Drew Burkholder’s 2021 baseball season could not have gotten off to a better start.
In fact, it was perfect.
The long-awaited opener to the ’21 season saw Burkholder on the mound for the Eastland Cougars facing Milledgeville on April 27. In the five-inning game the Cougars won 20-0, Burkholder faced 15 Missiles, and retired all 15 for a perfect game.
“At the start, my coach told me I would be limited to 60 pitches because he wanted me to pitch a game later that week as well,” he said. “We didn’t really know as a team who we could all use in the long run to have 90-pitch games of the full 105. My mindset was to try to get out of innings quick. I believe I got out of the first inning with 12 pitches and the second with 22. After that, I realized I got through the heart of their order pretty smoothly, there’s something pretty good going on here.”
He struck out 12 that day, needing just 64 pitches and throwing 51 of them for strikes for his first perfect game.
It was a perfect start to a dominant season both on the mound and at the plate for the Eastland senior, who is the 2021 Sauk Valley Media Player of the Year.
Eastland infielder Carson Heckman said what set Burkholder apart was his leadership.
“At practice, at stretches, even just if somebody gets down during a game, he’s always there picking us up,” Heckman said.
After the first outing against the Missiles, Burkholder’s confidence was high. He took a bit of a hit against Warren-Stockton in his second start, but turned things around the next few starts. His fifth start came against Forreston, the second game of the NUIC series against the Cardinals after Forreston had beaten Eastland in the first game.
“After knowing I could get through them, I was pretty confident because I knew that was going to be our regional,” Burkholder said. “We had to bring it to them there, show them who’s boss, and have that momentum carry through to the playoffs.”
The momentum carried him to an area-best seven wins and a 0.53 ERA on the year. In 39 2/3 innings pitched, he struck out 83 batters, 22 more than Dixon’s Gage Burdick, who had the second-highest strikeout total among area pitchers.
Heckman has seen firsthand what Burkholder is capable of on the mound. He had to stand in the batter’s box to face Burkholder once in practice.
“I was super nervous walking up there,” Heckman said. “He’s got a really quick fastball, and right when you think you’ve got that timed up, he comes back with pretty good curveball as well that catches them off guard. That’s what got me at practice. I thought I had the fastball timed up and he got me with a curve.”
Burkholder is trying to expand his arsenal on the mound as much as he can. At the moment he can throw a circle change and a curveball. He also plans to work in a slider. He said he’s starting to have good control with the changeup. The curve is there sometimes, and sometimes it isn’t.
But his bread and butter pitch is still the fastball. His is a four-seamer which can start level with a hitter’s belly button before rising up to about chest level and tailing in on right-handed hitters. Often if a hitter does get around on it and make contact, it ends up being a foul ball or an easy pop-up for an infielder.
“I’ve always had guidance through my dad. He’s the one who helped me through the basic steps of pitching,” Burkholder said. “He always told me to focus on just getting it to the glove. As I’ve grown up, I’ve had a lot of other mentors. My travel-ball coach, Dennis Scarpetta, he was a huge inspiration of pitching over the last few years. He’s taught me how I can locate my pitches, how I can control where the ball ends up. Once I figured out that high fastball, knowing from a batting stance that’s a hard pitch to get around on, I knew as a pitcher that’s the place I had to put it.”
Baseball is a family thing for Burkholder. His mom’s side of the family is full of Cubs fans. His grandpa played and coached.
“He taught me all the basics, taught me how to get my swing nice and level so I’m not chopping at it,” Burkholder said.
Through T-ball and Little League, he excelled, as did his teams. Once he got into high school, there was another family connection: his cousin Weston Burkholder is Eastland’s head coach.
As a freshman, he found himself on a stacked team which included Brett Swalve, Ethan Christians and Dawson DeMichele. That team beat Newman in a regional final before dropping a sectional semifinal to Aquin.
The following season as a sophomore, Burkholder was part of a Cougars team which again reached the regional final, this time losing to Newman, and he was named a second-team all-conference pick in the NUIC West.
After losing all of his junior season to the pandemic, he and the Cougars came out strong in 2021, winning another regional title before again bowing out to Aquin in the sectional semifinal. In the regional final against Forreston, it was Burkholder who took the mound.
When he wasn’t lifting the Cougars on the mound, he was lifting the team at the plate.
In his season-opening perfect game, he also went 2-for-2 with two RBIs. For the season, he hit .358 with a .526 on-base percentage and a .717 slugging percentage.
“My big mindset is just hit the ball hard,” Burkholder said. “If I get behind in count and there’s a man on second or man on first, my approach is to hit opposite field and try to advance the runners. But when it’s a guy that is throwing balls that are kind of predictable, like if in an 0-2 count I know a curveball is coming, I wait for the hanger, but if it’s outside I let it go.”
He’ll do his homework on opposing pitchers from the on-deck circle, seeing what he might see from them once he steps into the batter’s box.
“Even in the warm-up pitches, I watch the pitcher. I watch him go through his arsenal,” Burkholder said. “Most pitchers will go through fastball, curveball, changeup, whatever they have in warm-ups. I just see where the pitcher releases. Some pitchers don’t disguise their curveball really well and they drop their arm slot. If I see that, I know a curveball is coming.
“I try to figure out where he likes to throw it. If a pitcher likes to pound that outside third of the plate, I get my toes up to the chalk to take that away from him, and then I just trust myself because I know I have fast hands; if he tries to jam me, just get around on the ball.”
He will play next year at Rock Valley College, in hopes of catching the eye of a four-year program.