Winner’s arm proves valuable vs. Schuylkill Haven

Luke Winner provides South Williamsport quite a fullback each fall. The junior is a physical specimen who can run over or by would-be tacklers.

But if South has any quarterback issues this coming fall, Winner might make quite an emergency signal-caller as well. He sure has spent the baseball season showing how powerful his right arm is.

Winner delivered his latest rocket at the perfect time Thursday against Schuylkill Haven, making a perfect throw home and cutting down a runner at the plate to preserve a two-run lead. South won a thrilling Class AA state quarterfinal, 2-1, and is Final Four-bound for the first time. That might not be the case without that throw.

Considering the game’s magnitude and how things might have played out differently if he does not deliver there, Winner’s throw might be the best in program history.

“As that play was developing, I was thinking this runner is pretty quick, but he has no idea what a hose Luke has,” South coach Smokey Stover said. “That play was an absolute game changer.”

Indeed.

If Winner does not throw out that runner, Schuylkill Haven pulls within 2-1. Assuming the sixth-inning damage stopped there, Schuylkill Haven would have at least tied the game in the seventh inning and South’s historic season might have ended. Instead, a team that already is the first repeat district champion and the first to win any state tournament games in program history is one victory away from playing in the state final. South (18-4) faces District 1 champion Devon Prep on Monday in the Eastern Region final.

“We had a feeling the ball was going to get hit out there, but we didn’t know who it was going to be hit to,” Winner said. “I just told the boys to load up your cannons and be ready to fire home. That’s kind of what happened.”

Winner has a knack for making perfect throws at perfect times. His walk-off throw at the Backyard Brawl caught the speedy Xavier Taylor at the plate last month as South edged Williamsport, 1-0. That was a huge win against an excellent team.

The San Francisco 49ers have “The Catch.” Winner provided his version of “The Throw,” that night at Logue Field.

He found a way to one-up himself Thursday. Winner produced, “The Throw II.”

Jack Higgins was standing on third with one out when Albie Evans lofted a flyball into fairly shallow center field. Producing a run against pitcher Tripp Breen had been a Herculean task at that point and Higgins has good speed, so Schuylkill Haven tried testing Winner’s arm. It was a decision the Hurricanes soon regretted. Winner made the catch and gathered momentum as he moved inward. He then unleashed a laser-like one-hop throw that hit catcher Dom Harding chest high.

Harding applied a quick tag and, in a flash, South was three outs from moving on. Outfielders dream of making plays like that one in big games. Winner has lived the dream twice and Thursday’s play kept the ultimate drive alive.

“That ball goes up in the air and I knew what was coming,” Breen said. “I ran behind the plate and I had the best view in the whole ball park just standing right there. I was just ready for him to catch it. He throws it on a perfect line. He throws bullets and there was no doubt the kid was out.”

Those two plays highlight Winner’s breakout season, but he has done more than throw timely missiles. He also has anchored the outfield and served as its quarterback, not making an error since South’s second game. Winner also is hitting .328 and has a .431 on-base percentage.

And Winner has quite an offensive flair for the dramatic as well. The junior center fielder crushed a walk-off home run in a dramatic 1-0 midseason win against Bloomsburg. South won a share of the HAC-III championship, capturing a league title for the first time since 2012. Take away that home run and maybe it does not play out that way.

Baseball, any sport for that matter, can be a grind. The season starts in early March when there often is still snow on the ground, when the temperatures rarely crack 40 degrees and when teams often are trapped inside gyms for weeks. These big moments are the reward for paying that price.

Winner has paid it in multiple sports and keeps embracing them like Mr. Monopoly holds his money. When Winner read that flyball Thursday, all that work, all that talent and all that sacrifice came together.

What a moment it provided both South and its army of fans.

“That game sets up completely different without that double play to save a run,” Stover said. “Luke has been coming up big all year in center field.”

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