By Jason Schmitt
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING – He’d seen a dropped third strike 100 times before Saturday’s championship game.
Excuse Riverview Gabriel Richard’s Matthew Silka for getting caught up in the moment.
With two outs in the seventh inning, the junior got a swinging third strike to seemingly clinch his team’s first MHSAA baseball title. But his biting breaking ball ended up in the dirt – so he looked at the catcher, then glanced at first. Finally, he turned and looked at his second baseman, who was charging toward him to celebrate.
At that moment, he figured it out. His team had just won the Division 3 championship, defeating reigning champ Madison Heights Bishop Foley, 3-0.
“I was so confused,” said Silka, smiling with a championship medal hanging from his neck. “That’s not an ideal way to end the game, because I’m not sure if we won or not. I was looking at the first base ump to see if he was going to call him out or not. We were all waiting for someone to say something.”
The game-ending strikeout was his seventh of the game, one he dominated from start to finish. Silka, a junior, allowed just one hit, that coming in the seventh inning. Prior to that single, he was on his way to becoming the first pitcher to toss a complete-game no hitter in MHSAA Finals history.
Instead, he became just the fifth pitcher in Finals history to allow just one hit in a complete game.
“I was trying to keep (the ball) to the corners, and not make too many mistakes and leave the ball over the heart of the plate,” Silka said. “I was just trying to throw strikes and help my teammates out.”
His teammates helped him out early on, scoring a run in the second, third and fourth innings to stake him to a 3-0 advantage.
The Pioneers scored their first run unconventionally. Leadoff batter Hayden Burke reached on a dropped third strike. The junior then moved over to second base on a walk to fellow junior Frank Klamerus. Those two advanced to second and third thanks to a pair of wild pitches. Burke then scored on a fielder’s choice by junior Hayden Flynn to make it 1-0.
In the third inning, Richard pieced together three singles – the last by Flynn plated junior Niko Maloney. In the fourth inning, the Pioneers used a walk, sacrifice bunt and an RBI-single by sophomore David Zubor to cap off their scoring, giving Silka more than he needed to get the job done.
“I think momentum is one of the biggest parts of the game,” Silka said. “That was really huge for us to get out in front. I knew once we had a lead and we got rolling, it was going to be a lot easier to pitch.”
Richard coach Mike Magier said Silka’s success was due to his ability to keep the Ventures off balance.
“He went through the lineup one time and he gained a little confidence, and he could use his secondary pitches a little bit more,” Magier said. “(Silka) has been a workhorse for us. He’s really been a competitor.
“He’s been our ace. He’s pitched against all our tough teams.”
Bishop Foley (19-18-1) could muster just one hit – from sophomore Liam Pollock to lead off the seventh inning.
“That’s baseball,” Foley coach Tim McEvoy said. “We ran into a stud pitcher who threw strikes. He kept us off balance, and we weren’t able to get out in front of his fastball. That was the main issue.
“I want to congratulate their coaching staff. They have a great staff and a great pitcher.”
For Richard (29-3), this could be just a taste of what’s to come next year. There are no seniors on the roster, so everyone should be back for another title run in 2019.
“I guess it’s kind of unusual,” said Magier, talking about a lack of seniors on his roster. “That (junior) class, as soon as they came in in ninth grade, we had three or four guys come up on varsity and we knew we had a pretty good class there.
“It takes a lot to win a state championship, so we won’t take it for granted. We’re going to enjoy this one, and hopefully next year we can do the same.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Gabriel Richard ace Matthew Silka makes his move toward the plate Saturday. (Middle) A Pioneers runner tries to slide in under the tag of Bishop Foley catcher Mason Minzey.
If there is anything that Brent Gates knows for sure, it's that there is no single explanation for three MHSAA Finals baseball championships.
For starters, the Grand Rapids Christian coach credits the superior coaching he had as a youngster, especially for helping him make the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Dream Team in 1988.
From there, Gates points to the experience gained as a former Big 10 Baseball Player of the Year, a seven-year major league playing career that saw him rubbing shoulders with such notables as Hall-of-Famer Tony LaRussa and Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly, and then landing at a high school where the critical support he received from players, community and administration was priceless.
Put it all together and that, at least in part, explains Gates becoming the first Grand Rapids-area baseball coach with three state titles on his resume.
The Eagles' 2-1 win over Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett in the June 17 Division 2 Final marked Gates' third title as a coach. His Grand Rapids Christian clubs had previously won back-to-back titles in 2012-13.
Gates passed former Grandville Calvin Christian coach Jay Milkamp as the Grand Rapids-area coach with the most state titles. Milkamp won in 1994 (Class C) and 1996 (Class B).
Gates, a member of three Halls of Fame, is quick to deflect the credit for three championships and two other championship game appearances. What he treasures most is being mentioned in the same breath as other legendary west-side coaches such as Jenison's Gary Cook, Ron Engels of Wyoming Park, Hudsonville's Dave Van Nord, East Grand Rapids' Chris LaMange, formerly Rockford and now Ada Forest Hills Eastern's Ian Hearn and Milkamp, most of whom Gates either played against while an all-stater at Grandville or through coaching at Grand Rapids Christian.
"I'm just a small piece of what has transpired in 11 years," he said. "Just to be mentioned with them and their success is an honor. (Three titles) is not an individual thing, but because of many people and what they can do working day in and day out together.
"I've always said the west side doesn't get the recognition it should in baseball. There are some great coaches here with great baseball talent, and I think you see that in the postseason."
If basketball can spawn what is affectionately known as "gym rats," then Gates is surely a classic example of the diamond's version of someone who has lived and breathed baseball his entire life. He was a two-time all-stater at Grandville who went on to a standout career at the University of Minnesota that included a lifetime .387 batting average. He was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1991 and consensus All-American. Gates played internationally with USA Baseball on the 18U team in 1988 and then the collegiate national team in 1989 and 1990. Over those two seasons on the collegiate team he appeared in 68 games, hitting a combined .363 with 49 runs scored and 54 RBIs.
He was drafted by the Oakland A's in the first round (26th overall) of the 1991 draft and went on to hit .264 in 685 major league games over seven seasons.
Upon his retirement, Gates founded the Frozen Ropes training facility in Grand Rapids, worked as a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays, became the West Michigan Whitecaps' second-ever manager in 2001, coached Byron Center for two years and has compiled a remarkable 298-89 record in two coaching stints at Grand Rapids Christian.
After virtually a lifetime in baseball, Gates said his coaching success can be spread in many directions. He said it began at Grandville, was influenced by such managers as John Anderson at Minnesota and LaRussa and Kelly at the major league level, and with brushing shoulders with many of Grand Rapids' most successful coaches.
The experience led him to a coaching philosophy that includes a priority on building relationships with players, providing a full explanation of his thinking to the players, a quiet but firm coaching of fundamentals, and, above all, communication. If there is anything that Gates does not do, it's relying on the "old-school" coaching method where coaches demand excellence in no uncertain terms.
"I've taken little bits and pieces from a lot of people," said Gates, a member of the Grandville, University of Minnesota and Grand Rapids Halls of Fame. "I want players to figure out who they can be. Whether it's Ken Griffey Jr. as a hitter, Randy Johnson as a pitcher or Terry Steinbach in catching, you don't just take one person and say who can I be? If you want to compete at a high level, you need to be better than anyone you go up against.
"Part of being a good coach, and it doesn't matter if it's a 9U program or high school, is about making players understand and be able to apply what they learn. Baseball is a hard game, one of failure where if you succeed three times out of 10, you're a star. You have to get players to understand failure."
Gates said all three Grand Rapids Christian champions were marked by different strong suits. The 2012 club, for example, breezed its way to a 36-5 record, while the 2013 club finished the regular season just 12-15 but put together a torrid seven-game winning streak during the tournament. This year's team was marked by a deep pitching staff and what Gates describes as a "group of gamers."
"All of them were different, but I firmly believe that pitching and defense win championships," Gates said. "But you also have to get hot at the right time."
It's not unusual for major leaguers to completely hang up the spikes once their playing days are over. They're tired of the pressure, the frustration of fading talent and losing the battle with Father Time, and the constant travel away from family. Gates faced all that and still found himself enthralled with the idea of coaching.
"I've loved the game since I was like 4 years old. There's nothing better than smelling pine tar or the look of manicured grass. The smells and sounds of baseball, that's what I love," he said.
One of his coaching goals is to impart the love of the game to his players. And it seems the message is getting across.
"It's awesome playing for him," said first baseman/pitcher Ty Uchman, who graduated this spring. "He gets us to focus on the little things. If there is something on our minds, we know we can go to him. He's an open book. I know he'll always talk to us, and that builds trust and a bond."
Another recent grad, infielder Kyle Remington, will follow Gates' footsteps to the University of Minnesota and said one particular trait sticks out to him about his coach.
"He's very patient," Remington said. "There are all levels of players in high school, and he treats them all the same. Doesn't matter if they're struggling; he never raises his voice. He's a very comfortable and relatable coach to play for.
"He knows baseball is a game of failure so if you don't understand a drill or an adjustment to have to make, he'll talk to you in a patient way."
Gates said he suspected even when he was a major leaguer that coaching was likely in his future.
"I did, and it was an easy decision. God has a plan, and I had a feeling I would stay in the game," he said. "Baseball has given me everything. I love the game, and I know I've been blessed. I want to take what I've learned and pass it along. That's always been a part of me."
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PHOTOS (Top) Brent Gates appears on the USA Baseball collegiate national team in 1989 and makes a pitching change during this spring’s Division 2 Final. (Middle) Gates makes a tag at second base while playing for the national team. (Below) Gates presents the championship trophy this season to his Grand Rapids Christian players. (National team photos courtesy of USA Baseball.)