GARRET MEADE PHOTO
Southold second baseman Zach Jobes applied a tag on an unidentified Port Jefferson baserunner. Page 46.
PORT JEFFERSON — If Southold was going to get to the high school baseball playoffs for the 12th year in a row, it was going to have to happen without Shaun Hansen, one of their best players.
The First Settlers almost did just that last Thursday afternoon at Port Jefferson High School, erasing deficits of 2-0 and 3-2. But their luck ran out in the bottom of the seventh inning when the Royals’ starting pitcher, Chris Esposito, lined a single down the left-field line past a diving Will Fujita. The hit scored Joe Gerbino, who had doubled off losing pitcher Kyle Clausen. After rounding first base, Esposito ran for the pile of teammates gathered in the infield celebrating their 4-3 victory and a playoff berth. The First Settlers trudged off the field, their season over.
“What are you going to do?” Southold Coach Mike Carver said. “It was a frustrating season all around. We just could never get it quite going.”
For the Royals (9-9, 8-7 in Suffolk County League VIII), the season will continue. They were to face the Bishop McGann-Mercy Monarchs (12-6, 9-6) yesterday in Game 1 of the best-of-three Suffolk Class C finals. Game 2 is scheduled for today in Port Jefferson. If a third game is needed, it will be played Tuesday in Riverhead.
“We had five games this season that were absolute must-win games, and we won every single one of them,” Port Jefferson Coach Jesse Rosen said. “It’s a team that plays well under pressure.”
Both teams entered this three-game series needing two wins to advance to the postseason. On Monday, the excitement, tension and emotion got the best of them. Rosen and Southold first baseman John Dunne were ejected as Southold took the win, 7-3, at Jean W. Cochran Park in Peconic.
But neither the ejections nor a day’s postponement of the series’ second game calmed matters. If anything, the situation worsened. Last Wednesday, Hansen was ejected in an 8-3 Southold loss, making him unavailable for the season finale.
A decision was made to bar fans from last Thursday’s game. Two police officers were in attendance to make sure that happened. Asked to describe what unfolded last Wednesday night and the decision-making process, Southold Athletic Director Rich Triandafils said, “No comment.”
The only noise all game came from the players and coaches in the dugouts and on the field.
“We closed the stands because of some animosity between the two teams,” Rosen said. “And as much as I’m proud of the win itself and proud of the way they handled themselves and proud of the way they responded, it was just a different type of game.”
To Carver, Triandafils, Rosen and Port Jefferson Athletic Director Deb Ferry, the on-field play was noticeably better than usual.
“That was the best game we played all year,” Carver said. “Every kid played solid. There was no pressure. They played the game.”
And with notable efficiency. Combined, Esposito and Clausen needed only 57 pitches to get through the first three innings. Clausen was the first to make a mistake, one of the few he made during his six-plus innings on the mound. Mike Taffales drove the ball over the 324-foot mark in left field to put Port Jefferson ahead, 2-0, in the fourth. Port Jefferson then pushed runners to second and third before Clausen ended the inning with a strikeout.
Meanwhile, through four and a third innings, Esposito held the First Settlers (7-10, 7-8) in check.
“Obviously, it’s a bat in the lineup that’s intimidating,” Carver said of Hansen’s absence from the lineup. “We didn’t hit any less today than we had been.”
It just took longer for the bats to heat up. That, and Esposito’s exit from the game with one out in the fifth. Rosen’s move to Sean McGivney, who had started the first game of the series, surprised Carver, especially given that Southold had not touched Esposito through 54 pitches.
Explaining the move later, Rosen said Esposito had not seen extended action on the mound in six weeks. The plan had been to let him go four innings with McGivney and Ryan Ward, who started last Wednesday’s game, available in relief.
“I figured I’d be a little upset with myself if I didn’t let them come back,” Rosen said. “It didn’t work exactly how we scripted it.”
McGivney gave up a walk and a single before escaping the inning when C. J. Nicholas lined into a double play. But that only seemed to delay the inevitable. With one out in the sixth, Andrew Conway crushed his own two-run homer to right to tie the score for Southold. But an errant throw in the bottom of the inning put McGivney on second with one out. Taffales drove him in with a double, but got picked off third base on a failed suicide-squeeze attempt.
Down to their last at-bat, the First Settlers would still not go away. Against Ward, Nicholas doubled home Luke Hokanson to tie the score. Southold pushed runners to second and third with two outs, but Ward doused the rally, landing on his back while securing an inning-ending popup.
With his single to end the game, Esposito took care of the rest.
Carver said, “If the season’s going to end, I’m glad to see it end on a good game.”