The top two Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League teams play home games on fields that couldn’t be much more different. The second-seeded defending champion Riverhead Tomcats call the spacious field at Veterans Memorial Park in Calverton — where home runs are a relative rarity — home.
Meanwhile, the No. 1 Westhampton Aviators seem well-suited to their home park, Aviator Field, a home-run haven.
Aviator Field is perhaps the most home-run friendly park in the league, an ideal setting for the Aviators’ hitting talents. That firepower was on display Monday when the Aviators turned on the jets and shot down the Tomcats, 10-4, in Game 1 of the championship series. Three of the game’s four homes runs came off Westhampton bats, including two by Landon Gray, who also walked three times. Eric Callahan drove in five runs with the aid of a grand slam for the Aviators, who could claim their fourth league title and first since 2016 if they take Game 2 Tuesday in Calverton.
“It’s a tough team to pitch to, and especially on a field like this, it makes it even tougher,” said Coletan Reitan, who pitched 5 1/3 innings of relief for the Tomcats, allowing three runs and four hits. “They like to make that solid contact and just put it right over.”
Some things shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. Year in, year out, the Aviators seem to continually produce good offense. This summer has been no exception. They led the league with a .309 team batting average during the regular season, to go with 37 homers and 278 RBIs in 40 games. The Tomcats, by comparison, had the second-highest average at .280 with 17 homers and 208 RBIs.
The Aviators swept their semifinal series against the Southampton Breakers in two games. In three playoff games, they are hitting .327 with five bombs and 31 RBIs. The Tomcats, who eliminated the Sag Harbor Whalers in three semifinal games, are batting .250 in three postseason games, with two homers and 14 RBIs.
No doubt about it, the Aviators boast an impressive offense, but it’s more than that. When a reporter mentioned the Aviators’ offense, Tomcats second baseman Robert Gallagher said: “Not just their offense. Their defense was perfect today. It was well above average. They were making every single play. They were keeping us off the bases, throwing guys out when they were stealing. They were doing everything right today.”
Callahan (6-for-12 in the playoffs) had quite a day. His five RBIs fell one shy of tying the league record for a playoff game.
In the second inning, the first three Aviators at the plate reached base, setting the table for Callahan, who smoked a 2-and-1 pitch well over the leftfield fence. Later in the inning, a groundout RBI by Chaney Dodge made it 6-2.
Callahan also drilled an RBI double in the third for a 7-4 lead.
The Aviators like the long ball, and they had to like what they saw from Gray, their catcher who clocked a pair of solo homers, including a booming shot in the eighth that traveled an estimated 400 feet. Reitan, who delivered that pitch, said: “Honestly, they were just waiting for a mistake to be made. It just takes one pitch. My last home run, that was crushed over rightfield. I just left a fastball right where he wants to hit it.”
Seven Aviators had one hit or more and five had at least one RBI. Not only did the Aviators belt 11 hits, but they also drew 10 walks.
It was the first time Reitan has pitched against the Aviators. Was it intimidating facing a lineup like that?
“I wouldn’t call it intimidating,” he said. “It’s just you got to know every pitch has to be where it needs to be or it’s going to be taken care of.”
Asked what the Tomcats’ biggest problem was, manager Bill Ianniciello responded: “Every part of the game. They outplayed us in every part of the game … They trampled us. We got to come back tomorrow and compete.”
The loss put a dent in the Tomcats’ hopes of becoming the first HCBL club to win back-to-back championships. Last year they won the title for the first time.
The Tomcats did get two hits apiece from Gallagher, Louis Antos and Andrew Hernandez. Bryce Wallace provided two of Riverhead’s runs from his third-inning homer.
Ty Wilson, who combined with Tucker Wittman for 4 2/3 innings of scoreless relief, picked up the win.
The Aviators won the regular-season series against the Tomcats, 4-2-1. The Tomcats, however, won two of the last three of those games, both by one run.
What do the Tomcats have to do to beat the Aviators?
“You got to throw strikes,” Gallagher said. “We got to hit our spots. We can’t be giving up free bases, and we got to hit a lot.”
Photo caption: Bryce Wallace, grounding out to first base in the first inning, later belted a two-run homer for Riverhead. (Credit: Bob Liepa)