Slow starts to seasons are hardly anything new to the Southold High School baseball team. The uncanny trend goes back for years. Bad starts have become so regular that they could be considered something of a tradition — not a desirable tradition, of course, but a tradition, nonetheless.
Former Southold coach Mike Carver was at a loss to explain it, and now his successor, Greg Tulley, has seen it in his two years in charge of the team. Southold got off to a 1-7 start last year. This year the First Settlers opened this season at 0-8.
Fortunately for the First Settlers, more often than not they kick things in gear in time to turn around their fortunes, as they did last season by rallying and reaching the playoffs.
That’s the aim again this year.
With seven regular-season games remaining, Southold is still in the playoff hunt, and that’s a testament to the team’s fight. It should be noted that the 0-8 start came with losses to three strong teams — Pierson/Bridgehampton/Shelter Island, Babylon and Center Moriches. Southold was shut out three times and outscored in those games, 103-17.
Then it was turnaround time. Southold swept a three-game series from Smithtown Christian before this week taking the first two games of a three-game set with Hampton Bays. The First Settlers pounded 12 hits in a 5-3 victory Tuesday at Hampton Bays High School to pull within a game of a .500 league record, which would guarantee them a playoff spot.
“I think we’re a better team now than we were in the beginning of the season,” centerfielder Michael Daddona said. “Center Moriches and Babylon made us stronger.”
That 0-8 beginning now seems like a long time ago.
“It actually does because I just feel after our games against Smithtown Christian, we’ve been a completely new team,” said Brendan Duffy, the designated hitter who drove in two runs in the first two innings and stole two bases. “I just feel like we’ve been playing better as a whole team and just everyone’s been contributing and we’ve just been working so much better.”
A bye week before the Smithtown Christian series apparently helped Southold (5-8, 5-6 Suffolk County League VIII). Tulley said he gave his players some time off to reset, and it seems to have worked.
“We had a rough start to the year, playing two of the better teams in our league in Center Moriches and Babylon, but our bats and overall game in general have been coming around the last two weeks,” he said. “We’re doing a much better job of putting the bat on the ball and just playing better baseball.”
The top three batters in Southold’s order — Daddona, Ryan Hunstein and Duffy — each went 2-for-3 while the No. 6 batter, Jake Okula, chipped in a pair of hits as well.
“As the warmer weather comes, our bats tend to come alive,” said Joe Hayes, the winning pitcher who allowed two hits over 4 2/3 scoreless innings. He struck out six and walked six, three of those coming in his final inning. Okula and Hunstein handled the pitching the rest of the way.
“Joe did a great job,” Tulley said. “Joe’s been a big guy on the mound for us this year.”
Southold built a 5-0 lead by the third inning thanks in part to RBI singles by Duffy and Nick Grathwohl in the first and a Daddona sacrifice fly and a booming RBI double by Duffy in the second. Okula scored on an error in the third.
“We have a lot of bats in the lineup and we can always string a few hits together,” said Duffy.
Hampton Bays (4-12, 2-12) produced three of its five hits and scored all three of its runs in the seventh. Jordan Adelson smacked an RBI single and Mickey Bracken singled in two more runs.
Southold had won the first game of the series Monday in the bottom of the seventh when Grathwohl was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, bringing Daddona home for the winning run of a 3-2 victory.
Hayes said it’s “very motivating” after the rough early season to “show everyone what we’re really about.”
How big of a carrot is the potential for a place in the playoffs?
“Oh, it’s big,” Duffy said. “Everyone wants to make the playoffs. I feel like that’s what drove us last year. It can drive us again this year.”
Photo caption: Southold pitcher Joe Hayes allowed two hits over 4 2/3 scoreless innings Tuesday in Hampton Bays. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)