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Saturday, June 1, 2013
BLACKSBURG — Terrible.
That’s the word Virginia Tech pitching coach Patrick Mason used to describe Devin Burke’s fastball command in the bullpen before Saturday’s game.
Burke wouldn’t argue that. He was about to make the most important start of his career, an elimination game against Coastal Carolina in the NCAA Blacksburg Regional, and Burke had next to nothing to feel encouraged about.
“I had no control of my fastball,” he said. “Slider was good, change-up was OK and curveball was just kind of spinning for whatever reason.”
Yikes. So … uh … go get ’em, kid?
He did get ’em. During a 9-1 victory in which Tech did almost everything right, nobody was better than the junior right-hander, who fired a complete-game five-hitter that saved this team’s bullpen for the rest of an arduous weekend.
“That game,” Tech coach Pete Hughes said, “was Devin Burke setting the tone for everything.”
He set the tone for the offensive explosion by keeping the game scoreless in the early innings. When Tech got the lead in the sixth for the first time in this regional, everybody seemed to relax and started wailing on pitches. That probably wouldn’t have happened if Coastal took an early lead.
Just as importantly, though, Burke set the tone for what’s left of this tournament. His 121-pitch gem allowed the rest of the staff to recharge for what Tech hopes will be two more must-win games today, then another on Monday.
“It was the biggest no-brainer decision,” said Mason, when asked about sending Burke back out there for the ninth. “We need to win three more games. … The 10 more pitches he threw in the ninth, it saves a horse for us tomorrow.”
Burke lost his shutout in the ninth when he surrendered a one-out homer, but he got the next two outs with ease to earn the biggest win of his career.
The funny thing is, neither Mason nor Burke was overly concerned with the pitcher’s warm-up session. The baseball history books are filled with tales of guys who had nothing in the pen, then delivered extraordinary performances.
Besides, Burke is a veteran. Most of his (infrequent) troubles this season have come in the first inning. Better to get the bad stuff out of the way when the pitches don’t count.
“I just knew that when the game started, I had to make adjustments,” Burke said. “It was just a matter of release point and keeping my arm speed up and knowing that I could drive a pitch somewhere as opposed to just throwing it.”
Burke’s parents and sister both made it down from Connecticut to watch what could be his final college start. So did his dog, a bichon frise named Chester, who somehow made it inside English Field.
“I’m not going to reveal our secrets,” Burke said with a smile. “Good-luck charm.”
Against a lineup stacked with righties, Burke wasn’t able to go with his signature change-up as often as he normally does. He primarily used the slider and a 88-to-92-mph fastball until the third time through the order, when he introduced a curve.
“That really took a toll on us,” Coastal second baseman Jake Kane said. “Because as hitters, we’re looking to pound that fastball. When he drops that curveball in there effectively, it’s hard to get the bat head on it.”
Burke pumped his fist as he left the mound in the seventh inning after striking out a batter looking on a fastball. Other than that, he showed little of the emotions coursing through him.
Burke is only a fourth-year junior, but this is his final season with the Hokies. Not only did Burke have to sit out the 2011 season after transferring from Duke, but because he transferred within the ACC, he lost a year of ACC eligibility. He can only pitch as a fifth-year senior next spring if he transfers again. Burke hopes to be chosen in the major league draft this week so he can turn pro.
“Through the later innings, I realized this could be it,” Burke said. “Not saying it is, but it could be. So I made sure I took a good look around, took it all in.”
What he saw in the ninth inning was the crowd on its feet and his teammates invigorated. They’ll play again today, thanks to the guy who went from terrible to terrific.
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