Sag Harbor - David Leon was in trouble, big trouble, even worse than if he hadn’t just looped an 0-1 fastball safely over the shortstop’s head and onto the sizable green patch in left center field. Leon, the all-star shortstop for the Hampton Whalers baseball team, just rounded first base when he noticed the first sign of danger - a stampede of overjoyed collegians headed right for him. Secondary and tertiary waves weren’t far behind. Before long, he was buried under a mound of blue, giggling with the rest of his teammates.
The Whalers were nearly written off entirely after a 0-6 start. Instead, they’re writing themselves a story they, and those who lined the diamond on Tuesday night, will undoubtedly recount upon returning to their respective schools this fall. Leon, a sophomore-to-be from Youngstown State, has his favorite tale. His ninth-inning single on Tuesday night capped a thrilling 2-1 win over Metro N.Y. and clinched the team’s first ever Kaiser Division championship.
“It felt great,” Leon said. “I’ve been struggling a little bit at the plate, and switching my stances and I wasn’t focused. This time I was all about that.”
“He had the savvy and the confidence, and he was just looking for that one pitch,” Whalers Manager Julio Vega said.
That one pitch, which was thrust into left field, propelled the Whalers into the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League championship game, to be played Saturday at the home field of the Wolff Division champion. In that championship series, Kutztown held on to defeat host Lehigh Valley in game one Tuesday night. The Rockies watched their 8-1 lead dwindle to a single run in the ninth inning, and Lehigh Valley had runners at first and second in the final frame before a flyout ended it. The Rockies will go for the Wolff title on Wednesday night on their own diamond. If the Catz prevail, a decisive third game will be held back in Easton on Thursday.
The Road To Glory
The comeback was carefully constructed. Leading off the ninth, Chris Walker took a pitch off the shoulder, giving the Whalers their first base runner since Alan Parks reached on an error to lead off the sixth. Playing at least for the equalizer, Vega instructed clean-up hitter Kyle Crean to bunt, and he did so to perfection, pushing a Gabe Duran pitch down the third base line to advance Walker to second. The Whalers got a break next when Mark Houck rapped a grounder to shortstop Ed Brown, who was eaten up by the bounce. That left runners on the corners with one down and Tom Coulombe stepping up to the plate.
Vega then replaced the slow-footed Walker, thus leaving the team with one catcher, with a fleeter John Flanagan, who’s ordinarily a pitcher. Coulombe pounded a Taylor-made double play to short. This time Brown fielded it cleanly and flipped to second for the force. Second baseman John Kahn turned and fired low to first base. If Dan Pembroke scooped the throw, the game would have been over. However, the ball skipped past the first baseman, allowing Flanagan’s run to count and Coulombe to scamper into scoring position.
“The team came together today,” Vega said. “It seems like the last three weeks, when the other team’s made a mistake we’ve made them pay for it every time.”
Leon’s philosophy at the plate? “See the ball, hit the ball.” He had gone 0 for 3 to that point with two groundouts to second and a flyball to center. Leon said the defensive positioning was typical – the center fielder in, the left fielder toward the line. Leon watched strike one whiz by, but then lofted the next Duran offering, a fastball, into the great wide open in left center. Coulombe took off at the crack of the bat and didn’t even draw a throw at home, where he jumped into the arms of Andrew Wernicki and was mobbed by his teammates.
The group then headed toward the mound, where a smaller group was already swarming Leon.
“We just believe in each other,” Leon said. “Everybody believes that the guy in front of them will do the job, and if he doesn’t, you have to have his back.”
The crowds on hand in Sag Harbor, recipients of a free anxiety attack or two courtesy of the scrappy crew taking the field these last two months, have at least been able to celebrate. On July 25 against Peekskill, they came from 2-0 down to win 3-2. A week earlier, both games of their doubleheader against Jersey were nailbiters; in the first game, Wernicki’s single plated the game’s only run, and in the nightcap, the Whalers scored two runs in the final two innings to beat the Pilots, 4-3. Overall, they’re 11-1 in Sag Harbor. Five of their last six games at Mashashimuet Park have been one-run wins; the other was Sunday’s 3-0 division semifinal win over Peekskill.
“Winning’s contagious,” said Parks, who stole his league-leading 24th stolen base. “We got on a little roll, and now it seems like every time we got out there, we feel like we’re going to win. I also think we’re having a lot more fun.”
Maintaining Their Cool
Metro scored its run in the first courtesy of a double steal. Harold Brantley reached on a dribbler down the third base line, and roared over to third when Glen Johnson singled to left center. Later in the inning, Johnson took off for second, drawing a throw from catcher Chris Walker. Walker’s brother, Kyle, tried to intercept the ball early only to have it pop out of his glove. Brantley bolted for home, and Metro had its first lead of the series.
Leaver shrugged off the damage and put together his second consecutive strong outing. The former East Hampton standout pitched 6 2/3 innings, giving up five hits and three walks while striking out four. On July 26, Leaver pitched a seven-inning shutout of Peekskill and took a no-hitter into the sixth inning.
“That would have been a tough run to lose a game on,” Vega said. “That first run didn’t bug him though. He settled down and threw the ball well. It was a big game and he was lights out.”
The same can be said for Therrian, who has flourished since being moved to the bullpen for the stretch run. Since giving up six runs over six innings in his last start on July 9, the Southern Maine senior has gone 7 2/3 shutout innings as a reliever. In his 2 1/3 innings of work against the Cadets, Therrian gave up just a single to Johnson, and he was promptly caught stealing, Walker the catcher to Walker the infielder.
Whaler pitching couldn’t help at the plate however. For eight innings, Duran had their number. The Dowling product surrendered four hits in that span - two in the first and two in the fourth - but was otherwise flawless. Duran, who overcame two errors in the middle innings, did receive help from his defense in the fourth. With two outs, Coulombe lifted a fly ball to shallow right field. Frank Intagliata, Duran’s teammate at Dowling, tracked it down and fired a strike to home plate, where catcher Frank Esposito awaited and tagged Chris Walker, who had tagged up.
“We couldn’t get a hit off that guy,” Leon said. “He did a good job changing speeds and locations.”
“The guy pitched a great game,” Vega added. “He followed the scouting report to a T - he got ahead early, and there weren’t too many guys who got good swings off of him.”
One of those guys was Leon, whose hit puts the Whalers right where they want to be - a game away from the league championship. The way his team’s playing, Vega has to feel good about his chances.
“We have Andrew Guarrasi, our hottest pitcher, going on Saturday, and we’ll see what happens.” Vega said. “I’ll take my chances against any team right now.”