By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Wildly effective, and his record is deceptive.
Both phrases accurately described Warren DeLaSalle sophomore Nino Puckett as he pitched – and won – the biggest game of his life Thursday.
Puckett entered the Division 1 Semifinal against Traverse City West with more losses than wins this spring – and then put together a pitching line that included seven walks but only two hits as the Pilots advanced with a 3-1 win over the Titans.
In fact, Puckett had just two wins entering the postseason before doubling that total with victories in the District and Regional.
But all of this requires some additional perspective – all five of Puckett’s losses came in Detroit Catholic League play, as his team finished only fourth in the Central division while playing a combined nine games against either top-ranked Birmingham Brother Rice or reigning Division 2 champion Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. And he and his teammates certainly benefited from the tough competition.
“We went through our growing pains early on. A great league like we play in, it puts us in a position for games like today to not be able to shy away from the moment,” said DeLaSalle coach Matt Cook, who previously took a team with a sub-.500 record to the Division 1 Final in 2012. “Our guys were loose and having fun. They just keep doing it.”
The unranked Pilots (27-13) will play for their first MHSAA championship since 2009 against No. 2 Saline at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.
Puckett and another sophomore, Easton Sikorski, have been the team’s aces this season. Sikorski came in to throw the final inning and get the save Thursday, and he’ll be on the mound Saturday.
Cook let Puckett know Monday that he’d be first up.
“I was just trying to stay calm, do my daily routine,” Puckett said. “I was excited to pitch this game.
“That’s how his demeanor is all the time, and I think to be a pitcher in a situation like this, when he’s calm, cool and collected, his teammates feed off of it too,” Cook said. “The defense doesn’t get nervous when he walks a guy. He doesn’t get nervous when he walks a guy.”
West (41-3) struck first when junior Gavin Garmhausen drove home senior Nick Brzezinski in the third inning.
But Puckett wasn’t rattled. In fact, he didn’t give up another hit.
Sophomore Jake Badalamenti, meanwhile, continued to up the reputation of the Class of 2019 with a two-run single to give the Pilots a 2-1 lead in the top of the fourth inning. The seniors added insurance in the sixth inning, when designated hitter Mike Kostuch drove home second baseman Matt Held.
Badalamenti was the only player on either team with multiple hits, reaching safely in both of his at bats. Another shining sophomore, West’s Ryan Hayes, struck out four and gave up only six hits in tossing a complete game for the Titans, who were playing in an MHSAA Semifinal for the first time.
West, ranked No. 9 heading into the postseason, beat two top-four teams on the way to East Lansing.
“We broke a lot of records this year. Winning 41 games, they’ve just competed this whole tournament, all year long,” West coach Matt Bocian said, “I have to tip my cap to my players for not giving up all day today, and all tournament.”
Saline 5, Hartland 3
Saline senior Josh Nelson has become quite effective relieving pressure-packed situations for one of Michigan’s top high school teams.
Add champion slayer to his body of work as well.
Nelson threw the final 4 1/3 innings of Thursday’s second Semifinal, holding reigning Division 1 champion Hartland to two runs, and drove home the tying run with a sacrifice fly in the fifth inning.
One run had scored and the bases were loaded when Nelson came into the game with two outs in the third inning and got a strikeout to end the Eagles’ rally.
"This is the third time this baseball tournament that I’ve come in with the bases loaded. I’ve become used to it, but it’s always stressful,” Nelson said. “But I was just glad that I was able to have the opportunity to help my team win a Semifinal and go to the state championship.”
Saline (35-6) took a 2-0 lead in the second inning, but Hartland edged back over the next few with a run in the third and two in the top of the fifth. Nelson’s sacrifice brought home the first of three Saline runs that put the Hornets ahead and then the game out of reach in the sixth inning.
Senior shortstop Thomas Miller, sophomore first baseman Cole Daniels and junior designated hitter Kellan Huang all had two hits for Saline, and senior right fielder Richard Hovde drove in two runs.
Hartland senior John Baker, a star of last season’s championship run, had two hits and drove in a run for the No. 10 Eagles (36-6-1).
Last year’s title was the first for Hartland, and Saline is seeking the same. The Hornets have played in four championship games previously, and most recently in 2010, but have yet to end victorious.
“We’re forgetting about that,” Nelson said, “and we’re going to win a state title.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Warren DeLaSalle's Nino Puckett prepares to deliver a pitch during Thursday's first Division 1 Semifinal. (Middle) Saline's Cole Daniels slides in safely as Hartland catcher Cade Martin tries to make the tag during the second Semifinal.
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.)