By Andy Sneddon
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING – One big inning, one big relief performance.
And Grosse Pointe South will play for an MHSAA baseball championship.
The Blue Devils used a five-run fourth inning and the clutch relief pitching of Andrew Eaton in topping Battle Creek Lakeview, 6-4, on Thursday in an MHSAA Division 1 Semifinal at Michigan State’s McLane Baseball Stadium.
South (27-17), seeking its first championship since 2001, will play defending champ Bay City Western (37-7) in the title game Saturday.
Western, ranked No. 4, advanced with a 6-1 victory over Clarkston and will attempt to become the first school in the 43-year history of the MHSAA tournament to win back-to-back championships at the highest level (Division I or Class A).
South is unranked and largely unheralded, but far from untested. The Blue Devils overcame a 7-12 start to win the rugged Macomb Area Conference Red and upset second-ranked Sterling Heights Stevenson on Tuesday in a Quarterfinal. South had lost three times, by a combined 26-5, to Stevenson during the regular season.
“I’m so proud of this group,” said Dan Griesbaum, who is in his 31st season as South’s coach and is the state’s ninth all-time winningest coach with 707 victories. “They’ve just come such a long way.
“What we’ve done the last three weeks has just been amazing. We’re not seeing anyone in the playoffs who’s better than what we saw in the regular season. We’re used to this kind of stuff. We’re used to playing good competition.”
South could muster just one hit, a Ronald Williams single, off Lakeview starter Jacob Herbers through three innings.
Trailing 1-0, the Blue Devils broke through in the fourth, batting around and using five hits, an error, and a wild pitch to seize a 5-1 lead.
Lakeview (32-6) responded in the next half inning, batting around and scoring three runs on four hits to draw to 5-4.
“The thing that you want, right after you get up like that, is to come out and shut them down, and that’s exactly what we didn’t do,” Griesbaum said. “It was kind of frustrating. But a good team keeps battling, and that’s exactly what we did.”
Eaton came on for starter Douglas Graham with a runner on third base and no one out after the Spartans had pulled close. Eaton, a sophomore right-hander, got a lineout and a groundout, but then issued a walk and hit a batter to load the bases. He got a strikeout to end the inning.
James Fishback’s RBI double in the fifth inning extended South’s lead to 6-4. Lakeview threatened in the seventh, using an error, a single and a walk to load the bases. Eaton induced a game-ending flyout to end the drama.
“I was a little nervous there, but I just knew I had to calm myself down and get through it,” said Eaton, who allowed two hits, walked two and struck out four over three innings. “I think we’re sort of like a Cinderella team. No one really expected us to be here. … It’s just been a great run for us.”
Graham earned the win, allowing nine hits while striking out four over four innings.
Herbers surrendered nine hits in taking the loss. He struck out six and walked two. Just three of South’s six runs were earned.
Lakeview finished with 11 hits – Gavin Homer, Herbers and Russell Mathiak had two apiece – but stranded 11 runners, including eight in scoring position. Click for the full box score.
Bay City Western 6, Clarkston 1
Brandon Wise had three hits and Scott Badour tossed a five-hitter for Western, a team that lost seven starters to graduation after winning the 2013 Division 1 championship.
“I am (surprised), but I don’t want to downplay my team,” said coach Tim McDonald, who is in his 22nd year at Western. “They have been rock-solid for six straight (tournament) games. It’s going to take a really good team to beat us, because we don’t beat ourselves.
“In high school baseball and in probably any high school sport, if you don’t beat yourselves then that’s half the battle. If you don’t walk people and you don’t make errors – its tough to put two, three hits together at any level, and that’s what we’re making teams do.”
The Warriors graduated 10 players total off last year’s team, which became just the second in school history to win an MHSAA championship, along with the 1999 boys golf squad.
Six players from that 2013 baseball squad have gone on to play college ball.
“We have two starters back from last year, and we start four sophomores,” McDonald said. “They’ve stopped surprising me. I think they don’t think of themselves as sophomores anymore. We don’t have any stars on this team. We don’t have that one guy that you’ve really got to be careful of. It’s a team in every aspect of the word. We play baseball the way I think baseball should be played. We move runners along, we take advantage of opportunities, and it’s fun to watch.”
Western gave Badour all the support he would need with two runs in the second inning. The runners were driven home by Tyler Snover (sacrifice fly) and Jason Clark (two-out single), both sophomores.
Badour’s sacrifice fly and Snover’s RBI single in the fourth inning extended Western’s lead to 4-0, and the Warriors upped their advantage to 5-0 in the fifth when Carson Eby was hit by a pitch and eventually scored on a throwing error.
Clarkston got back-to-back doubles in the fourth inning from Nathan Witt and Mitch Smith to plate it’s only run.
Badour struck out four and walked two. The Wolves (20-13) stranded seven runners.
“That’s Scott Badour,” McDonald said. “Not overpowering, but he’s a pitcher with a capital ‘P.’ He knows what he’s doing; he uses his defense. He stepped up huge for us.”
Witt allowed nine hits and walked one over 5 1/3 innings in taking the loss.
PHOTOS: (Top) Grosse Pointe South’s Andrew Eaton threw three innings of relief to help his team return to the Division 1 Final. (Middle) Bay City Western’s Zach Schirmer scores in the second inning past Clarkston catcher Nick Morey.
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.)