By Matt Popchock
On a pretty Thursday night in Washington County, we discovered the greatest tightrope-walker western Pennsylvania has seen since Nik Wallenda crossed the Allegheny River live on KDKA-AM during Regatta weekend.
But this person isn’t in the circus, nor the Guinness Book of World Records, nor his own prime-time television special.
Actually, he’s a sophomore at Blackhawk High School.
Blackhawk lefty Brendan McKay pitched 5 2/3 perfect innings and survived a perfectly imperfect bottom of the seventh inning to give the Cougars (21-2) a 1-0 win over Belle Vernon (18-5) at CONSOL Energy Park in the WPIAL Class AAA Baseball Final. It’s the second district championship for the program, which also earned one in 2004, though it wasn’t secure until a 1-2-3 double play ended the game with the bases full of Leopards.
It’s the sixth consecutive shutout for the Cougars, who haven’t been scored upon since an 8-2 decision over section rival Moon May 3. More incredibly, it’s McKay’s third straight 1-0 postseason win.
“I hadn’t really thought about [the perfect game], but in the late innings it’s there on my mind. I know I have it, but I just try to keep working,” said McKay, who raised his record to 8-1 and struck out 11 while walking two. He has now fanned 86 on the year against a mere 11 free passes en route to a first-round bye in the state tournament, whereas Belle Vernon will meet District 9 champion Punxsutawney Monday.
“I dream about this in class every day. I always wonder if I’m going to be tremendous, or if I’m going to have to fight.”
So far it’s been a little bit of both.
Those other nail-biters came against Chartiers Valley in the WPIAL Quarterfinals, and Thomas Jefferson and much-ballyhooed Pitt recruit Greg Schneider, who matched McKay’s 15 K’s in a nine-inning semifinal affair. This contest would also test the blood pressure of just about everyone in attendance, including McKay’s veteran manager, Bob Amalia.
“These kids play [American] Legion ball…they won their region, went to states, then went to nationals, so we have a lot of big-time experience.” said Amalia. “That’s where we try to build them for these situations. It was a great team effort.”
Perhaps Amalia’s reputed hands-on approach has bolstered young Brendan?
“I just try not to screw him up, to be honest with you,” the old skipper quipped.
That’s okay. McKay also went 2-for-3 at the plate with an intentional walk, and even though his teammates aren’t seeing the ball as well as Amalia would probably like, the former’s ERA can’t be seen with the naked eye. It stands at under 0.50 entering next week’s PIAA playoffs.
“He was really good, and he’s always composed. He was like that when we got him. He’s just a tremendous pitcher.”
The only run came in the top of the fourth inning. Shortstop Tyler Craig lined a double down the line to begin the frame and advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by Steve O’Hara. A single to right-center by utility infielder Joe Lopez (tonight, the second baseman) brought Craig home.
That’s all Blackhawk could manage off Belle Vernon starter Dylan Pietrantoni, another sophomore, who took the tough-luck loss despite not allowing a hit the rest of the way. Pietrantoni scattered six of them and walked and struck out four apiece.
With Blackhawk still threatening after the Lopez RBI, he got Cole Chiapialle to fly out to roughly the same spot, and got Brendan Kearney to dribble back to the mound. The Leopards’ hurler had also induced a Kearney ground out with the bases loaded to end the top of the second.
In addition, the Cougars looked like they would finally make life easier for McKay when they put runners on second and third with only one out in their half of the seventh. But Pietrantoni struck out Nick Martin with a 3-2 breaking ball, and after McKay was walked, he retired Ohio State recruit Matt Emge on a fielder’s choice.
Meanwhile, McKay mixed his stuff as effectively as one could under such an intense spotlight. He punched out five in a row at one point, and only pitched to ball three on three occasions. Only four pitches left the infield prior to a well struck two-out single by Dean Manown–ironically, the No. 9 hitter–that bounced in front of O’Hara in the bottom of the sixth.
Amazingly, it almost wasn’t enough. Adam Ferita drew a one-out, full-count walk and went to third on a single to left by DH Dom Francia, who went to second on a fielder’s choice. A base on balls to Joe Simsic loaded the bases for third baseman Matt Callaway, much to the delight of Belle Vernon’s increasingly fanatical fans.
That half of the park was quieted when Callaway couldn’t help but bounce an 0-1 pitch right back to McKay. He calmly threw to Emge, who stepped on the plate and fired to first baseman Adam Rousseau for the right to wear a gold medal…and exhale.
And all this, ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, without the safety of a net.
“We have great senior leadership one through nine,” McKay remarked. “They know what to do, and they’re ready for this. We have a tremendous work ethic, we push ourselves, and we get better every day.”
“I’m getting nervous,” said Amalia, with, in fact, a nervous smile. “But these kids show a lot of character. We’ll break out.”
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)