By Benito Vila
In baseball, it’s not always the best team that wins. It’s the team that makes the most of the opportunities it creates. Failure to put pressure on opponents by putting the ball in play, knocking out hits, drawing walks and otherwise getting on base and creating havoc there, usually results in a loss.
That was the lesson learned by the 2009 Pierson varsity baseball Whalers in their final regular season game, four hits and two walks not enough to keep Smithtown Christian from leaving Mashashimuet Park with a 5-0 win. Even though a quartet of Pierson pitchers kept the Knights from doing much at the plate, Whaler miscues in the field led to extra at bats for the visitors with a series of ill-advised throws adding even more good fortune to the Knights’ afternoon.
Despite Friday’s disappointment, the Whalers officially earned the number one seed in the county’s Class C tournament on Monday, having completed the season 12-6, third in the league, with the best Class C record. That finish and that seeding earned Pierson the home field against Port Jefferson in a best-of-three championship series, game one played here Tuesday, the Whalers winning 8-6 after being down 6-1, game two there today at 4 p.m. and game three here Saturday at 11 a.m., if necessary.
One of the Whaler faithful pointed out before Friday’s finale that if it weren’t for a bloop hit in the loss to Mercy, and a dropped fly ball in the loss to Port Jefferson, the boys would have been 14-3 and playing for the league title. While that may be true, part of the game is overcoming adversity and the Whalers made it clear in Tuesday’s opener that they are not about to quit when things go the other way.
Down, But Not Out
With the weather Tuesday as good as it can get for baseball, hopes high on both sides and each team’s pitching aces ready to go, there was plenty of excitement in the park as the game got underway. When Pierson pitcher Kyle McGowin set down the Royals one, two, three, and two Whalers reached base in the bottom of the first after two were out, the home side was feeling good about its prospects.
But that all changed in the second inning, McGowin uncharacteristically yielding a lead-off single and two successive walks to load the bases. A strikeout set up the possibility of a double play, but a run-scoring walk put the Royals up 1-0, McGowin clearly struggling with location and mechanics.
A pop-up brought relief to the Pierson side, but then a flurry of line drives from the top of the Port Jeff line-up left the Royals cheering as if the game were over, happy to re-take the field, up 5-0.
The Whalers did little in their second at-bat and it looked like it might be a long afternoon for them when the Royals reached on an error and a walk to start the third. But McGowin made his pitches to the bottom of the Port Jeff line-up and the Whalers went back into hit, still down but no worse off than when they took the field.
Huddling up on the sideline, Pierson coach Sean Crowley reminded his team they still had 15 outs to work with and asked them to change their approach at the plate, to take pitches until they had a strike. That approach had immediate results, Casey Crowley drawing a walk and an error on a Ryan Miller grounder, putting pressure on the Royals.
A hasty pop-up showed the Pierson side the good sense in waiting, especially when McGowin drew a walk to load the bases. A strikeout gave Port Jeff a sense it might get away, but a walk to Joe Mascali lifted up the Whalers, even though they were still down 5-1.
Schall Gets ‘Em
Â McGowin took the mound in the fourth buoyed by his team’s resurgence, but in surrendering a single, a sacrifice bunt and an RBI single, he knew his day was done. Waving Coach Crowley in, McGowin went off to right field, designated hitter Eddie Schall coming in off the bench to pitch. Schall quickly worked out of the inning without any further damage, getting the last two outs on five pitches.
Coach Crowley’s reminding the Whalers to wait worked again in the fourth, Joey Dowling driving a flat fastball into left. With Jeff Schimmer running for Dowling after a foul pop, the top of the Pierson line-up pulled through, Crowley singling to right and Miller to center to drive in Schimmer.
Tyler Gilbride stepped in, worked the count, and doubled down the left field line to make the score 6-4. When McGowin came up to hit, Coach Crowley took away the “take” sign and the move paid off, McGowin driving the first pitch through the middle of the infield to bring in Gilbride, the Whalers down one.
Schall’s pitching remained efficient in the fifth and the Whalers were soon back in to hit. Gavin Kudlak kept the pressure on with a bunt single, but even though he found himself picked off, there was no momentum lost when Dowling singled to left and Dane Riva to right.
Runners now at first and second, Crowley pulled the ball to the right side but knocked it straight to the second baseman and had to hustle all out, diving into first to thwart the double play. Whalers on the corners with two outs, Coach Crowley called for the runner Crowley to steal second.
The Royals responded with a rotation play that went awry. The throw from the catcher evaded the in-coming second baseman and rolled into center to score Dowling and tie the game at six, bedlam breaking out on the home side. Schall set down Port Jeff in the top of the sixth, and once again Pierson was back in to hit, everything going their way.
It Fell in Between
That trend continued when Gilbride led off the Whaler sixth with his third hit of the day. A pair of grounders to second by McGowin and Schall moved him to third, Mascali stepping in with two outs and the go-ahead run 90 feet away.
Â All the cheering went quiet when Mascali was plunked softly in the foot, but rose up again when he moved up to second without a play, Kudlak looking for something to hit at the plate. Behind in the count, Kudlak took a cut at a good pitcher’s pitch and lifted a pop-up into short right, but into a place where no fielder could take charge.
Mascali and Gilbride on the move with two outs, the ball fell in, glancing off the right fielder’s glove as the center fielder and second baseman stepped away, the Whalers taking the lead 8-6.
But That Wasn’t It
The Whalers went into the field in the seventh needing just three outs to get the win and move a game closer to the county title. When Schall allowed his first two hits of the game to open the inning, it was obvious it all wouldn’t come easy.
A strikeout and a fly to left cooled the Royals and their rally, but a walk to load the bases, stirred up the fire on both sides, the tying run at second, the go-ahead run at first. When Schall fell behind 2-0, the cheering, coaching and baseball chatter on both sides reached a higher din.
But everything went quiet when the batter stroked the ball up the middle, Miller sliding in behind second to stop the ball from his shortstop position and diving to touch the base ahead of the runner. From out of the dust came the umpire’s “out” call, dispirited groans on one side and unintelligible screams on the other.
After the Game
Coach Crowley brought his team together and praised them for their effort, reminding them they still had to do their schoolwork, stay in good academic standing and show up for practice Wednesday before heading to Port Jefferson Thursday [today]. Wanting to hand out game balls, but only having three, he had his assistant place them all into the practice bucket.
Afterwards he said, “We showed good discipline in waiting and in changing our approach mid-game. The never-say-die attitude I heard from our bench, from the starters and reserves alike, proves that we’re a lot more than a one-pitcher team. Eddie being able to come in and do what he’s been doing, gave us what we needed to get back in the game.”
Dowling thumbed out the emotional encapsulation of the win in a text message that read, “Today we kept our composure and didn’t get frustrated. That’s what helped us get the win. And Ed and everybody else came through big.”