California senior right-handed pitcher Josh Luko eagerly waited almost 48 hours for the WPIAL Class A baseball championship game to continue at Consol Energy Park.
The Trojans began their matchup with Carmichaels Tuesday night and tied the game at 1-1 before the WPIAL suspended play in the top of the fourth inning because of lightning.
With the title game tentatively scheduled to be continued Wednesday, Luko and his teammates arrived in full uniform at California Area High School in hope of claiming the program’s first WPIAL title since 2006, but WPIAL officials ultimately moved the game to Thursday.
The Trojans did not mind.
With timing on his side, Luko was able to take the mound for California and upheld his distinction as the best pitcher in Class A. The California University commit tossed four scoreless innings Thursday for a complete game and senior catcher Jake Columbus drove in the go-ahead run in the fourth inning as the Trojans defeated the Mikes, 6-1.
“That’s all I thought about,” Luko said. “Those two days could not have gone by any slower. I don’t think words can describe it. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
California (20-0) will face Cranberry (13-2), the second-place team out of District 9, Monday while Carmichaels (14-3) will play Southern Fulton, the District 5 champion. Sites and times will be determined this weekend.
Luko’s counterpart on the mound Tuesday night, Carmichaels senior pitcher Brandon Lawless, was unable to pitch Thursday. He faced three batters in the fourth inning Tuesday, and PIAA rules state a pitcher must have at least two full days of rest after pitching more than three innings.
Mikes head coach Scott VanSickle, who said Carmichaels players saw lightning during the second inning Tuesday, was not shy about voicing his displeasure with how the WPIAL handled Tuesday’s suspension, which resulted in his best pitcher missing the most important four innings of the season. He cited WPIAL officials caring more about Blackhawk pitcher Brendan McKay’s 69-inning scoreless streak than any other athlete.
“As long as (McKay) had his seven innings, everyone would be happy,” VanSickle said. “I don’t even know Brendan. I think he’s a great pitcher, but that’s what I’ve been thinking about, especially when you knew rain was coming. I think there are a lot of games for Quad-A and Triple-AAA that are more important to them than Single-A. That’s my personal opinion. They will say it’s wrong, but I’m entitled to my opinion.”
It did not take long for the Trojans to take advantage of Lawless’ replacement on the mound, sophomore Billy Bowlen. California had runners on first and second when the game resumed as Lawless issued back-to-back walks prior to play being suspended.
Senior Robbie DeFranco drilled the third pitch of Thursday’s first at-bat to right field for a single to load the bases. Columbus, who went 2-for-3 with two runs and an RBI, followed by driving in one run with a single to left field and sophomore shortstop Louden Conte hit a two-run single to give the Trojans a 4-1 lead.
California head coach Nick Damico implored his team to stay relaxed during the two-day wait. It was the third game of the season between the two teams and they had something Carmichaels did not – their ace pitcher.
“I told (Luko) it’s another game,” Damico said. “I think with our opponent being Carmichaels, we are familiar with them and we were more relaxed than we typically would be. We knew what to expect and there was no secret to what they would bring to us.”
California added two more runs in the bottom of the sixth inning. Columbus reached first on a one-out walk and stole second for the Trojans’ fifth stolen base of the game. Carmichaels intentionally walked junior center fielder Aaron Previsky to face senior third baseman Ronnie Baron in hope of inducing a double play.
Baron hit the fourth pitch of the at-bat over Mikes right fielder Reed Long’s head for a two-run double and a 6-1 lead California would not relinquish.
Carmichaels recorded just three hits Thursday and did not have a runner in scoring position until the sixth inning. Luko struck out nine batters – four coming in the final four innings – and threw 60 pitches just two days after tossing 52 through three innings.
“(Luko) hits the outside corner better than anybody I’ve seen,” Columbus said. “He usually doesn’t throw the ball right down the middle, and he keeps it down. He keeps them off balance with curveballs and he’s been dominant all season.”
After seeing his velocity drop five miles per hour on four days rest between the quarterfinals and semifinals, Luko was dominant when California needed him the most. He did not issue a walk and has allowed only two free passes all season.
On the other hand, Carmichaels used two different pitchers Thursday after Lawless was relegated to playing third base. Regardless of the immense impact VanSickle said his pitcher’s absence had on the morale of his team, Damico dismissed the notion.
“I don’t know if it made a difference or not,” Damico said. “I felt, personally, that we started to get to (Lawless) a little bit in the fourth inning and who knows what would have happened after that. He’s obviously their ace pitcher, and they are obviously a different team with him not on the mound. That’s all I can say about that.”