When Ryan junior Ryan Burks is peering down from the pitching mound toward the plate, there is a certain serenity he is seeking.
He looks for the same feeling he gets when he’s fishing with his buddies on the Greenbelt Corridor, angling to catch white bass or crappie in the stream connecting Ray Roberts Lake and Lewisville Lake.
“Nothing’s going through my mind,” Burks said. “I know what I have to do. When you can sit people down when you want to and your command is on, you’re just in the zone. It goes by fast when you’re good, but when you’re struggling it’s kind of a different story.”
If he takes the mound tonight, the Raiders (2-22-2, 0-9 District 5-5A) will want Burks to find his rhythm against Hebron (4-5 in district) at 7:30 p.m. at Raider Field.
The 5-11 junior has been one of the bright spots for the Raiders in district play. The Raiders have struggled at the plate and are batting .211 in arguably one of the toughest pitching districts in the state. Flower Mound, which has three Big 12-bound pitchers and possibly a fourth, is one game ahead of Hebron for fourth place.
Burks, Ryan’s cleanup batter, is hitting .444 in 5-5A, one of three Raiders hitting above .220 in district play.
“He’s figuring some things out about swinging the bat and doing a great job for us at the plate,” Ryan coach Bret Warnack said.
But where Burks finds his solace is in the elevated circle in the middle of the diamond. Burks is 1-4 with a 3.86 ERA. The Ryan pitching staff has been tasked with keeping the team in ballgames as it struggles offensively.
The junior still remembers his first start against Flower Mound Marcus last season, when he was tabbed by Warnack to be the No. 2 pitcher in Ryan’s rotation behind Chris McKeehan, who now is at Texas-Pan American. Burks remembers warming up in the bullpen — a nervous sophomore who didn’t know what he was getting himself into.
He ended up pitching about four innings, and he ended up doing much better than he expected.
Then, against Lewisville with his parents and grandparents watching, Burks turned in one of Ryan’s best performances of the season. The sophomore one-hit a Fighting Farmers lineup that included current Oklahoma freshman Niko Buentello.
Burks said that moment was probably the highlight of a baseball career that started with him playing whiffle ball in the backyard when he was a kid. But that moment against Lewisville has been one of the only positives for Ryan since moving up to Class 5A in 2012.
Ryan junior Blake Grellhesl, who accompanies Burks on fishing trips, says his teammate has made steady progress since the two started playing together as freshmen.
“He’s always been pretty solid,” Grellhesl said. “I think he’s always been pretty good, growing at a pretty good pace.”
Throughout the season, Burks has used a steady mix of his slider, fastball, curveball and changeup to keep hitters off balance. There have been times when pitching resembles a long day on the water, where time drags as nobody seems to take Burks’ bait.
“He’s got good stuff,” Warnack said. “He’s not an overpowering guy, but when he can command his pitches and hit spots and throw strikes, he can be very effective. He’s done a really good job for us at times this year, and at times, he hasn’t done it and hasn’t gotten that accomplished. When he doesn’t have great command, he’s going to get hit a little bit.”
Burks said his control the last few weeks has been much better, and that was evident in last week’s 3-0 loss against Flower Mound, as Burks threw a complete game in the second game of a doubleheader.
Last year’s struggles gave him a better grasp of what to expect at the plate and on the mound. Burks’ confidence has increased, and he says it’s all mental. If a pitcher thinks he can throw it by somebody, he said, they probably are going to.
Once Burks starts clicking, he’s in his place by the river — serenity and focus that the Raiders want to ride to their first district win.
“Honestly, pitching is what gets me through it,” Burks said. “It’s kind of like being the quarterback in football. All the attention is on you. You can control the game, control your tempo and make something happen.”
BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @Ben_Baby.