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Jul 26, 2018 10:45 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Joe Suozzi's Three-Run Blast Caps Eight-Run Seventh, Leads Sag Harbor Whalers To Wild Card Game Victory

Nick Thornquist (Texas-San Antonio) with the opening salvo of last week's wild card game: a solo homer to center field that gave the Whalers a quick 1-0 lead. DREW BUDD
Jul 26, 2018 3:02 PM

The Sag Harbor Whalers and Shelter Island Bucks did their best to make sure that Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League's inaugural wild card game lived up to its name on Wednesday afternoon at Fiske Field on Shelter Island.

After three hours and 13 minutes of baseball, the Whalers somehow pulled out the 12-10 victory, despite making seven errors in the field and facing, at one point, a six-run deficit after four innings. Down 9-4 going in to the top of the seventh inning, Sag Harbor exploded for eight runs, capped by a three-run blast by Joe Suozzi (Boston College), who jumped on a hanging curveball on the first pitch he saw, to give his team a 12-9 lead, it's first lead since the very first inning, when Nick Thornquist (Texas-San Antonio) hit a solo homer to center field to give the Whalers an early 1-0 edge.

Sag Harbor, which finished fifth place behind the Bucks during the regular season, advanced to the HCBL semifinals against the top-seed Riverhead Tomcats at the Veterans Memorial Complex in Calverton on Thursday at 4 p.m. The Long Island Road Warriors host the Westhampton Aviators at Southampton High School in the other semifinal game, which is also Thursday at 4 p.m.

Following the game, pumped up Whaler's players said even when they fell behind early they didn't count themselves out. Winning pitcher Sam Lara (St. John's), who pitched the final four innings for Sag Harbor in relief and only allowed one run to earn the win, and struck out the final batter of the game looking, said he and his teammates didn't hang their heads.

"We knew we'd get our chance, we got that in the seventh inning," he said. "Earlier in the season we've come back a bunch, so we have that confidence going late into games that we can still come back. It's never over."

Things were chippy between both teams from the start of the game, forcing home plate umpire Tom Magier to ask both teams to calm down a bit—he eventually tossed one of the Bucks players for taunting, which seemed to force both teams to halt the back-and-forth between them. But things started to pick back up in the fifth inning when, down by six runs at the time, the Whalers hit one of the Bucks best players, and the new HBCL single-season home run king in Alex Volpi (Holy Cross). Whether or not it was done on purpose, Magier warned both clubs that the next hit batter, the opposing pitcher and manager would be tossed from the game.

On the very first pitch in the top of the sixth inning, Shelter Island starting pitcher Parker Thode (Grand View), who had only allowed two earned runs at the time, threw behind Sag Harbor's Kros Bay (Cowley County C.C.). Bay took exception to it and took a few steps out of the batter's box towards the pitcher's mound but he didn't charge Thode, who stood at the front of the mound. Some players came out on to the field in case something happened, but the umpires and coaches put out the flames rather quickly. The result of the incident had Thode and his manager, Darryn Smith, tossed from the game, due to the warning from the previous inning, and now the Bucks were forced to go to their bullpen.

With one out, Connor Anderson (Texas State) got things started in the top of the seventh for the Whalers with a double down the left field line that cleared the loaded bases and made it a two-run game at 9-7. Bay followed with another double to left to score Anderson, then, after a wild pitch allowed Bay to advance to third base, Daniel Alvarez (Pittsburgh) hit a sharp single threw a drawn-in infield that scored Bay easily to tie the game at 9-9. Alvarez stole second base, then Sam Cachola (California-Berkeley) walked, setting up Suozzi for his heroics. The Boston College product didn't waste any time, sending the first pitch he saw well out to left center field, completing the Whalers' comeback, giving them a 12-9 lead.

Suozzi said that the incident in the sixth, when Thode threw behind Bay, fired the team up.

"We got into their bullpen after their guy got thrown out of the game and I think that pumped us up a little bit, " he said. "[We] got to their bullpen, we've seen their bullpen before and just took advantage of it.

"I wasn't really looking curveball [first pitch]," Suozzi added of his homer. "Just reacted and got a good swing on it. Definitely felt good off the bat. I knew it had a good shot."

Sag Harbor manager Nate Lawrence said a lot of people don't know that Suozzi is battling mulitple injuries at the moment, making his moment even bigger.

"The heart on this kid is unbelievable, man. He's playing through a knee injury, he's got a finger injury, and so to watch him come up in that situation right there is big time for him and fun for people to watch," he said. "I've watched these guys all year long battle adversity, keep coming back. When we're down we're not out."

The local Shelter Island/Sag Harbor rivalry goes way back within varsity athletics between the two school districts, and that seemed to finally carry over this year, Nick Kruel (Tampa), a Pierson grad and longtime Whaler, said after the game.

"It's definitely always been a thing. In high school we'd play them and there'd always be a little chirping back and forth, but this season, this has been the one team we'd always go back and forth with," he explained. "A few really big meaningful games, some stuff happened, some words were said, so I think everyone knew going in to this game this was going to be a rivalry battle, and it's kind of a Cinderella story for it all to come down to the both of us like this."

Since Wednesday's game was the first playoff game the Whalers have played in about five years or so, it was Kruel's first taste of HCBL postseason action.

"I've got to be honest, man, it feels amazing," he said. "... to make it all the way here, it's the most fantastic feeling on earth."

All in all, there were were 22 runs scored on 28 hits, to go along with 12 errors combined, and there were seven different pitchers used between both teams. The Bucks and Whalers certainly put on a show in the league's first ever wild card game, but now the focus turns to the four teams that have reached the best-of-three semifinal series. The Whalers will host their first playoff game in quite some time in game two of their series on Friday at Mashashimuet Park in Sag Harbor at 4 p.m. They're hoping the momentum from Wednesday's game carries over into the rest of the week.

"I feel like we're as lined up as well as anybody, pitching wise, the rest of the way," Lawrence said. "I know we had to use several guys in this game, but pitch counts were pretty low. We've got one of our best guys going tomorrow that's starting for us, so, yeah, I feel like we're well prepared.

"This game is a lot about momentum, it's also about getting good rest and sleep tonight," he added. "Some of these guys didn't sleep last night they were so excited, and so getting a little bit of sleep tonight, showing up at the ballpark with some of that momentum we built, it's great."

"The mentality right now is 'Whalers versus everyone,' and we plan on winning this whole thing and that's our mindset," Kruel said. "We're an unstoppable train right now."

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