Heading into its PIAA tournament opener today, the Blackhawk baseball team has a 37-inning scoreless streak and had not allowed a run in any of its past five games.
Not that those streaks have been garnering too much attention
"We're just trying to survive," veteran coach Bob Amalia said.
The Cougars streak of holding opponents scoreless is indeed impressive -- and it has also been completely necessary. Blackhawk has scored exactly one run during each of its playoff games, leading Amalia to unintentionally joke that senior second baseman Joe Lopez has 662/3 percent (two of three) of the team's RBIs during the postseason.
"That sounds funny to say," Amalia said, catching himself.
That's OK, the Cougars can laugh. They're champions.
"We don't really even talk about [the shutout streak], to be honest with you," Amalia said. "I think we're just more focused on trying to win the games. Maybe if it was the regular season or something we'd think more about it."
"We want to shut a team out -- but we want to put runs up on the board," leadoff hitter Brendan Kearney said. "These 1-0 games, we're kind of thriving in them, but we need to score more runs. We're hitting balls; it's just that runs aren't coming.
"But with the great pitching we have and the good defense, I feel safe with a 1-0 lead most of the time though."
Sophomore ace Brendan McKay and senior right-hander Adam Rousseau have garnered plenty of attention for the lack of runs scored by opponents against Blackhawk (21-2), which will play Thomas Jefferson today in the PIAA quarterfinals at 7 p.m. at North Allegheny. These two played a classic 1-0, nine-inning game two weeks ago in the WPIAL semifinals.
The Cougars were awarded a first-round bye when City League representative Carrick declined to participate in the state tournament. Raiders coach Dave Aromatorio cited a lack of players who would commit to play in the tournament.
As strong as the Cougars' pitching has been, there's no diminishing the fact the defense behind McKay and Rousseau has been just as stellar for Blackhawk.
"That's what people haven't been talking about," Amalia said.
"That's really our strength -- our pitching and our defense."
According to Amalia, Blackhawk has been charged with 21 errors in 23 games this season. The Cougars have committed just two errors over the past nine games -- the contests with the highest pressure because playoff berths, section titles, tournament seeding, PIAA qualifying and, of course, WPIAL championships were on the line.
And with, at most, a one-run lead as a cushion, every single time a ball has been put in play, the stakes have been high for fielding it cleanly.
"The whole defense has been outstanding," Amalia said.
The old adage that a team's defensive strength is "up the middle" is illustrated by Blackhawk.
Senior Matt Emge is pretty much universally regarded, as Amalia put it, "as good as they get in the WPIAL" at catcher.
Senior Tyler Craig has one error this season in 23 games -- a questionable one at that, Amalia said. That's remarkable for a shortstop, traditionally a position that produces a high percentage of errors because so many balls are hit sharply to that area of the field.
Lopez has only four errors at second base (additionally, he and designated hitter Brandon Mansell have been Blackhawk's hottest hitters in the playoffs). Junior center fieder Joe Chiappialle "has speed and gets a good jump on the ball," Amalia said.
The corner defensive spots have been just as effective. Senior Steve O'Hara has three outfield assists and has not committed an error, leading Amalia to call him "one of the best right fielders I've ever had defensively."
Senior Nick Martin has been virtually as reliable in left field, and the duo of Rousseau and McKay alternates between the mound and first base. Each fields his position well.
Blackhawk's playoff run might have ended before it even got started had third baseman Kearney not made a fine defensive play that saved a run late in the Cougars' win against Chartiers Valley in the first round.
Five of Blackhawk's 21 errors came in one game (an 8-6 victory against Mars Area April 9). Taking that contest away, the Cougars have 16 errors in their other 22 games -- a remarkable ratio for a high school team.
"There's no doubt the pitchers recognize [the excellent defense]," Amelia said. "They credit those guys a lot."
Thursday, June 7, 2012