Sag Harbor - One blip in the field, one misplaced pitch and it’s over. A hit, an error, a walk, a hit batsman, any will derail a pitcher’s chance at perfection. Hampton Whalers right-hander Phil Klein, unfortunately aware of being on the brink of history, knew full well he was walking a tightrope.
Having set down the first 20 hitters in the opening game of a doubleheader against Metro N.Y. on Sunday, the Youngstown State freshman took a deep breath and fired his 71st pitch to the plate.
It exploded off the bat off Frank Esposito’s bat at roughly the same speed at which it was delivered.
When he managed to snare the hot shot back up the middle and threw to Andrew Wernicki at first for the out, the celebration was on at Sag Harbor’s Mashashimuet Park. In sealing the Whalers’ 8-0 victory, the 19-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, became the first Whaler in history to throw a perfect game. According to league vice president Tom Bonekemper, it’s the first such feat in the modern era of Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League, which dates back to 1977.
“I had a lot of fun with it, and I know everyone there had a lot of fun with it,” said Klein, who retired all 21 hitters in just the 32nd game in team history. “Everything worked out well for us – the offense came through, the pitching was good and the defense did a good job. When you’ve got all three of things working, it’s hard to lose.”
Klein faced the Cadets’ top of the order in the top of the seventh – John Kahn, Harold Brantley and Esposito. Kahn drove a screaming groundball to the right side for which second baseman Kyle Walker was positioned perfectly. The throw to Wernicki put Klein within two outs of perfection. Brantley, who came in ranked fourth in the league in hitting at .342, went down on strikes for the third time in the game. That left it to Esposito, who coincidentally broke up Andrew Guarrasi’s no-hitter in the seventh inning the day before. The slugging catcher from Seton Hall made a bid once again, ripping a ball up the middle, only Klein was there to grab it. The lanky right-hander turned and threw to Wernicki for the final out before being swarmed by a host of teammates near the mound.
According to Pitching Coach Joe Shortt, Klein needed just 71 pitches to retire 21 hitters, a testament to being around the plate throughout the game. Klein also went to three balls in a count three times.
“He does everything so smoothly and with minimum effort,” Shortt said, “and he knows how to pitch.”
The performance lowered his ERA to a team-best 1.16, and he’s given up just one earned run over his last three starts. Klein, who struggled with control as a freshman at Youngstown State (19 in 18 2/3 IP), has walked just three hitters in his four starts, a span of 27 innings.
“I was throwing a lot of fastballs,” Klein said. “I wanted to establish the fastball, and I was throwing it for strikes. If you start out with balls, it’s hard to work back from that.”
All the offensive support he needed came in the first inning, when Karl Derbacher led off with a double, went to third on an Alan Parks grounder, and zipped home when Chris Walker poked one to short. The Whalers’ bats taked on three more in the third when Kyle Crean singled in Derbacher. They later loaded the bases, and Parks and Crean were free to go home after Wernicki and Steve McQuail drew walks.
A four-run fourth put the game out of reach. The Whalers batted around thanks to six hits in the inning. Mark Houck singled with the bases loaded to bring in Parks, Wernicki pushed two across on a single of his own, and McQuail’s grounder over the third base bag chased Houck home.
Klein took care of the rest. He punctuated the second, third and sixth innings with strikeouts, and the third punchout of Brantley brought his total to six on the afternoon. Long before he faced Esposito for the final out did Klein begin thinking about perfection, much to his chagrin.
“It crossed my mind in the fourth or fifth inning,” Klein said. “I was trying not to think about it because then you get out of your routine.”
The biggest scare came in the sixth when Ed Brown, another Seton Hall product, laced a pitch into right center field with one out.
“I knew he hit it real solid, but I didn’t know if it was going to go over [Karl’s] head or land in front of him,” Klein said. “Line drives are the hardest to judge off the bat. When he went back and started slowing down, I knew he had it.”
Slugging It Out
The Whalers had to come from behind to win a good old-fashioned slugfest in game two. A five-run sixth inning allowed them to come back from a four-run deficit early in the game to win, 10-7.
The hosts trailed 5-1 until Evan Laude trimmed the deficit to three with a two-run double in the third inning. The Whalers drew even in the fifth, and it was Laude again doing the damage. The Rhode Island freshman knotted the game at 5 apiece with a two-out single.
Metro went ahead 7-5 in the sixth before disaster struck in the bottom half of the inning. Chris Walker knocked in two with a double to dead center, tying the game at 7. The Whalers then scored three unearned runs on a pair of Cadet errors to go ahead by three. Matthew Smith of Yale pitched the final two innings to pick up his third victory this year, tying Klein and Andrew Guarrasi for the team high.
“I think if we lost one of those games yesterday, we really would have shot ourselves in the foot,” Vega said. “We had the first game won on Saturday and gave it away. We didn’t have a good day on Saturday, but the guys came back. Phil pitch a perfect game, and then to go down 5-1 and have the guys battle back gives you a little life.”
They needed the jolt after a doubleheader loss to the same Cadets on Saturday in Southampton. Guarrasi was the hard-luck loser in game one, falling to 3-2 with his side’s 2-1 loss. The left-hander from New York Tech surrendered just one hit – a seventh-inning single to Esposito – although it was a pair of sixth-inning runs courtesy of two Whaler errors that doomed him. Tom Coulombe’s RBI single in the third inning stood up until the fateful sixth when Brantley and Chris Valerio took advantage of two mishaps at second. In the bottom half of the inning, the Whalers’ Nick DeProspo was gunned down at home after Crean lifted a fly ball to right.
Guarrasi finished the day having given up one hit and three walks while also striking out 10, which marked a single-game high for Whalers pitchers this season.
In game two, Metro jumped on Whalers starter Frank Ryan with four runs in the first inning. Ryan settled down from there, but the Cadets hit around reliever Brian Saldana in the sixth, plating five more runs for a 9-3 win. Glenn Johnson led the Metro attack by going 2 for 3 with four RBI, including a two-run homer to left off Saldana.
Crean powered the Whalers attack, belting a solo home run to lead off the third inning. He finished the game 3 for 3, and combined with his three-hit day in game one on Sunday, the Albany freshman had a streak of six at-bats in which he got on with a hit.
After the weekend split, Vega and Co. sit 3½ games back of Metro for first place and three games behind Peekskill for the second playoff spot in the Kaiser Division. The Whalers can move into a third-place tie if they can handle Long Island on Tuesday – Louisiana-Lafayette lefthander Patrick Holloway will make his first start of the year. On Sunday in Sag Harbor, the Whalers host Jersey, which holds the worst record in the league at 9-17.
“Hopefully it’s not too late,” Vega said. “I’d take my chances with anybody.”