Dan Gerke and his Burlington Central teammates didn't clinch anything Tuesday, but their 7-3 victory over visiting rival Richmond-Burton gave them the inside track to a Big Northern East repeat.
Defending champion Central (13-7, 6-1) extended its BNC-East lead over R-B to 2 games in the loss column with 5 games remaining by prevailing in a battle between unbeaten aces.
Gerke held Richmond-Burton (11-7, 7-3) to 3 runs (2 earned) on 4 hits in 6-plus innings. The senior improved his record to 6-0 and lowered his ERA to 0.78 after walking 5 and striking out 4 in the opener of a 2-game series, which concludes Thursday in Richmond.
Just as importantly, Gerke smacked a 2-run, opposite-field, wind-aided home run to right in the fourth inning against Mike Kaska (5-1), who is slated to pitch next year at Wisconsin-Whitewater. The blast scored Cody Schuver, who drew a walk, and gave Central a 4-3 lead it never relinquished.
"I thought I hit it pretty well," Gerke said of his first home run this season. "Once it got up in that wind there was no way that jet stream wasn't going to help it out."
Burlington tacked on another run in the fourth to take a 5-3 lead when Jacob Schutta stole second and rounded the bases on an errant throw by the Richmond catcher.
Two Burlington Central insurance runs crossed in the fifth inning, thanks to Bryan Cynova's infield single and a bases-loaded walk by Gerke.
Kaska yielded all 7 Central runs (6 earned) on 7 hits, struck out 7 and walked 3. He was relieved after 5 innings and 102 pitches.
"We didn't expand the (strike) zone up and we didn't expand the zone out," Central coach Kyle Nelson said of his team's patient approach at the plate. "We just made him work."
Kaska fell behind 11 of the 26 hitters he faced, including three straight in the fourth inning leading up to Gerke's home run on a 2-0 count.
"He started working behind and that is not what Mike has done all year," R-B coach Mike Giese said of his third-year varsity pitcher. "He hasn't done that for a few years. I don't know. I don't have an explanation for it. I think sometimes you give your best effort and it just doesn't go right."
After Gerke walked the first two hitters he faced in the seventh, Jonathan Frederickson came on to earn his third save in as many opportunities. He retired three straight on an infield fly, a flyball to right field and a groundout to third base, where Schuver made a diving stop and scrambled to his feet in time to make an accurate throw.
"I just wanted to go in there, throw some strikes, throw it low and get out of the inning," Frederickson said.
Central jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first inning when Reed Hunnicutt's first triple of the season drove in Drew Wiss and Cynova's grounder scored Hunnicutt.
Richmond-Burton answered with a 3-run second inning that included 3 hits, a Central error, Jake Tieso's run-scoring sacrifice fly and Brian Wells' RBI fielder's choice.
Central's 5 remaining BNC-East games include Thursday's rematch against R-B and a pair of 2-game series against North Boone and Rockford Christian.
"They're a couple of games behind," Nelson said of Richmond-Burton, "but Thursday is a big one, too, because we have a lot of work yet to go."