After the first month of the season, the Westhampton Aviators could have easily mailed it in. They were a few games out of first place and their manager at the time, T.J. Baxter, was just fired due to conduct detrimental to the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League.
The Aviators did the exact opposite, though. They found new life under Lou Bernardi, who replaced Baxter as manager, and Westhampton went toe-to-toe with the Sag Harbor Whalers for the regular season title. Sag Harbor and Westhampton finished with identical regular season records (24-16), but the Whalers were crowned champions since they defeated the Aviators four times out of seven games.
The Aviators were the second seed in the HCBL playoffs, but they had to face one of the hottest teams in the league in the semifinals, the North Fork Ospreys. Westhampton went toe-to-toe with its opposition only to come up short, again.
The Aviators lost the best-of-three series in three games to the Ospreys last week. After losing game one 1-0 at home on July 29, the Aviators staved off elimination with a 4-2 victory in game two at Cochran Park in Peconic on July 30. The following day, the Aviators lost 3-2 in 12 innings at home to the Ospreys, eliminating them from the playoffs.
Center Moriches advanced to the HCBL Championship Series against North Fork, after the Battlecats swept the Sag Harbor Whalers in the other semifinal series. The Ospreys wound up taking the league title after winning game three of the series 2-1 on Sunday night.
“It would have been easy for them to fold, so to speak, halfway through the season,” Bernardi said of his players. “But they battled back. They had trust in me and they allowed me to coach and they played hard for me. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
The semifinal series between Westhampton and North Fork was all about pitching. North Fork starting pitcher David Jesch (Hofstra) shut out the Westhampton offense in game one, allowing just five hits and three walks while striking out six in seven innings of work. Dalton Curtis (Lipscomb) pitched two innings of scoreless relief to get the save.
Westhampton starting pitcher Preston Brown (Mississippi State) pitched very well in game one also. He went all nine innings and struck out six, but his lone mistake—a two-out run-scoring single in the top of the first inning— wound up making the difference.
Aviator starting pitcher Kyle Raleigh (Ball State) turned the tables on the Ospreys in game two. He pitched seven innings and allowed just one earned run on six hits and struck out five. Still, the Aviators needed a late-inning rally to take the lead, and they got it.
After tying the game at 1-1 in the sixth inning, Cole Miller (Georgia Tech) hit a bases-clearing double to put the Aviators up 4-1. Miller was the star of the game, going 3 for 4 with all four RBIs for Westhampton.
Things got off to a quick start in game three at Westhampton. After North Fork took an early 1-0 lead, J.C. Brandmaier (Dowling) hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the first to give Westhampton a 2-1 lead.
North Fork tied the game in the fourth inning and the score remained the same until the top of the 12th. With two runners on, and a 2-2 count, Ryan Solberg (Wisconsin-Milwaukee) hit a broken-bat single into right center field, driving in Jim Pjura (Pace) from second base. It looked like there would be a play at the plate, but it took a while for Westhampton to get the ball in from the outfield and then the throw was well up the third base line, allowing Pjura to score easily.
“[Jim Ploeger] made a good pitch,” Bernardi said. “It was a broken-bat single that got in on his hands. I thought it was a good pitch, so you just tip your hat to the hitter when that happens.
“The throw (to home plate) was up the line,” he added. “I do think a good throw would have got him. It was one of those unfortunate things. The ball bounced their way instead of our way.”
Westhampton went down in order in the bottom of the inning to end its season.
“As expected, the pitching was phenomenal,” Bernardi said. “This late in the season, and in postseason baseball, pitching is going to take a priority to everything else. Each starter gave their team a quality outing and both bullpens gave it their all.”
Bernardi said, while he doesn’t have control over who gets to manage the team next season, he would love to come back and try and get Westhampton back into the championship.
“It was a great summer for me. I enjoyed myself very much,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of kids.
“I would love to come back to Westhampton and finish what we started, so easy for them to fold, sort of speak, half way through the season,” , and get over the hump and get to that championship series,” he added. “I think time will dictate my outcome and what I will do next summer.”