When Mat Annunziata stepped into the lefthand batter's box for his first at-bat of the season Tuesday, the Eastport-South Manor senior admitted, "I was a little jittery."
In the opposing dugout, Ward Melville coach Lou Petrucci was feeling something a little stronger. "He scares you," Petrucci said. "I was worried."
Annunziata, who missed the regular season after ACL surgery in late December, drilled a run-scoring double over the leftfielder's head and pulled an RBI single to rightfield in the seventh, but in between, it was the host Patriots who were fearsome.
No. 3 Ward Melville scored seven runs in the fourth and beat ESM, 9-4, in a Suffolk AA first-round game. The Patriots (15-4) host No. 11 Patchogue-Medford Wednesday in a winners' bracket game while ESM (12-4) visits Smithtown West in the losers' bracket.
"He's one of the best hitters in Suffolk, with a great approach," Petrucci said. "He can carry a team."
But only so far. The Sharks couldn't overcome six walks in the fourth, plus some timely hitting by the Patriots' No. 9 hitter Liam Stamm-Walsh, who had a tying two-run single in the second and an RBI single in the fourth.
"It's kind of nerve-wracking," Stamm-Walsh said of batting with the bases loaded in the second and finding himself in the unlikely position of needing to be a run-producer instead of a slick-fielding centerfielder. "The first pitch was a fastball that I missed, but he came back with the same pitch and I took it the other way."
In the fourth, Stamm-Walsh bounced a single up the middle on the first pitch he saw. "Any time I can make an offensive contribution, it's big for the team," he said. "I don't think I've ever had a three-RBI game. But our team is very good at bouncing back. We don't get down and everyone helps out."
That included Jeff Towle, who contributed two singles, two walks, an RBI and a run, and designated hitter Ryan Shields, who keyed the seven-run fourth with a double and scored a run. Another key was the relief pitching of hard-throwing Joe Flynn, who entered the game in the third with no outs and a runner on third. After allowing an RBI single to Mike Burghardt, Flynn throttled ESM until the final inning, striking out eight in his five-inning stint.
One guy Flynn did not whiff was Annunziata, who came up in the seventh with runners on first and third and one out. It was strength against strength, with Flynn throwing high-80s gas and Annunziata pumped to respond. Annunziata hit a hard grounder through the right side to complete a satisfying 2014 debut.
"There's no way I wanted to miss my whole senior year," the Hofstra-bound slugger said. "I came back in 41/2 months when it usually takes six to eight months. I was just trying to hit a ball up the middle. It felt great. That hit gave me a clean slate. A weight was lifted."
The jitters were gone.