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Baseball: Composed Caputo makes Riverhead a winner

Matt Caputo brought some obvious tools with him when he stepped onto the pitcher’s mound Monday. Among them were curveballs, fastballs and changeups. Less obvious, but perhaps most important of all, though, was a healthy dose of composure.

The Riverhead righthander needed that quality to survive, and then thrive, after the sort of first inning he hadn’t planned on.

The Suffolk County League I baseball game had barely begun when Caputo saw things quickly crumbling down around him. On the game’s second pitch, Brentwood’s Tyler Barrero leveled a single before stealing second base. Sean Penalver’s popup into shallow leftfield was either lost in the sun or simply misjudged and fell to the ground untouched. Wilmer Cuevas slotted a hit to bring in one run. Then, Joseph Reyes slugged a two-run single, making it 3-0 before Riverhead took its turn at the plate.

Not exactly what Caputo, who wasn’t entirely to blame, had envisioned.

After Caputo returned to the dugout, he was told two things: Stay calm and keep throwing strikes. He did both.

The result was the junior, in his second varsity start, did not allow a run after that. He finished with a career-high nine strikeouts in a six-inning performance, highlighting Riverhead’s 5-4 victory on its home field at Pulaski Sports Complex.

If not for that extended first inning, Caputo might have turned in a complete game, but he was relieved after throwing 96 pitches by Patrick Rowland, who navigated a tricky seventh inning for his first save.

That seventh inning became more interesting than Riverhead (2-4, 2-4) would have liked. Holding a 5-3 lead, Riverhead saw Brentwood (0-6, 0-6) mount a serious comeback attempt before the game ended with the potential tying run on second base.

“The last inning was a little scary,” said Caputo (1-1), who gave up seven hits and only one walk.

The Blue Waves celebrate at the end of their win Monday. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

Barrero struck a booming double over the centerfielder’s head and reached third on a wild pitch. With two outs, Penalver dropped a bloop double into shallow rightfield — with four fielders in close proximity — to make it a one-run game. That was the finishing touch on a 4-for-4 day for Penalver.

“They were putting them up high in the air,” Riverhead rightfielder Mike Gaffney said. “They were just in no-man’s land. No one could really get it.”

Rowland, who fanned two, must have been relieved when he saw Cuevas’ well-struck liner to leftfield snatched by Ayden Concannon for the final out.

Gaffney praised Caputo’s performance, saying: “I think he did great, honestly. He was dealing the whole game. He’s the only reason we won it.”

Riverhead coach Rob Maccone was gratified that Caputo wasn’t rattled by the rocky first inning.

Patrick Rowland moved from shortstop to pitcher to get the last three outs. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

“He’s been throwing great all season,” Maccone said. “Another good game today. That first inning, we catch that popup, they probably only score one and he finishes the game. But he kept his composure, got out of that inning and then completely dominated the rest of the way, just like we need him to.”

Maccone said all three of Riverhead’s starting pitchers, including Aaron Miller and Jackson Loper, have “done a tremendous job keeping us in games.” Entering Tuesday’s game at Commack, Miller had yet to concede an earned run in 14 innings.

Riverhead snapped a 3-3 tie in the fourth. Collin Bendernagel supplied a sacrifice fly and Miller bounced an RBI single through the middle for a 5-3 lead.

The Blue Waves scored in the first when an errant throw off Wyatt Kearney’s check swing allowed Bendernagel to score.

Riverhead tied it in the second. Gaffney lined a two-out single. Concannon laid down a bunt single. Pitcher Kevin Fajardo slipped after fielding the ball and had no play. Bendernagel followed with what amounted to a swinging bunt. Catcher Cuevas’ throw struck Bendernagel in the back and the ball ricocheted into rightfield. That allowed Gaffney to score and he was followed home by Concannon.

Bendernagel is the only remaining Riverhead player from the last season that was played in 2019. The team has only six returners from the 2020 team, which practiced four times before the season was halted because of the pandemic. Three of the current seniors never played varsity or junior varsity baseball before. Maccone said he lost players who moved out of the school district.

On top of that, Riverhead has been promoted from League II to League I, where the competition is stiff. “Six [wins] gets us in the playoffs, so every game is important,” said Gaffney.

Maccone said: “Any time you have a chance to win, it can be a little nerve-racking at the end when it’s close. If you’re down by a lot or up by a lot, then it’s a lot easier to make decisions, put guys in or take guys out, but when it’s close, every decision matters.”

And some composure under pressure certainly helps.