Brendan McKay is more accustomed to winning games as a starter on the Blackhawk High School baseball team.
The Louisville recruit still looked pretty comfortable – and dominant – in a closer’s role.
McKay pitched the final three innings against Somerset and struck out eight of the 10 batters he faced to earn the win as the Cougars edged Somerset 4-3 in the first round of the PIAA Class AAA playoffs at Peoples Natural Gas Field.
“It’s nice to have that sitting down in the bullpen at the end of the game,” Somerset coach Steve Costea said, referring to McKay. “We had a game plan. We tried to stick to it. It just didn’t work out.
“He has two or three curveballs. He’ll change speeds on those. He has a big hammer. Thursday or Friday you’ll probably be hearing his name again (during the Major League Baseball draft).”
Somerset closed an 18-2-1 season that included the program’s sixth District 6 Class AAA title since 1988 and second in a row.
“When you reach this time of the season, you can pick apart anything or everything,” Costea said. “There are things I could have done differently. The constant is the kids played well and represented us and Somerset really well.
“They played good baseball and we faced a pretty good team. We just ran into a buzz saw and a lot of people have done that this year against him.”
Blackhawk (15-3) advances to play either District 3 champion Northern York or District 1 runner-up Harriton in the next round.
The Cougars lost the WPIAL title game to West Allegheny in eight innings late last week.
In that game, McKay’s streak of consecutive scoreless innings ended at 72 1/3, which tied for second in U.S. baseball history.
The left-handed McKay didn’t have enough days rest to start on Monday, but he still had an impressive outing in relief.
“We got the lead and we got him on the mound,” Blackhawk coach Bob Amalia said. “He’s a special player. Between high school and Legion I’ve been doing this 26 or 27 years. We’ve had three kids since 2000 play in Triple-A (in the minor leagues) and one made it to the majors. He’s better than all of those guys.”
McKay has an 8-1 record this season (30-2 career) with 119 strikeouts and eight walks. His ERA was 0.66 before he threw three more scoreless frames.
“We bounced back after losing a tough game. That was the first time he gave up a run in 72 1/3 innings,” Amalia said. “Then, I look at the bracket and we’re playing these guys, and they’re 18-1. Our kids have a lot of character.”
McKay also can hit. He entered the game with a .440 batting average. Costea eventually intentionally walked him three times.
Blackhawk’s Chase Migliore walked and scored on McKay’s triple to deep right field in the top of the first.
Somerset got lead-off batter Tanner Stull to third base via a steal and wild pitch after his infield single, but junior starter Dante Parente got out of the inning with an infield pop out and two strikeouts.
The Cougars added two unearned runs in the second. Jake Emge reached on an error. Tyler Shroads walked with two outs, and Migliore and Rich Rowe followed with run-scoring singles.
Costea opted to intentionally walk McKay to load the bases for clean-up hitter Joe Campagna. DiRienzo got him to fly out to center field to get out of the jam.
“Timely hitting,” Amalia said. “We had some big hits early. We wanted to get on (Somerset starter Alex Dirienzo) right away because we knew he’s a good pitcher, 9-0.”
The Eagles tied the game at 3-all in the third, sending eight batters to the plate and collecting five hits.
Seth Rose and Stull opened the frame with back-to-back infield singles. Ross Dirienzo moved up the runners with a sacrifice bunt.
Alex Dirienzo and Raven Beeman each hit run-scoring singles, and Michael VanLenten walked. A wild pitch led to the tying run.
“We tied it up and that kept us right there,” Costea said. “We kept it nip-and-tuck and just kept playing baseball. We just couldn’t push across a run the rest of the way.”
Bryce Mostoller’s single to center chased Parente with the bases loaded. Reliever Cody Bain threw two pitches – the second one resulting in Doug Berkebile’s squeeze bunt that Bain fielded to start a 1-2-3, inning-ending double play.
“The play on the bunt that went back to our pitcher, we got out of that one,” Amalia said.
Bain pitched 1 2/3 innings before McKay entered the game with a runner on second and no outs in the bottom of the fifth. He struck out the side on 13 pitches.
“I wanted to bring him in to start the fifth, but they wanted to wait and see,” Amalia said of his staff. “Our goal was to get to the fifth. For a while it looked good, and then it didn’t look good.”
The Cougars took a 4-3 lead in the sixth. Shroads doubled and Migliore tripled.
“The double by Tyler Shroads, our No. 9 hitter, and the triple (by Migliore) were big,” Amalia said. “I’m proud of our kids. We battled hard when they came back. (Somerset) had all the momentum after the big inning.”
Alex Dirienzo pitched a strong game with seven strikeouts and six walks.
He allowed seven hits. Ross Dirienzo pitched a scoreless seventh.
“Alex sucked it up,” Costea said. “The seniors all will be missed. Alex came out here and did what he needed to do. He kept a very good team to low runs.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.