By Bill Landon
Fresh off their three-game sweep of Greenport last week, the Port Jefferson baseball team, at 6-0 in League IX, looked to keep their winning ways when they hosted Southold (5-1) Monday afternoon.
The Royals struck first and led by four runs before Southold rallied late to tie the game at 5-5 and force an extra inning. Southold scored the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth, and the team’s defense held it down to win 6-5 and hand Port Jefferson its first loss of the season.
“We stayed in the game,” Kluender said. “We had a couple of errors, but we got over those. They have a couple of guys who can hit the ball and they can field the plays.”
With the game only a few pitches old, play was stopped as the trainers examined Royals starting pitcher Benjamin Kluender. With a back strain, he remained in the game only to take a line drive to his foot in the next inning. Hobbling around the mound, Kluender shook it off and got back to the business at hand and retired the side.
Port Jefferson senior James Murphy crossed the plate first on a Southold error at the bottom of the inning, for the first run of the game.
“We both came in with the mentality that we’d fight to the end, and that’s what happened,” Murphy said. “We expected them to be tough. We played well and everyone did their part.”
Southold drove in a run in the top of the second to tie the game with the go-ahead runner on first. On the next pitch, Southold’s base runner took off to steal second, as senior catcher Corey Carnahan threw a bullet to the second baseman for the pickoff play, retiring the side.
“Southold is certainly a strong team in this league — they played a very clean baseball game today,” Port Jefferson head coach Jesse Rosen said. “They were pretty much what I expected in terms of their talent level.”
Port Jefferson sophomore Ryan Walsh punched a line drive to right field to load the bases in the bottom of the third, and sophomore Sean Griffin showed patience at the plate as he drew the walk. His RBI brought home Matthew Keresztes for the lead, and Kluender smacked a sacrifice fly to right field to give his team a 3-1 advantage, leaving runners on second and third.
With two outs, sophomore Kristopher Cheslock battled at the plate, looking to keep the inning alive. He ripped one deep to left center that almost went out, but both runners were able to run home standing up for a two-run double. With the scores, the Royals broke out to a 5-1 lead.
“I thought we hit the ball pretty well today and we had strong pitching and good cuts at the ball,” Cheslock said. “But I thought we could’ve cleaned up our infield today.”
Southold answered back in the top of the fourth inning by driving in three runs to draw within one, 5-4, and on an overthrow to home plate, a Southold runner scored from third to tie the game at 5-5.
Port Jefferson followed with a missed opportunity at the plate with a runner in scoring position, and with the batter caught looking, the go-ahead run on second was stranded.
Rosen said Southold is the team’s strongest opponent in the league, and he thought his team could keep pace even though it was the first time the Royals have seen the Settlers this season.
“Moving forward, I think we can certainly hang with them,” he said.
Neither team threatened in the seventh to force an extra inning.
Port Jefferson relief pitcher Neil Alvarez, a lefty, took over at the mound, and Southold opened the inning with a deep hit to centerfield for a double. A sacrifice fly advanced the runner to third, who scored on another passed ball at the plate for a 6-5 advantage.
Still trailing by a run with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, the Royals had their backs against the wall. Kluender battled in the box, and was hit by a pitch. Stealing second base proved too risky, so Kluender didn’t venture far from the bag.
Port Jefferson’s final batter struck out and the Royals were handed their first loss of the season. Although Kluender was left stranded on base, his coach was impressed with his performance overall, and especially from the mound.
“He tweaked his back a little bit, he gets hit with a come-back and yet he’s willing to battle back and throw 88 pitches today,” Rosen aid. “Ben had an awesome performance today.”
Port Jefferson is now tied with Southold and Pierson/Bridgehampton for first place in the league at 6-1. The Royals will take to the diamond Wednesday on the road and finish up at home on Thursday with first pitches for both games slated for 4:30 p.m.
“Often you look at the immediacy of the game — winning or losing as to whether it’s a success or not,” Rosen said. “A loss in a close game isn’t the worst thing because you can learn from it.”