By Gavin Menu
With Nick Kruel on the mound and the season on the line Tuesday at Mashashimuet Park, the Sag Harbor Whalers had an opportunity to seize a defining moment of the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League season.
The moment turned out to be defining, but not in the way many Whalers fans had hoped for. Kruel, a native of Sag Harbor who has been lights out with his trademark knuckleball this season, was tagged for five runs and seven hits through six innings as Sag Harbor lost, 7-5, to last-place Shelter Island.
The Riverhead Tomcats, who entered the day with a one-game lead over Sag Harbor for the league’s fourth and final playoff spot, beat first-place Westhampton, 5-3, to lock up their spot in the upcoming playoffs.
Joining Westhampton (26-14) in the hunt for a title will be the North Fork (25-16), Montauk (24-16) and Riverhead (19-22-1). The Whalers, meanwhile, closed out their season Wednesday at Westhampton and will look toward next season while following the accomplishments of their players through their collegiate seasons.
“As it’s coming to a close, I’ve been reviewing how our season has gone, and a lot of guys have gotten better,” Sag Harbor’s first-year manager, Nathan Lawrence, said before Tuesday’s game.
When asked about Kruel, a 2014 graduate of Pierson High School who recovered from heart surgery and missed his collegiate season at the University of Tampa before returning for this summer season, Lawrence said he has been “pleasantly surprised.”
“Coming in and hearing about a knuckleball pitcher on the team, I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “For me, it’s about how many outs can you get, and he’s done a pretty good job getting outs for us all season long.”
Kruel ended the season with a 3-0 record and 3.47 ERA, allowing just 48 hits in 49.1 innings pitched. Both Kruel and Colman Vila, another Pierson alumni who pitches for the University of Delaware, were among the league leaders in ERA, with Vila third in the league with a mark of 1.43.
Kruel’s knuckleball was the talk of the Shelter Island dugout on Tuesday as he is the only pitcher to throw the pitch in the HCBL. After a player questioned whether Kruel’s pitch had any movement, Shelter Island’s Dan Hetzel, who had just struck out, set him straight.
“He threw it straight at my eyes, and it dropped to my toes,” Hetzel said.
Prior to the game on Tuesday the Whalers players and coaches held a ceremony thanking their host families. As a result the crowd on hand was one of the largest of the season.
“The host families are great and obviously we couldn’t do it without them,
“ Lawrence said. “They love these guys. Look at the turnout. It’s been a lot of fun.”