Baseball: Aviators have the arms, and a division crown

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | North Fork pitcher Nick Narodowy and Westhampton's Joe Candela collided at the plate after Candela scored on a wild pitch in the third inning.

The Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League season is like an arms race. The team with the most arms at the end of the season wins.

This year, in the Hampton Division at least, that team is the Westhampton Aviators.

Like an army that travels on its stomach, a baseball team goes as far as its arms will take it. In the case of the Aviators, their arms have brought them their second division championship in three years.

“We got a lot of fresh arms,” Aviators Coach Jeff Quiros said. “This time of year, some teams, they get worn down and tired. Our guys are chomping at the bit to get in there. It’s about pitching depth in any type of tournament play, and we certainly have that.”

Five scoreless innings of relief from three pitchers and a go-ahead home run by Ray Ortega in the seventh inning helped the Aviators to a 4-3 defeat of the North Fork Ospreys on Thursday night, sweeping the best-of-three finals. The Aviators won the series opener, 6-2, the day before. The Ospreys, last year’s league champions, were playing in the division finals for the third straight year.

Ortega put the Aviators ahead, 4-3, when he opened the seventh by clocking a solo home run that he took an admiring glance at as the ball soared through the night air at Jean W. Cochran Park in Peconic.

Ryan Doran pitched the first four innings for the Aviators before Quiros handed the ball, in order, to Kevin Lee, Mike Ahmed and Brandon Kuter.

Kuter notched the save, but not without an uneasy moment. Ian Vazquez led off the ninth for the Ospreys with a single. Kuter struck out the next batter before Ryan Brockett jumped on a pitch and curled a foul ball that missed the left foul pole by several feet.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Rocco Gondek watched the flight of his two-run homer, which gave North Fork a 3-1 lead in the fourth inning.

“My heart stopped on that Brockett fly,” said Quiros.

Kuter then fanned Brockett as well as Matt Carroll, setting off a joyous celebration for the Aviators, who piled on top of each with gusto between the batter’s box and the pitcher’s mound.

“That’s what it’s about,” Quiros said. “I told these guys on June 1st, it’s about a dogpile. That’s what you’re playing the game for. You want to win a championship.”

The Aviators, who won the division’s regular-season title, advance to a league semifinal on the road Saturday against the Staten Island Tide, with a chance to play in the league final on Sunday.

“This was our goal the whole year,” said left fielder Joe Candela, who knocked in two runs for the Aviators. “We’re so happy, couldn’t be happier.”

Westhampton’s bullpen allowed only two hits — a well-placed bunt by Brockett and Vazquez’ single — over the final five innings, and accounted for 11 of the team’s 18 strikeouts.

“We didn’t have the pitching power to get the job done,” said Brian Hansen, who coaches the Ospreys along with Michiel Van Kampen. “Pitching’s almost everything, and they obviously had a solid set of relievers that came in and shut the door on us.”

That is not to say that Nick Narodowy didn’t turn in a quality pitching performance for the Ospreys, because he did. The left-hander posted 13 strikeouts against six hits and one walk in eight-plus innings before he was pulled after his 121st pitch.

Narodowy received some early run support. A mighty drive by Carroll to deep center field took one bounce and shot off the fence for a double, allowing the speedy Brockett to score the game’s first run from first base in the first inning.

A wild pitch allowed the Aviators to pull even at 1-1 when Candela dove home in the third. Candela had reached base on an infield single. An errant pickoff attempt and a groundout brought Candela to third base.

The Ospreys took a 3-1 lead in the fourth with one swing of the bat by Rocco Gondek, who smashed a two-run homer over the left-field fence.

“I love Rocco, and Rocco always comes through somehow and some way he just does something that’s pretty special,” said Hansen.

But the Aviators can hit, too. They banged out four hits in the fifth when consecutive singles by Ortega, Aaron Cohn and Candela were followed by a double that Taylor Mondshein tagged off the left-field fence. Candela’s single inside the left-field line brought in two runs, tying the score at 3-3.

“We just battled,” Quiros said. “Every playoff game has been tight. It hasn’t been easy. We’ve had to work for every out.”

Gondek is the only third-year player on the Ospreys. He returned to the North Fork team this year along with fellow team veterans Brockett, Mike Czenszak and A. J. Dusablon.

“I’m emotionally tired,” Gondek said. “I really wanted to win, but you can’t win them all.”

Hansen knows that, but he still wanted to see the series go to a third game.

“I was just hoping to live to tomorrow, really,” he said, “just hoping to live to tomorrow.”

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