SOMERSET – A possible broken rib, watching five walks from his starting pitcher and just four hits from Carmichaels’ offense would not stop head coach Scott VanSickle from smiling Monday evening.
After taking a foul line drive to the rib cage in the sixth inning and watching his team almost surrender a four-run lead, VanSickle witnessed senior pitcher Brandon Lawless recover from four straight walks to finish with nine strikeouts in the Carmichaels’ 5-4 win over Southern Fulton in a PIAA Class A first-round game at Somerset High School.
The state playoff win is Carmichaels’ first since 2008 and sends the Mikes (15-3) to the PIAA quarterfinals to face Elk County Catholic (23-0), the District 9 champions, Thursday at a site and time to be determined.
Lawless mirrored VanSickle’s look of relief following the game after his breaking pitches failed him in the late innings and the Indians put the tying run in scoring position three times.
“(Brandon) is our leader,” VanSickle said. “He’s my horse out there and them almost tying that game shows they have won 22 games for a reason. They are one heck of a ball club.”
The Mikes’ hard-throwing pitcher retired nine of 11 batters heading into the fifth inning, when his breaking pitches left him. After striking out the leadoff batter in the fifth, Lawless walked four straight batters to give Southern Fulton its second run of the game – a stretch that included 13 straight balls thrown.
The Indians (22-3) added two more runs when senior lefty Jordan Clingerman, who started the game despite having a broken bone in his right (non-pitching) hand, hit a two-run single up the middle to draw Southern Fulton to within one run.
“We know (Lawless) reached the 1,000-pitch mark on the season so we told the kids to work him and make him throw strikes in the later innings,” Southern Fulton head coach Dustin Fischer said. “He is the best pitcher we’ve seen this year.”
Lawless recorded two straight outs to end the fifth inning rally, but it did not come without some frustration, as he leaned heavily on his fastball after his curveball lost movement.
“I really don’t know what happened,” Lawless said. “I just started missing my spots. The zone seemed to tighten a bit. My slider and curve weren’t making it, so I figured I had to stick to my fastball.”
The senior sat on a crate in Carmichaels’ dugout in the top of the sixth inning – reflecting on the pain he felt seeing California defeat the Mikes in the WPIAL title game last week without him on the mound. With a five-inning limit for a pitcher to be able to throw in a team’s PIAA quarterfinal game, VanSickle did not think twice about putting Lawless back in the game.
The result was just two base runners, one coming on a throwing error in the sixth inning and an infield single in the seventh. Lawless struck out two batters in the final two innings and ended the game by inducing a groundout.
The two teams combined for nine runs on just eight hits with the Mikes’ run in the top of the fourth inning, which came on a balk by Indians relief pitcher Connor Litton, being the insurance they needed.
“Even though the score was 5-1 after the fourth inning, I knew we always find a way to make things more interesting than it needs to be,” VanSickle said. “Whenever you walk four batters in one inning, things are going to get interesting.”
The Mikes took an early 2-0 lead in the first inning when senior Brennen McMinn hit a leadoff single before coming around to score on an error and sophomore Billy Bowlen scored on a wild pitch.
Southern Fulton added a run in the first when Litton hit a leadoff homer over the left field fence. Carmichaels added two runs in the second on a RBI single by Ryan Zalar and a fielder’s choice by junior Michael Blasinsky.
Lawless’ streak of dominance boosted the Mikes’ offense when hits did not come easy off Litton’s fastball. After throwing seven innings, Lawless will not be eligible to play in Carmichaels’ quarterfinal game Thursday against Elk County Catholic, unless some unorthodox magic works for VanSickle.
“I’m going to do a rain dance,” VanSickle joked. “Someone has to step up. Brandon has to sit at least three days. I was hoping we’d be up 10-0 in the fifth inning so we could save him, but that didn’t happen.”