Baseball: Person nearly pitches no-hitter to send Burlington Central to regional final
As the ball dropped to the grass in short center field, Burlington Central pitcher Michael Person put his hands on his head and squatted down briefly on the mound.
One out away from pitching a postseason no-hitter, he now knew it was close, but no cigar.
Still, he bounced right back to strike out the final Dixon hitter, and finished with 13 strikeouts in a one-hitter as the Rockets defeated the Dukes 8-0 in their Class 3A Rochelle Regional semifinal at the Douglas A. Creason Athletic Complex.
Central (18-17) advances to Saturday's regional title game against Sterling at 2 p.m.
The lone hit Person allowed was a blooper that fell in between three Central defenders behind second base with two outs in the top of the seventh. Dixon's Quade Richards popped up a 2-2 pitch, and Rockets center fielder Chase Powrozek came charging in as shortstop Brady Gilroy and second baseman Jake Herman gave chase from the infield. Powrozek made a valiant effort to catch it, diving to try and glove it to preserve the no-hitter, but he couldn't come up with the catch.
"I thought Chase had it for a second. He came in hard, and props to him for the effort," Person said.
That was about the only thing that didn't go the Rockets' way in this one. Solo home runs by Gilroy and Matthew Lemon in the first two innings helped stake Central to a 5-0 lead, and Person was masterful on the mound.
He allowed just four baserunners in the game, and pitched 1-2-3 innings in the first, fourth, fifth and sixth, needing just 96 pitches in a complete game.
"We were just working to spots today, inside, outside, up and down with the curveball, fastball and changeup; I had all three today," Person said. "And my defense made some great plays behind me. It was just a good game all around.
"We jumped on them early, and it's nice to pitch when you have a lead. The bats definitely helped; they came alive late there, too, so it was nice to see. It was a good team win."
Mitchell Pedrigi had an RBI on a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch in the first inning, then Jake Johnson drove in a run with a two-out double in the second before a two-out error made it 5-0 Rockets.
Central tacked on three unearned runs in the sixth, with one run scoring on an error before Powrozek ripped a two-out, two-run single to left.
AJ Payton had three singles up the middle for the Rockets, and he also scored twice, Johnson was 2 for 3 with the double, and his courtesy runner, Cam Sarallo, also scored a pair of runs. Six different Rockets had hits, six players scored runs, and five guys finished with RBIs.
"It's kind of just being able to jump on the fastball and then adjust to the off-speed. I think that's what everyone did pretty well with," Payton said. "Brady and Lemon both hit home runs; they saw a lot of off-speed throughout the whole game, so they were able to adjust really well."
The early homers set the tone.
"They helped us a ton. One of the things we've struggled with this year is energy, so it was really great to see everyone up and screaming," Payton said. "No one was expecting home runs today with the wind blowing in, so seeing that happen really made us realize that we were in this game."
The best chance to score for Dixon (19-9) was the top of the second, when the Dukes had a pair of baserunners reach to start the inning. Ari Selmani beat out a ground ball to shortstop that was bobbled, then Richards worked the count full and drew a walk. James Leslie laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to move them runners to second and third.
But after a strikeout, Central catcher Johnson threw behind Richards at second base and picked him off. Richards took off toward third and tried to get in a rundown, so Selmani took off toward home, but was tagged out to end the threat.
"We ran into a buzz saw. They can hit, and that young man threw a great game," Dixon coach Jason Burgess said. "We didn't catch up to him very well, we didn't adjust -- obviously, it took us until the seventh inning to get a legit base hit. The guys battled and battled, but 13 strikeouts, you're not going to win a regional game striking out that often.
"And again, kudos to Burlington, they've got a great team, and they can swing it. One through nine, they can hit."