Centennial baseball coach Ron Martin has waited all season for the old Brian Bickerton to emerge.
Bickerton rewarded Martin's patience Thursday with an exclamation point, as he overmatched host Mount Hebron with a two-hit masterpiece to carry the Eagles to a crucial 2-1 victory.
The victory reversed a 15-2 rout by Hebron two days earlier, and, more importantly, kept Centennial alive for a fourth-seed, Class 3A Region III playoff berth. The Eagles (8-4, 10-7) must sweep a doubleheader from Wilde Lake tomorrow to give themselves a chance at postseason action. A loss likely would eliminate them.
Bickerton did his part to get the Eagles this far. From the beginning against Hebron, the senior right-hander was overpowering. He remained strong as the game progressed, before winding up with a season-high 15 strikeouts.
The Vikings (8-5, 12-7) offered mostly feeble swings and pained expressions to Bickerton, who blew them away with fastballs and froze them with curves.
Eight of his 15 strikeout victims went down looking. At one point early in the game, Bickerton fanned six straight batters. He struck out at least two each inning, and retired the side on strikes in the second. Aside from their two singles, the Vikings never got the ball out of the infield.
"He [Bickerton] can shut a team down, and there aren't that many guys in the county who can do that," Martin said. "He threw so well. You saw his best game of the year. That was last year's form."
It's been a baffling spring at times for Bickerton. While he has shown glimpses of his superb junior season, when he was an All-County first team pitcher with an 8-2 record and a 1.63 ERA, this season has been somewhat of a struggle for the Eagles' No. 1 starter.
Bickerton entered the Hebron game with an ordinary 3-3 record and 2.51 ERA, due partly to an unreliable defense and his spotty control. The Eagles have averaged four errors a game. Bickerton, who tends to be wild at times, entered the game averaging six walks.
He was far from perfect against Hebron. He walked four, and often went to three-ball counts. But the Vikings, who are headed for the Class 2A Region II playoffs, could not capitalize on their rare opportunities.
"When he [Bickerton] pitches like that, I don't see anybody hitting him. He's got a lot of talent. I can't believe he was 3-3," Hebron coach Dave Appleby said. "We were overmatched. He was the difference."
"That's what I needed," said Bickerton. "This is the first game when I've really felt in control. One of my biggest problems is I was trying to overpower everyone with my fastball.
"I started out the first few games striking everybody out with it, and I figured I could just rely on that. Then I got into the county and guys started hitting it. The last few games, I've worked the curve back in."
The Vikings gave Bickerton all the breathing room he needed in the top of the first by putting starter Steve Lawson (1-2) in a 2-0 hole with a defensive lapse. After Brian Kujawa and Kurt Weitzel opened with singles, Bickerton hit a grounder that went under the glove of second baseman Ron Bates, allowing Kujawa to score.
Then, after Chris Calimari grounded into a double play -- the first of three turned by Hebron -- Bates booted a grounder by Brent Mertes. Weitzel scored to make it 2-0.
Bickerton did the rest. After retiring six of the first seven Hebron batters on strikes, he got into his first jam in the third inning. Mike Carter singled for Hebron's first hit, and after Mike Cole sacrificed him to second, Bickerton walked Bates and Alan Vandenberge to load the bases with two out. He escaped by fanning Tony Yanero on a 1-2 fastball.
After breezing through the fourth and fifth innings, Bickerton finally blinked in the sixth. Vandenberge opened the inning by reaching on second baseman Joe Mellendick's error, only his second miscue of the season.
Then, after Vandenberge was sacrificed to second, Chris Leinauer singled him home to close the gap to 2-1. Leinauer then took second on a wild pitch, and advanced to third when Bickerton tossed an errant pickoff throw into center field. Bickerton regained his composure quickly by striking out Mike D'Stefano and Lars Nelson to end the inning.
Bickerton had to undo his own damage again in Hebron's final at-bat. With one out, he walked Carter, then sent a pickoff throw sailing past first base, allowing Carter to take second.
But Bickerton muscled up one last time. He fanned Cole looking, then retired Bates on a ground ball back to the mound to end the game.