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Baseball: Aviators fly past Tomcats to title

In a historical week for the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League, one way or another, there were going to be firsts.

The Riverhead Tomcats, who in 2018 became the last HCBL club to win its first title, were trying to become the first team in the league’s 12-year history to nab consecutive championships. That would have been a nice achievement, but the Westhampton Aviators had other ideas.

Befitting the most successful club in league history, the Aviators set a record by becoming the first HCBL team to win four titles. They did that in convincing fashion by beating the Tomcats, 7-3, in Game 2 Tuesday to sweep the championship series.

After the Tomcats’ Andrew Hernandez grounded out for the final out, the Tomcats watched as the Aviators happily jumped on top of a pyramid of humanity in front of the pitchers’ mound at Veterans Memorial Park in Calverton. A water bucket was dumped over the head of Aviators manager Alex Brosnan.

“We have to tip our cap to them,” Tomcats second baseman Robert Gallagher said while the Aviators posed for photos with their trophy. “They’re a hell of a ballclub all the way around. One through nine, they hit. All their pitchers executed their pitches. They were a great all-around team, for sure.”

The Aviators swept the Southampton Breakers in two semifinal games before doing the same to the Tomcats. They hit .305 in the playoffs with five home runs and 38 RBIs.

The most successful club in league history was making its fourth appearance in a championship series in five years (and sixth altogether). The Aviators failed to reach the playoffs only twice — in 2012 and 2014.

Another first: Aviators centerfielder Daniel Franchi became the first player to win two HCBL championships.

“They were hitting every pitch,” said Gallagher, who went 4-for-5 in the leadoff spot with a double. “I mean, props to them. They played a hell of a series, for sure.”

Right in the middle of that dogpile of joy was Eric Callahan, the Aviators shortstop and a late addition to the team. He was the clear choice for the championship series MVP honor. Callahan sealed his lock on the award with a three-run triple, stolen base and lunging backhanded grab of a line drive hit by Bryce Wallace for the third out with the bases loaded in the seventh.

“He has a pretty good bat,” Tomcats shortstop Isaiah Payton said. “You know, we were trying to stay away from him, but he just hits.”

Callahan had a five-RBI performance with a grand slam in Game 1. For the playoffs, he hit .438 (7-for-16) with 10 RBIs.

“We played well the last two days,” he told reporters. “We had a couple of things go our way and we got into some close counts and made the most out of it.”

Both starting pitchers turned in fine five-inning efforts, throwing 90 pitches each. Westhampton’s Ryan Smith (2-0 in the playoffs, 0.90 ERA) gave up four hits, two runs (one earned) and four walks against six strikeouts. Riverhead’s Bobby Vath (1-1, 3.75), possibly the league’s best pitcher, allowed five hits, five runs (three earned), one walk and fanned four.

“Bobby pitched as well as he could,” Tomcats manager Bill Ianniciello said. “He was nearly perfect. Errors, a couple of flare hits, those are all well-executed pitches on his part … He pitched well enough to have no runs [against him].”

Both teams traded unearned runs before the Tomcats pulled ahead, 2-1, on Payton’s one-bounce RBI double off the leftfield fence in the fourth inning.

The Aviators turned the game around in the fifth when an error, a hit batsman and a walk preceded Callahan’s one-out triple. The next batter, Bailey Peterson, skied a bloop hit just beyond the infield lip that Gallagher couldn’t get to, making it 5-2.

The Aviators tacked on two more runs in the eighth from a Johnny Tuccillo sacrifice fly and a David Franchi RBI single. In the bottom half, Jason Coules socked an RBI single.

“We were just a little depleted at the end so it caught up with them a little bit,” said Ianniciello, who had 10 position players to work with. “They left everything they had out there.”

The Tomcats, who set a club record for most regular-season wins (they went 27-11-2), accomplished a lot, even if they didn’t achieve their ultimate goal.

“I really enjoyed this group because they came to play every day and they battled to the end,” Ianniciello said. “It was a good character group.”

In the end, though, the title belonged to the Aviators.

“They’re a great team,” Gallagher said. “They deserve it.”

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Photo caption: While Riverhead’s Andrew Hernandez runs out the game-ending groundout, Westhampton players celebrate the club’s record fourth league championship. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)