West Xtra: Montour grad Birko is all-time hits leader at Point Park, but don't overlook his defense


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A career .344 batter with 140 RBIs, Point Park redshirt senior Tom Birko made a name for himself at the plate, earning a second-team All-KIAC nomination this season after two first-team selections the past two years while setting the Pioneers' all-time career hits record April 27.

But it's his effort in the field, he said, that he takes most pride in.

Birko, a Montour High School graduate from Kennedy Township, was named All-Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Gold Glove at second base with a .960 fielding percentage, which led all KIAC second basemen, third basemen and shortstops.

"I pride myself on my defense," said Birko, a 5-foot-10, 180-pounder who bats left and throws right-handed. "I was honored to get the gold glove.

"I was hoping I would get it last year. I only had three errors last year and didn't get it. I get upset when I make an error. The gold glove, that's what I'm most proud of. I love that."

"He's a solid defender," Point Park coach Loren Torres said. "That's something that not a lot of people give him credit for, the ability to play defense out there and be a leader. He does both. He runs the bases well, plays defense. He's a leader."

Birko is also the leader in career hits.

In the KIAC tournament championship April 27 against No. 3 seed IU Southeast, the top-seeded Pioneers posted a 3-1 victory to successfully defend their championship from a year ago and qualify for the NAIA national tournament.

In the championship game, Birko, who bats leadoff, ended up going 3 for 4 to push his career hits total to 217, breaking the record of 216 set by Mike Smith from 1997-2000.

As a freshman in 2010, Birko ended up with 33 hits while batting .330 but redshirted in 2011 with a shoulder injury. In 2012 he batted .322 with 64 hits, and last year as a junior he ended up with 59 hits while batting .364.

"We have 47 years of baseball at Point Park," Torres said. "It's one of the most successful programs in the city of Pittsburgh, if you look at the winning percentage and the trips to the World Series. For a kid to come in and break that record is pretty impressive."

As impressive a record as it is, Birko said he wasn't even aware of it at the time because the Pioneers were on a mission to capture another conference championship.

"It wasn't even in my mind once we got to the conference tournament. People kept asking me about it but I honestly wasn't even thinking about it.

"When I got the tying hit and they announced it over the loud speaker, I had totally forgotten about it. When I came up the next time, we had a guy on second base and I knew I had to get him over so I wasn't even thinking about getting a hit right there. I got a hit, though, and I broke it."

But now he's happy to have the record over and done with.

"It definitely takes some weight off my shoulders, that's for sure. When I was around 200, 205, I was thinking about it. We went to the conference tournament and I knew I needed seven to break it but then I wasn't even thinking about it. I thought all we need to do is keep winning, and if we kept winning I was going to break it eventually."

Point Park (40-18) drew the No. 2 seed in the Marion (Ind.) bracket of the NAIA national tournament and opened the five-team, double-elimination tournament with an 8-4 loss against No. 3 seed Mt. Vernon Nazarene (43-10) Monday. The Pioneers were eliminated from the tournament Tuesday after a 6-3 loss to Midland (Neb.).

For the season, Birko batted .335 (64 for 191) with 64 hits, 11 doubles, 2 triples, 2 home runs with 40 RBIs and 35 walks. He is also 9 of 10 in stolen bases.

Birko finished his career at Point Park with 220 hits.

Despite several Pioneers having better statistics, Birko was voted team most valuable player last week by his teammates and coaches.

"Birko has been consistent for four years for us," Torres said. "Not too many kids get to start as freshmen in programs that are competing nationally. Kids coming out of high school have to transition.

"Freshmen often play in programs that aren't competing nationally but if the program is competing nationally usually they have a core group of juniors and seniors that carry the team and the freshmen have to work their way in. Birko came in as a freshman and did really well for us.

"One of the things I give him most credit for is he gives max effort in everything he does. He never goes 80 or 90 percent, he's always max effort."

Birko also realizes that without a strong supporting cast, no matter how much effort he gave, he would have been nowhere near the career hits record.

"I have to give credit to my teammates," he said, "getting me up there so many times and winning that many games to get me so many at-bats to be able to succeed and do that. I've always been able to hit pretty good for average, but because of them I got to see a lot of pitches."

*

NOTE -- Other Pioneers chosen for team awards at their annual team dinner May 7 were Oscar Romero (offensive player of the year, batting champ), Yuliecer Arias (defensive player of the year), Alex Mateo (pitcher of the year), Michael DeJesus (newcomer of the year) and Jake Horew (freshman of the year).

Rick Davis: rdavis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3789.


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