West Xtra: Pioneers help to bolster Steel City

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When Point Park University lost to Midland (Neb.) in the consolation bracket of the NAIA national tournament last month, it ended the career of the Pioneers' all-time hits leader, Montour alumnus Tom Birko.

But it didn't end Birko's time playing baseball with many of his Point Park teammates. He's carried that relationship over to the summer.

Birko is one of nine current or former Point Park players on the Steel City Black Sox team that won 11 of its first 12 games this summer in the Greater Pittsburgh Federation League.

"We're getting a big contribution from the Point Park players," Steel City coach Dustin Mills said. "They've been key for us."

Birko played for Steel City for the first time last season, and is one of three other current or former Point Park players, along with Dante Vaccaro, Don McDuffee and Josh Brooks, who is a returning player for the Black Sox.

Steel City finished second to St. Johns-Lefty's in the Fed League last season and qualified for the National Amateur Baseball Federation regional tournament, where it finished 1-2.

One area where the Black Sox needed to get deeper was pitching behind its ace, Steve Long, a North Hills High School and Seton Hill University alumnus. So Birko went to work on his Point Park teammates.

"Dustin talked to me to see if I could find anyone interested in playing [for Steel City]," Birko said. "I've enjoyed playing with the [Point Park players] these last few years; they're good character people. So I guess you could say I recruited them.

"They've made the team much better. Pitching depth was a weakness. Now, we had a doubleheader [Sunday] and we had two starters and five relievers for the games, and they were all good."

Point Park senior right-handers Isaiah Marsh and John Corcoran (Fox Chapel), junior left-hander Nathan Sphon (Greensburg Salem), as well as 2013 Point Park graduate Ryan Loutsenhizer (Norwin) and 2012 graduate Derek Peluso (Seneca Valley).

Marsh, Corcoran and Sphon combined to go 15-6 with a 2.78 ERA in 155 innings this past season for the Pioneers.

They have helped a Black Sox pitching staff that had allowed only 23 runs in 12 games entering this week.

The offense has also been clicking, scoring 71 runs in that span. Birko, a second baseman, has been one of the catalysts, usually hitting leadoff or second in the lineup. He finished his Point Park career with a .344 average with 140 RBIs and a school-record 220 hits.

"He's consistent; he always puts the ball in play," Mills said. "He's a spark plug on the team."

He's also made Mills' job as coach easier.

"He's a leader," Mills said. "He's a little older and the Point Park guys look up to him. It makes my job easier because I don't have to manage a large part of the team since he has such a good rapport with the Point Park guys."

For Birko, playing for the Black Sox is an enjoyable experience. He said that after putting his body through a lot with practices and games nearly everyday at Point Park, it's been nice to just show up and play on game days with the Black Sox.

But that doesn't mean he's content with Steel City's failure to reach the NABF World Series last season.

In fact, he's hoping to get there this season and equal what Federation League foe St. Johns-Lefty's did last season -- win the whole thing.

"I think we're capable of winning that national championship," Birko said. "St. Johns did it last year and we didn't have the pitching then to beat them. But I have high hopes this season. I feel like we can do it.

"Our team is better than the one a few years ago that finished as the national runner-up, just talking with the players that were on that team."

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