Lambert avoids Tommy John surgery, leads Spartans to states

Another half inch and this historic season likely would not exist. Another half inch and Hughesville baseball probably would have played its last game a few weeks ago.

Another half inch and Justin Lambert would never have played this season.

That half inch represented how close Lambert was to having to undergo Tommy John surgery last fall. Lambert suffered a fractured elbow that resulted from a tear in his elbow. He was in a cast for a while but returned to the field in time for Hughesville’s first game.

And now he is helping the Spartans break one record after another. Lambert threw a brilliant 7-hit shutout Monday night as Hughesville blanked Kutztown 2-0 and won its first Class AA state tournament game in school history after having captured its first District 4 championship three nights earlier.

“Almost having to have Tommy John scared me a lot. Thank God I didn’t need it,” Lambert said. “The doctors did a good job and I went to rehab and worked my way back.”

Both Lambert and his teammates are relieved. Instead of a promising season getting derailed before it started, Hughesville (18-7) has shattered the program record for wins and plays in the state quarterfinals Thursday at Pine Grove against District 11 champion Salisbury.

Lambert has been a driving force in this dream season. He is 8-2 and has won three postseason starts while allowing no earned runs in those 19 1/3 innings. Tuesday, he basically had no margin for error against Kutztown ace Andrew Gernert and responded by throwing only 77 pitches, walking none and not letting a batter reach third base until the seventh inning.

“He was great. He was on his game (Monday),” right fielder Brady Kimble said. “He was bringing it from the start.”

Lambert has been able to unleash his whole arsenal after starting the season under a strict pitch count. Because of the elbow injury, suffered during football season when he was playing quarterback, Lambert was limited to fewer than 50 pitches early. By midseason, the limit was moved to 50 and then increased to 75 and 90. Now he is unchained and on fire.

It is not a coincidence that as Lambert’s pitch-count limit rose, Hughesville started taking off. He threw a two-hit shutout in a complete-game win over Shamokin in Hughesville’s 14th game and the Spartans have won 13 of 14 games after starting 5-6. Lambert has six wins during that time.

“He’s a competitor. He doesn’t give up,” catcher Brett Reitz said. “Down by eight or up by one he’s going to give you all he’s got.”

The junior right-hander, possibly the area’s best closer last year, threw a two-hit shutout in a 1-0 first-round district win over Athens that included 12 strikeouts. He followed up by allowing no earned runs in 5 1/3 innings of a 6-1 semifinal win over Southern Columbia which entered hitting .361 collectively. Monday, he stifled a strong District 3 team and plowed through the first six innings on just 60 pitches.

Gernert was impressive, too, but Lambert was dominant. He worked ahead, hit his spots and let the defense work for him. Every time Kutztown tried putting pressure on him, Lambert came back strong and did not let a runner reach second base until the sixth inning.

“Justin throws just 77 pitches … that’s unreal,” Hughesville coach Casey Waller said. “It was a pitchers’ duel and I’m very proud of Lambert. We knew they were going to be a tough team and Justin threw well and did a great job for us.”

“He was on fire,” Reitz said. “Just out in the bullpen I could tell he was feeling it.”

Lambert has combined with Sadiq Burkholder (7-2) to give Hughesville one of the state’s premier pitching duos. The Spartans are playing well in all facets and receiving contributions throughout the roster, but Lambert is helping power the engine. In addition to pitching so well, he also plays shortstop, second base, catches and bats clean-up.

Lambert sparked the game-winning rally in a dramatic 7-5, 9-inning district championship win over Loyalsock when he hit a leadoff double in the final inning. He produced the second run Monday, delivering a perfect squeeze bunt down the first-base line.

Still, it is Lambert’s pitching that stands out most. Seven times this season he has not allowed an earned run in a start. He has been dominant when it matters most and his return to the mound conjures up memories of and injured Colin Kelly coming back in 2008 in time to help Loyalsock capture a Class AA state championship.

Hughesville needs three more wins to achieve that goal, something that once seemed like such a far-fetched dream. Now it is tangible and closer than ever. Lambert and those few inches are a huge reason why.

“It was very frustrating at the beginning of the season, especially when you want to be out there and get those first wins,” Lambert said. “We struggled at the beginning of the season but I’m glad I’m able to pitch now when it really counts. We want to keep it going.

“We don’t want to stop.”