The Riverhead Tomcats are returning to the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League championship series. There’s no catch, but there was The Catch.
A phenomenal diving catch by centerfielder Jason Coules — along with clutch play by the Tomcats in general — makes it possible for Riverhead to continue the defense of its title.
The Tomcats scored twice in the bottom of the eighth inning (without the benefit of a hit) Saturday to snap a tie and beat the Sag Harbor Whalers, 6-4, for a second straight year in a third game of a semifinal series. That earned the Tomcats, the last HCBL club to win its first title, to continue its pursuit of becoming the first team in league history to win back-to-back crowns. The Tomcats will face the Westhampton Aviators in the first game of the best-of-three finals Monday in Westhampton. The Aviators advanced to the championship series for the fourth time in five years by sweeping the Southampton Breakers in two games.
“That’s what you want to do,” Tomcats manager Bill Ianniciello said after the game at Veterans Memorial Park in Calverton. “You want to get there. These guys played hard all season, so that’s what we’re playing for. Guys want to keep playing.”
The Tomcats never trailed, but saw the Whalers even the score at 4-4 in the eighth. Peter Marren swatted a first-pitch single and the next pitch went for a bunt single by River Town, landing between relief pitcher Joseph Murphy and second baseman Robert Gallagher. One out later, Andrew Bates bounced a run-scoring hit past the sprawling Gallagher. With two runners in scoring position, Murphy proceeded to strike out the next two batters, preventing further damage.
The first word that Ianniciello used to describe his team’s play was “resourceful.” That’s precisely what the Tomcats were in the bottom of the eighth. The first batter, Bryce Wallace, was hit on the back by a pitch and then Brian Morrell walked. A sacrifice bunt by Thomas Papadopoulos resulted in the Whalers’ sixth error of the game, allowing the go-ahead run to come in. Isaiah Payton then followed with a sacrifice fly for a two-run margin.
“We did some things,” Ianniciello said. “You know, you execute a bunt, you get a ball in play with two strikes. Those are the things that win and lose games.”
Murphy retired the side in order in the ninth, with the aid of two of his seven strikeouts. He picked up the win with his 2 2/3 innings of work.
“He’s been unbelievable all season,” said Ianniciello.
Murphy relieved Nick DeSalvo, who allowed three runs (two earned) and seven hits over 6 1/3 innings.
RBI singles by Louis Antos and Wallace spotted the Tomcats a 2-0 lead in the first. In the third, Gallagher scored on a throwing error. The Tomcats took a 4-2 lead in the sixth when Morrell knocked a hanging curveball for a lined RBI single past third baseman Peter Giombetti.
“Guys dug deep, did a lot of different things to win the game,” Ianniciello said. “It wasn’t any one thing.”
True enough, but there was that remarkable catch by Coules. Coules, the batting champion who had a .407 average during the regular season, faced a rough view from centerfield, staring into an unflinching, blinding sun when Matt Woods made contact with runners on first and second in the third. Plus, Coules had a lot of ground to cover as he raced to his right in left-centerfield.
“Yeah, that was a distance,” he said. “You always sprint for the ball and you hope. You can read it right before it lands, if you’re going to dive or you just got to pull up.”
Coules dove — and caught the ball in spectacular fashion, probably saving two runs.
“That saved the game,” said Wallace.
Ianniciello, who called Coules the best player in the league, said: “That was an extraordinary catch. I don’t remember him making a better catch this year.”
Coules said he felt pain in his left leg upon the hard landing, but felt good at the same time. What was going through his mind after making that grab?
He said: “I was like, ‘Wow! That was a sick catch.’ ”
How did it rate among his catches as a centerfielder?
“I made some plays this year that were pretty nice,” he said, “but yeah, that was the best one.”
Photo caption: Riverhead centerfielder Jason Coules made the play of the game, a spectacular diving catch, that helped the defending league champion Tomcats advance to the championship series for a second straight year. (Credit: Bob Liepa)