Burkett comes up big in relief to propel South to PIAA semis

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette South Williamsport players celebrate after the Mounties defeated Schuylkill Haven, 2-1, in the PIAA Class AA state quarterfinals at Central Columbia on Thursday.

BLOOMSBURG — Tripp Breen struck out his 13th batter on his 101st pitch. Believing Breen had reached his pitch-count limit Thursday afternoon, South Williamsport coach Smokey Stover exited the dugout and took the baseball.

But in the playoffs, the 100-pitch limit that exists during the regular season increases to 105. Breen could have kept going. And honestly, Stover would have kept Breen in had he known that.

It did not matter. Turns out Stover had another ace up his sleeve.

Logan Burkett replaced Breen and produced the two biggest outs of his high school baseball career, and two of the biggest outs in South baseball history. With the tying runners on base, Burkett retired both batters he faced, stranding the tying runner at third base with a game-ending strikeout as South edged Schuylkill Haven, 2-1, and won a thrilling Class AA state quarterfinal at Central Columbia. Breen won his 11th straight start, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning, Burkett delivered under pressure and South made the most of two runs in the first two innings as it made history for a third straight game and reached the state semifinals for the first time in program history.

Up next for these hard-nosed, resilient district champions is a showdown against District 1 champion Devon Prep in Monday’s Eastern Regional final. Up for all the South fans who flooded the third-base line area immediately following the game was some oxygen.

“Logan knows what he’s doing and he does it,” Breen said. “I knew he was going to do it. He’s really tough.”

“It’s just a rush through your body knowing you won and now you’re in the Top 4 in the state. It’s crazy,” Burkett said. “Coach has been saying that we don’t realize how good we are and I think that’s true. Now we’re starting to realize we’re a really good team.”

So good that South (18-4) is now one of the state’s four best Class AA teams. The Mounties continue going where no other South baseball team has after winning the program’s first consecutive district titles and state tournament game the last two contests. South used its trademark toughness, resourcefulness and fabulous pitching and defense to keep this historic journey going.

“To know there’s four teams left in the state and that we’re that close to making the state championship is amazing,” center fielder Luke Winner said after making one of the game’s biggest plays and throwing a runner out home to end the sixth inning. “Everybody on the team wants it so bad.”

Although South took an early 2-0 lead, Schuylkill Haven pitcher Jake Houtz settled in and threw a fabulous two-hitter. Still, the way Breen was dealing, a 2-0 advantage started looking more like 12 as the game progressed. The St. Bonaventure-bound senior retired the first 10 batters he faced, threw six no-hit innings and struck out 13. Breen struck out seven of the first nine batters he faced, left a runner on third in the fifth and closed his latest performance with a strikeout after Damyan Miller and Kobe Brish opened the seventh inning with a single and swinging bunt, respectively.

Schuylkill Haven (19-6), a 2018 state semifinalist, might have thought it was catching a break when Burkett replaced Breen. The District 11 champions, though, learned Burkett is both equally tough and calm under pressure. Burkett first induced a spinning grounder that traveled about two feet from the plate. Catcher Dom Harding pounced and threw out Shawn Davis at first, but both runners moved into scoring position. Miller then scored on a wild pitch, making it 2-1 and putting Brish 90 feet from tying the game.

It appeared Burkett might have ended the game when he spotted a 1-2 fastball on the outside corner. He and others nearly started celebrating, but Burkett quickly regrouped, refocused and delivered the knockout blow. The senior right-hander made his 3-2 curveball dance like Rihanna and a swing and miss clinched the win as jubilant teammates rushed toward Burkett, celebrating the team’s sixth straight one-run win this season.

“Tripp pitched a great game and I knew his pitch count was getting up there and I knew I was the next one to come in. I was down there warming up and I thought, just go in there and do my thing,” Burkett said. “It worked out and it’s an awesome feeling.”

Winner provided a similar electric feeling an inning earlier. Jack Higgins drew a leadoff walk that inning and stole second before reaching third on a passed ball with one out. Albie Evans then lofted a flyball toward Winner who relived his Backyard Brawl-winning throw at the perfect time. Winner threw a perfect one-hop laser toward Harding who quickly slapped the tag on and ended Schuylkill Valley’s threat, keeping it 2-0.

“Obviously, they didn’t watch the film. Oh well,” Winner said. “They found out pretty quick, but you have to give it to Tripp and Logan for pitching a great game. It was a good team win.”

Pete Sinibaldi ignited South in the top of the first, hitting a two-out single and taking second on an error. The Mounties then produced two runs in those first two innings without delivering another hit during that time. The Mounties put the ball in play and took advantage of five Schuylkill Haven errors with Sinibaldi scoring the first run when Burkett’s grounder was mishandled.

An inning later, Ryan Rischoff hustled down the line and beat out the throw after the second baseman bobbled the ball. He reached second on another error before Landon Lorson and Hunter Finn did the little things that produced a huge run. Lorson dropped a perfect sacrifice bunt that moved Rischoff to third and Finn then hit a sacrifice fly to center field that easily scored him and gave South a 2-0 lead.

Obviously, South wanted more runs, but Breen made that lead hold up and tamed a hard-hitting offense that scored eight runs in its first round win against Old Forge. Breen and Burkett combined on their second state tournament two-hitter and Breen struck out at least two batters in five different innings.

“The defense was great. They knew they had to field the ball and they knew they weren’t going to let two runs score,” Breen said. “That’s what we’ve done all season.”

“I kept telling them we win when somebody opens a window for us. Then we score a run or two and that’s how we’re going to win this game and that’s exactly what happened. That was huge,” South coach Smokey Stover said. “Every time we do something we set a school record and the kids are so confident. They were really relaxed for a big game like this I’m so excited for them and I’m excited for the whole town.”

One look at all those blue-clad fans yesterday told the story. And that is this: The feeling is reciprocal.

South 2, Schuylkill Haven 1

(PIAA CLASS AA QUARTERFINALS)

South Williamsport 110 000 0–2 2 1

Schuylkill Haven 000 000 1–1 2 5

Tripp Breen, Logan Burkett (7) and Dom Harding. Jake Houtz and Austin Clasuer. W–Breen, (11-1). L–Houtz. S–Burkett.

Top South hitters: Pete Sinibaldi 1-4, run; Landon Lorson 1-2, sacrifice bunt; Ryan Rischoff, run; Hunter Finn, RBI, BB. Top Schuylkill Haven hitters: Damyan Miller 1-3, run; Kobe Brish 1-3.

Records: South Williamsport (18-4), Schuylkill Haven (19-6).

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