Sag Harbor - When Jerry Seinfeld reached back and whipped the festivities’ first pitch to Hampton Whalers catcher Chris Walker, the sizable crowd at Mashashimuet Park let out a roar - a perfect strike.
The special guest’s spot-on control proved to be a good omen for the evening’s hosts.
With the limelight on Sag Harbor for the first playoff game in team history, the Whalers positively sparkled. Left-hander Andrew Guarrasi took a perfect game into the sixth inning, and his defense flawlessly fielded anything that came its way. With some early offense, the Whalers took home an impressive 3-0 victory over Peekskill in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League Kaiser Division semifinals, and the victory pushes them one win closer to the ultimate goal - a league championship.
“We got the ball rolling, and once we made the playoffs, the adrenaline kicked in, and everybody wants to win it,” Guarrasi said.
The Whalers, who have won nine of their last 11 games, had a modest celebration on the field afterward but their business is not complete. On Monday, they begin a three-game series with the Kaiser Division regular season champions, the Metro N.Y. Cadets. Metro hosts game one tonight at St. John’s University; right-hander Phil Klein will take the hill. Gardner Leaver is scheduled to start game two back in Sag Harbor, set for 4 p.m. on Tuesday. If necessary, the Cadets will host a decisive third game on Thursday in Queens, with Matthew Smith the likely choice for Vega.
As for their turnaround, Vega points to one game - an 11-1 loss to Long Island on July 15, after which he scolded his troops - for its cause.
“Ever since we got beat by Long Island, when I had to lay into them a little bit, we’ve been playing great baseball,” Vega said. “For the last three weeks, we’ve had great pitching, hitting and defense.”
Guarrasi looked as impressive as ever in not allowing a runner past second base during his 8 1/3 innings. He allowed just two hits - both to the Robins’ Brian Benes - one walk and struck out eight. Between Sunday’s start and his gem versus Peekskill on July 25, Guarrasi gave up just one run in 15 1/3 innings against the Robins while fanning 20. His previous success against Peekskill influenced Vega’s decision to start him.
“He’s been successful against them before; it wasn’t anything else,” Vega said. “He’s been great against this team. They struggle against lefties.”
The New York Tech southpaw said that getting ahead in the count was the key to his success.
“My breaking ball was working, so I had that to fall back on,” Guarrasi said. “They took a lot of first pitches, so I was able to get ahead in the count, which is half the battle.”
Early mishaps in the field put the Robins in a tough spot. After Alan Parks ripped a clean single to right, Chris Walker rapped an easy grounder to the left side that was misplayed by Peekskill third baseman Sean Allaire. With runners at the corners, the Whalers’ leading hitter, Kyle Crean of Albany, stroked a single up the middle to plate the game’s first run. Two batters later, Tom Coulombe batted the ball to shortstop Alex Cabello, who was then eaten up by a bad hop. His throw to get Coulombe arrived late, allowing Walker to gallop home for an early 2-0 edge.
“It’s been like that the last couple games,” Vega said. “We got on the board early and the defense made some great plays. We’ve been hitting the ball better. We only struck out a few times, and we were putting the ball in play. That’s what we wanted from the beginning.”
Walker was involved in all three runs in some fashion. His fifth-inning single brought in Karl Derbacher with the third run. Derbacher had led off with a walk and advanced to second on a wild pitch. The Whalers haven’t made a practice of scoring runs in bundles, yet they’ve done just enough of late to get on a roll. In five games with the Robins over the last two weekends, the teams have combined to score just 17 runs. However, 12 of those belong to the Whalers, putting them at 4-1 over that stretch. Whaler pitchers have gone the last 20 1/3 innings without giving up a run.
Seinfeld was greeted by photo and autograph requests as he entered the grounds. After being formally introduced to the crowd by public address announcer Kevin Major, he was presented an official Whalers jersey with “SEINFELD” and the number 2 stitched on the back, a framed team picture, a baseball signed by the entire Whalers team, and caps for his entire family. The players introduced themselves one-by-one to the comedian, and following the national anthem, Seinfeld stepped onto the mound to throw the honorary first pitch. With a sidearm motion, he zipped a strike to Walker.
He wasn’t the only special guest in the crowd. Two baseball scouts - Pat Shortt, director of Major League scouting in the northeast region, as well as Larry Izzo of the New York Mets were also on hand.
The crowds at Sag Harbor have had a clear influence on the team. With Sunday’s win, the Whalers won their ninth straight game at Mashashimuet Park and improved their record at the venue to 10-1, with their only loss coming back on June 22.
“These guys deserve it,” Vega said. “They’ve been working really hard. It’s a big advantage for us to play here. The support was awesome."