By Emma Betuel
It’s early in the baseball season to be seeking redemption, but it is already on the minds of the Sag Harbor Whalers. After starting the season on Friday with a loss to Shelter Island, the Whalers returned home on a cold, rainy evening to face the Southampton Breakers in their home opener at Mashashimuet Park, but fell 14-4 to slip to 0-2 in the new Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League (HCBL) season.
The strategy for the home opener was to “start small,” according to general manager Sandi Kruel. “We’re taking it one game at a time,” she said. “Our goal is to get up there and make the playoffs this year.”
But for starting pitcher and former Pierson High School baseball star Nick Kruel, Sandi’s son and a pitcher at the University of Tampa, there is no such thing as starting small. Kruel took the mound for the Whalers on Sunday just two weeks after his second heart surgery.
In November of 2015, Kruel was hospitalized when his heart rate refused to return to normal after a workout with his collegiate team in Tampa. Recovering from heart surgery, Kruel pitched this past season for Tampa’s junior varsity team, throwing 30 innings, the most of his collegiate career. Tampa won their conference, and Nick showed signs of becoming a go-to pitcher.
But in early June, Nick noticed his heart was racing again. His doctors recommended another heart surgery, this time, a cardiac ablation — a procedure that destroys heart tissue that causes abnormal heart rhythms. His doctors diagnosed Wolf Parkinson White’s Syndrome, a rare heart condition that is present in less than 1 percent of people worldwide.
Two weeks later, Kruel was throwing his signature knuckleball (he’s been perfecting it since third grade), while his mother was standing in her typical spot on the Whalers’ side of the backstop.
“It’s phenomenal being back out there,” Kruel said. “I want to develop the skills to be an asset to a Major League organization. I need to get back my stamina to go deeper into games.”
Kruel threw fewer than 60 pitches on Sunday, nearly all of them knuckleballs, and went five innings before a series of walks, infield errors and base hits prompted a pitching change. Overall, the Whalers sent three pitchers to the mound in the fifth inning as a close game got away. The Whalers held a 3-2 lead before allowing 10 runs in the decisive fifth.
While Kruel and pitchers Ryan Votypka (SUNY – New Paltz), Tyler Fagler (Dartmouth) and Rick Burroni (Northeastern) make up a tantalizing Whalers bullpen that boasts a combination of spin and speed, the Whalers struggled on the mound against the Breakers. Even after two pitching changes in the fifth, the Breakers sent a series of line drives through the infield.
After the Friday’s opener against the Bucks, Sandi Kruel said, simply, “we got hit.” The game against the Breakers was no exception.
However, there were beginnings of an emerging offense that shone through. Cleanup hitter Michael Calamari (Dartmouth) went 2-for-3 with an RBI and a walk.
The Whalers were picky at the plate, earning seven walks, although they struggled to convert that discipline into runs.
Sandi Kruel believes the runs will come. Like Major League Baseball, the HBCL is a wood bat league. Wood bats have a smaller “sweet spot,” so a home run on an aluminum bat can become a fly out on wood. The transition from aluminum to wood is notorious, even among professional prospects.
“A lot of these players play in metal-bat leagues in college,” she observed. “The first challenge is to adjust to the wooden bats.”
With this in mind, a good eye at the plate may serve the Whalers well later in the season. For now, they’re looking to keep injuries down, pitch counts low, and, in Sandi Kruel’s words, “keep it light and fun.”
For a complete schedule and roster of players visit hamptonsbaseball.org.