by Alan Hoskins
Over the course of 35 years of coaching, Steve Burleson has lost a lot of mind-jarring losses but none quite like Kansas City Kansas Community College’s two losses in the finals of the super-regional at Wichita Tuesday night.
With a berth in the NJCAA World Series on the line, the Blue Devils were forced into a second game by an 8-1 loss to No. 1 seeded and 5th ranked Johnson County in the first game of the double elimination tournament – and then held without a hit in a 2-0 loss in the decisive final game.
“I’ve never taken a bus ride like that one home,” said Burleson. “There literally was not a word spoken. After three good wins over three good teams with a day’s rest and a good workout in between, nothing told me we’d only score one run in 18 innings or that we’d be no-hit and strike out 11 times in the final game of the year.
“I guess as basketball coaches say, we were just not able to finish. We were the hottest team in the conference for a time but were just not able to finish, something I’m sure a lot of players and coaches will be wondering why for a long time. But I don’t want to take anything away from Johnson County. It’s hard to win 50 games in a year. They pushed us around in the first game and dominated us in the second with their pitching.”
KCKCC (39-22) had two early scoring opportunities in the second game. JCCC starter Dalton Gulick walked Christian Arnold and Tyler Raymond with one out in the second but escaped on a ground ball and pop foul and then hit Luke Norton and walked Tanner Thibodeau with one out in the third.
Summoned from the bullpen, sophomore Connor Miller struck out Garrett McKinzie and got Arnold on a fly to center – and then finished with six perfect innings. Retiring all 20 batters he faced, Miller struck out 10 in recording just his second win of the season.
Lost in the no-hitter was a superb pitching effort by KCKCC freshman lefthander Hunter Phillips (9-7), who gave up just five hits, struck out five and walked two – and two tainted runs. Scoreless through four innings, JCCC’s John Fairchild walked to lead off the fifth, moved up to second on a bunt and held there on Alec Alvarez’s fly to Luke Norton in center. However, Norton’s throw to the infield eluded three Blue Devils and then found a 5-foot opening in the JCCC dugout and Fairfield was allowed to score an unearned run.
The Cavaliers’ second run scored in the seventh when Hayden Steele doubled to left and Ben Calvano lobbed a single into short rightfield on which Arnold made a perfect one hop throw to the plate that was dropped. It was one of four outstanding plays by Arnold, who made three spectacular diving catches in the two games.
One bad inning proved the Blue Devils’ downfall in the opener. KCKCC starter Geoffrey Birkemeier, who had beaten JCCC 3-2 in the tournament opener on Friday, pitched hitless ball over the first three innings only to have the Cavaliers bunch two doubles and four singles in the fourth for a 5-0 lead. Two more runs scored after a leadoff error in the seventh after KCKCC had closed to 5-1 in the top of the seventh.
The lone KCKCC run came on a sacrifice fly by Norton after leadoff singles by Alex Thrower and Tanner Foerschler and Zane Mapes’ sacrifice bunt. Southpaw Aaron Schnurbusch (10-2), the pitcher of the year in the Jayhawk East, went the distance on an 8-hitter, walking one and striking out seven.
Facing elimination after the opening loss to KCKCC, JCCC (50-12) won six straight games including the last four in a period of 30 hours – eliminating Garden City 3-1 and Cowley 8-7 in 12 innings Sunday and then KCKCC 8-1 and 2-0. The win advances the Cavaliers to the NJCAA World Series for the first time since 2008.
Alan Hoskins is the sports information director for KCKCC.