tomcats’ offense, 6-2, in the seven-inning game.

Bye, bye, No. 1 seed.

The Aviators earned the top seed by virtue of their head-to-head advantage over the Tomcats.

“I’m not worried about the seeding,” Tomcats manager Bill Ianniciello said afterward. “I’m just trying to win a game and finish on a good note.”

And now the Tomcats (27-11-2) — 7-3-1 in their last 11 games — await a best-of-three semifinal series against the Sag Harbor Whalers (19-21) that starts Thursday in Calverton. Game 2 will be Friday in Sag Harbor. Should a third game be required, it will be played Saturday in Calverton. Bobby Vath (4-1), who ranks first in the league in ERA (1.44) and strikeouts (59), will start for the Tomcats Thursday, said Ianniciello.

Tomcats rightfielder Brian Morrell, a former Shoreham-Wading River High School standout who plays for Notre Dame, said being the No. 2 seed “kind of places us as an underdog in a way. We didn’t turn out to be the one seed, which kind of stinks, but overall, I guess we’re a great team. We got great pitchers and we could win any game at any time. We have everything, all our weapons, and we’re ready to go.”

Last year the Tomcats became the last HCBL club to attach a league championship to its résumé. Now they want to become the first team in the seven-team league’s 12-year history to win back-to-back titles.

Tomcats second baseman Thomas Papadopoulos said: “It’s definitely something we’re looking at. It’s never been done before and if we could be the first ones to do it, it would be great.”

They set themselves on the right course by setting a team record for the most regular-season wins, topping their mark of 24-13-3 last season.

“We did enough of everything,” Ianniciello said. “We pitched well. We hit enough. We ran the bases aggressively. The defense was good enough.”

On Tuesday, though, the Tomcats didn’t have enough offense. They managed only one hit and one run off Valentino (1-3), a 6-5 righthander who lasted 5 2/3 innings. That sole hit was a second-inning double by Papadopoulos.

The only other hit the Tomcats managed came in the seventh when Andrew Hernandez slugged an RBI single.

“They pitched a good game,” Ianniciello said. “I give them credit. We could have had better at-bats in spots. We’re banged up. We got major guys out of the lineup and we have other guys playing with injuries, which is not to make an excuse, but guys are giving us what they have, you know, so now we have to regroup, take a day off and come back.”

Although the Tomcats were officially the home team, the game was played at Southampton High School since Veterans Memorial Park in Calverton was made unplayable by heavy rain earlier in the day.

Gerard Sweeney and Mason Marquez knocked in two runs each for the Breakers (16-23-1), who also had two hits apiece from the top two batters in their lineup, Tony Zambito and Johnny Hipsman. Robbie Holmes walked three times.

The Tomcats had tied the score at 1-1 in the third inning. Isaiah Payton picked up the first of his three walks on the day before later scoring on a balk.

The Tomcats didn’t get a win, but they did crown a league batting champion. Jason Coules needed just one plate appearance to meet the minimum required 100 to qualify for the batting title. He entered the game as a pinch hitter in the seventh, popped up for an infield-fly rule out and finished with a .407 batting average.

Now, as the No. 2 seed, the Tomcats enter the postseason.

“Obviously we would like to be the one seed … but it doesn’t matter what road you take,” Papadopoulos said. “The best team is going to win.”

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Photo caption: Andrew Hernandez connects for one of Riverhead’s two hits in the game, an RBI single in the seventh inning. (Credit: George Faella)