By CONOR NICHOLL
In the spring, Hays Larks manager Frank Leo thought he had Stefan Lopez of Southeastern Louisiana to close games. Instead, Lopez got hurt and couldn't pitch this summer. Leo talked with Seth Fortenberry, a former Lark who now is an assistant coach at Sam Houston State. Fortenberry had a closer in Michael Burchett, who saved seven games in the spring.
Burchett had no other place to go and didn't know anyone in Hays. He didn't even know that All-Stars Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman had played for the Larks until midway through the summer.
The late pickup, though, has produced a terrific season.
"It was a great blessing to actually come here and close," Burchett said.
Burchett has pitched in a team-high 24 games (no one else has thrown in more than 14) with 10 saves, second all-time in Larks history. On Monday, he threw four scoreless innings to earn the win in a 6-5, 12-inning victory against Crestwood (Ill.) in the first round of the NBC World Series. The outing dropped Burchett's earned-run average to 1.15, second-best on the team.
"He was doing everything he was advertised," Leo said. "He had a bunch of saves for Sam Houston and they told me he was a competitor. He likes to be in those situations. We are seeing that night in and night out. He is money. ... He is right up there with the best of them."
The win moved Hays in a winners' bracket game Thursday at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in Wichita. The Larks likely will be playing at 7:30 p.m., but the NBC bracket had not been updated this morning.
"It's huge because if we lost, we would have to play at 1 o'clock and it would be 120, 130 out there," Burchett said. "Now, we get to play at 7:30 at night where it feels good and it's not as hot."
Burchett posted a 19/7 strikeout to walk rate in 271βΡ3 innings for the Larks during the regular season.
Burchett doesn't have a blazing fastball, but he throws from a three-quarters delivery. Burchett made the change his freshman year at Sam Houston and struggled. Since then, he has continually improved.
"Guy is unbelievable," Larks outfielder Cody Gougler said. "He is just a bulldog. He doesn't have the best stuff in the world for a closer, but he has got heart and he knows how to pitch. So happy that he is on our team and he is also a great person. I wouldn't want anybody else out there in a tough situation."
Burchett delivered a 2.25 ERA in 44 innings this spring. He throws a two-seam fastball, slider and changeup, but stayed with fastball and slider on Monday.
"I throw a two-seam with a bunch of sink and tail," Burchett said. "I have to throw it when I don't throw 90 like everybody else."
Plus, Burchett has the mindset necessary to close, something that has helped him to remain steady in the ninth this summer.
"He has movement," Leo said. "He knows how to go both sides of the plate and he knows how to compete. But knowing how to compete is probably the biggest thing at this level. If you can compete and find ways to win and get things done, you can't coach a guy, you can't teach a guy to do that, it's got to be innate, and he has got it."