1. Sports

State baseball: Steinbrenner doesn't sweat close games

Steinbrenner junior CJ Van Eyk delivers pretty much every time out, boasting a 0.83 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 84 innings.
Steinbrenner junior CJ Van Eyk delivers pretty much every time out, boasting a 0.83 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 84 innings.
Published May 18, 2016

LUTZ — One run.

That's been the unofficial rallying cry for Steinbrenner in this year's baseball postseason.

If the Warriors' offense can find a way to scrape across one run, then the defense and lively right arm of junior ace CJ Van Eyk should be able to put the game away. It worked against Sickles in the Class 8A, District 5 semifinals in a 1-0 win. It worked against Durant in the region semifinals, another 1-0 win. And it worked against East Lake in last week's region final, when Steinbrenner exploded for three runs and won 3-0.

The only team in the playoffs to score (twice) off Van Eyk was Plant City. But Steinbrenner came up with a run in the bottom of the seventh to escape with another one-run win.

Van Eyk will be on the mound Friday night when the Warriors play Westland Hialeah in the Class 8A state semifinals in Fort Myers. The goal? To score at least one run.

"That's all we need," senior outfielder Drew Burkhart said. "CJ tells us that he can do it if we give him the runs. That's what gives us confidence as an offense. We know if we can get a few, CJ will take over."

Van Eyk has been one of the area's top pitchers all season, especially in the playoffs. In 28 innings pitched since the district semifinal, he has allowed one earned run, 16 hits and struck out 38. In the win over Sickles, he gave up just one hit and struck out 10. Against East Lake, he struck out 13.

Thanks to a new tournament format that spreads the three region games over three weeks, teams can use their ace all the way through the state semifinals. No team has taken more advantage of that than Steinbrenner.

"None of our other pitchers have thrown for over a month," coach John Crumbley said. "That's just the way it worked out. Nobody in their right mind would save your No. 1 pitcher for the finals when it might not happen."

For the season, Van Eyk is 11-1 with a 0.83 ERA. In 84 innings, he has struck out 123 and walked 16. Throw in his sophomore season, and Van Eyk has won 18 of his 19 starts. His only loss was in March against Plant, when he gave up five runs in six innings.

"I'm going to compete and no one is going to beat me, that's my mind-set," said Van Eyk, who is committed to Florida State. "If we have the lead then I always think that I can shut the other team down."

It is no surprise that the Warriors are still alive. They return most of the team that lost to Durant in last year's region semifinals in 12 innings. Yes, Van Eyk, who is also hitting .320 with 12 RBIs, is the key returner. But he's not all the Warriors have.

Junior first baseman/pitcher Patrick Morris is hitting .368 and has nine doubles and 20 RBIs. Senior third baseman Bradley Hession isn't far behind with a .364 average and a team high 22 RBIs. Burkhart is hitting .348 with 13 RBIs.

"We had a good team last year, but this year we added some younger players and I knew we would be even better," Burkhart said. "We had hitting last year, but this year I think everyone in our lineup can hit."

The Warriors (25-5) found out just how good of a tournament team they were when they won the Saladino title during spring break. They won all six games in the tournament, including extra-inning wins over Brandon and Alonso, the latter of which is also at state.

"We know that if we can win the Saladino tournament then we can win the state championship," Morris said. "Saladino is really hard to win."

After losing to Plant and Hillsborough in late March, Steinbrenner has won 12 straight. While this will be the program's first state tournament appearance, it is one of many for Crumbley. Crumbley took Jesuit to 17 state tournaments, including 15 straight from 1992-2006. His teams won three state titles.

Whether a fourth title will be his is still to be determined, but Crumbley believes his team is playing its best baseball now.

"Everything has fallen in place for us," he said. "Since that (Saladino) tournament we've pretty much been firing on all cylinders."

Contact Rodney Page at Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.


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