May 30, 2003
by Simit Shah
Being a reliever isn’t the most glamorous job in baseball, so you have to seize the spotlight when the opportunity arises. That’s exactly what Tech’s Brian Burks did last weekend, earning tournament Most Valuable Player honors as the Rambling Wreck engineered one of the most dramatic title runs in ACC history.
After early rainouts in the ACC Tournament caused some scheduling oddities, the Yellow Jackets woke up Sunday in Salem, Va., faced with a mammoth task. They had already registered a loss in the double elimination tournament, so they would have to win three games in one day to capture the program’s sixth conference championship.
“We started Sunday with the mindset of ‘We’re here, so why not win it?'” said Burks, a 5-9 junior from Alpharetta, Ga.
The righthander had already pitched in the first game of tournament on Thursday, recording the final two outs of a narrow 9-8 victory over Wake Forest with the tying run in scoring position.
After staving off elimination with a come-from-behind 10-6 win against North Carolina in an early Sunday morning contest, the Jackets faced Florida State, the top-ranked team in the nation.
Tech fell behind once again, but Burks came on in relief to shut down the potent Seminole offense. Tech’s ninth inning rally resulted in a miraculous 10-7 victory, and Burks earned the win for his five-plus innings of relief.
“[Burks] had a big save in the first game,” said Coach Danny Hall. “Wake had the bases loaded in the ninth with a chance to beat us. He held on and got the save there.
“He gave up a home run to Stephen Drew in the FSU game, but held them to zeros after that and gave us a chance to rally and win the game.”
The Jackets capped the marathon day with a 10-inning victory over 12th-ranked NC State for the ACC Championship. After the game, Burks learned that he had been named the tournament’s MVP.
“It was surprising to get it,” said Burks, who didn’t think he had logged enough innings to merit consideration for the award. “Relief pitcher isn’t usually the position that gets it.”
“Our whole pitching staff came through with flying colors,” noted Hall. “We felt going into those three games that we had enough pitching to win the tournament. Without pitching depth, we had no chance to win on Sunday. Everyone that we called on Sunday did a great job.”
The improbable sequence of events has given the seventh-ranked Jackets a much-needed boost of confidence heading into the NCAA Tournament. Burks and his teammates host the NCAA regional at Russ Chandler Stadium this weekend.
The four-team field includes Stetson, South Carolina and East Carolina. The Jackets take on Stetson Friday night at 7 p.m. The winner of double-elimination event advances to the super regional next weekend.
The manner in which Tech won the ACC Tournament gives the team a little extra swagger as they embark on their quest for a second straight College World Series berth.
“It helps to go through all that and come together as a team,” Burks said. “You can tell there’s not as much tension right now. It definitely helps.”
“To actually climb the mountain and walk out of there with the trophy, the team understands that it was a major accomplishment,” added Hall. “I don’t think it’ll ever be done again in the ACC.”
After beginning the season ranked number one in the country, the Jackets have been on a roller coaster ride this year. The squad started 17-0, but they struggled at times against tougher opponents.
“Being ranked number one going into the season, we knew there were going to be struggles,” stated Burks, who is 5-1 with eight saves in 22 appearances this season. “There always are, because you just can’t go through the whole season ranked number one. There wasn’t a real disappointment when we fell in the rankings. We knew our potential and how good we could be.”
Last season, the coaches and players pointed to a bench-clearing brawl against Maryland that seemed to crystallize the team chemistry. There hadn’t been a defining moment like that this season until Sunday.
“It wasn’t as a severe as a brawl, but emotionally, it was same kind of thing,” Burks explained. “To win all three, and two from behind, brought us together as a team, and it’s helped us just like that Maryland series.”
It couldn’t have come at a better time for the Jackets, who hope to ride their hot streak and newfound cohesion all the way to Omaha.
“It’s great to be back home, because the atmosphere for the regional here is great. We always have great crowds, and that helps us play well,” he remarked. “We’re playing with confidence, so we’re ready to get going again this weekend.”