Nick Kruel’s Last Stand at Mashashimuet Park

Nick Kruel pitched into the eighth inning on Friday and led the Sag Harbor Whalers to an 11-5 win over Riverhead to force a decisive third game in their best-of-three playoff series on Saturday. Gavin Menu photos

In a career defined by extreme highs and lows, Nick Kruel had one last story to tell at Mashashimuet Park on Friday. From Sag Harbor Little League to the Sag Harbor Whalers, his baseball journey came complete with one last memorable pitching performance before his hometown crowd and with his team’s season on the line.

Suiting up for what might have been his last Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League game, Kruel pitched seven-and-two-thirds innings and allowed just one earned run to lead the Whalers to an 11-5 victory over the top-seeded Riverhead Tomcats, who won Game 1, 4-0, on Thursday in a best-of-three semifinal playoff series.

Game 3 is tonight, July 28, at Sgt. Jonathan Keller Field in Calverton at 4 p.m. The winner will advance to play either Westhampton or Long Island next week for the HCBL Championship.

Sandi and Nick Kruel at Mashashimuet Park on Friday, where their family has been playing baseball for more than 50 years.

It was clear before game time on Friday that it would be a special day for Kruel and his family, who have been watching and playing baseball at Mashashimuet Park for more than a half-century. Sandi Kruel, the Whalers’ co-general manager, attended Pierson High School and watched her brothers, Michael and Sam Piro, play baseball at the park. Nick followed in his brother Brandon’s footsteps and starred at Pierson before going on to pitch at the collegiate level, and with the Sag Harbor Whalers for summer league.

“Watching Nick today on the mound that I have seen my family pitch on for over 50 years was a experience that can’t even be put into words,” Sandi said after Friday’s game. “Whatever happens tomorrow, I was able to watch generations of my family and my sons totally rock at Mashashimuet Park.”

In high school, Kruel helped lead Pierson to back-to-back New York State semifinals — all in the wake of a gruesome leg injury that ended his soccer career — and went on to pitch at the University of Tampa, one of the top Division II programs in the country. His career there was offset by a pair of heart surgeries, which gave him an additional year of eligibility and a fourth summer pitching for the Whalers.

With Friday’s win Kruel set a new Whalers record for career victories, breaking a tie with Kyle McGowin, another native of Sag Harbor who now pitches in the Minor Leagues. He also tied the HCBL record of nine wins, which he now shares with Adam Brown, who pitched in the league from 2010 through 2012.

“This is definitely the most special Whalers team I’ve been on,” Kruel said. “We have that chemistry and a really good mindset right now. Our mindset is Whalers versus everyone, and we’re trying to prove we’re a scrappy ball club that can win this thing.

“It’s honestly one of the most incredible experiences to play in your hometown,” Kruel added, saying the weight of the day struck him from the moment he woke up on Friday. “My mom dropped me off at the field and she said ‘This could be it, and I’m so proud of what you’ve done here.’ That really kicked in for me, and it’s one of the most incredible things a kid from Sag Harbor can have, that opportunity to go out and play in your hometown.”

Kruel credited his mother with “being the best pitching coach” he’s ever had, and said she helped shape a generation of Sag Harbor baseball players from Little League on up.

“Everyone goes through life, you have certain coaches and managers, but having that one constant of my mom, my best friend, has been incredible,” Kruel added. “She is the absolute rock of the HCBL and the Whalers. In my opinion she’s the smartest person on that field in terms of baseball and the Whalers are lucky to have her.”

Riverhead struck first on Friday with Alex Baratta (Binghamton) coming around to score in the first inning after being hit by a pitch. It would be the last earned run allowed by Kruel, who enjoyed tremendous support from an offense that was silenced a day earlier. The Whalers roughed up Riverhead starter Peter Myers (Hartford) early and scored one run in the bottom of the first inning and two more in the second. With Nick DeSalvo (LIU-Brooklyn) on to pitch, Sag Harbor all but put the game away with a five-run fifth inning that gave Kruel a 10-1 cushion.

Joe Suozzi records one of the Whalers’ 18 hits on Friday.

Jace Mercer (Cincinnati) went 3-for-6 at the top of the order with three RBIs and two runs scores, and seven other Whalers collected two hits each, including Jason Albany (Creighton), Connor Anderson (Texas State) and Sean Trenholm (Binghamton), who also scored two runs apiece.

Kruel gave up 10 hits in the game, but only the one earned run, and credited his catcher, Thomas Pipolo (UMASS – Amherst), with calling a great game. Pipolo and Kruel played together in high school with their traveling team, the Long Island Tigers, and Pipolo knows how to catch Kruel’s knuckleball better than most. Kruel left the game in the eighth inning after attempting to stop a line drive with his bare hand, and was replaced by Hayden Brauser (Northwood), who recorded the final out of the eighth inning. Riverhead scored two runs in the ninth, but Chase Borowitz (Binghamton) closed out the game to force Saturday’s decisive Game 3 in Calverton.

Friday was likely Nick Kruel’s last game as a starter at Mashashimuet Park.