By Andy Sneddon
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING – Dillon McInerney delivered at the plate for Richmond on Thursday.
On Saturday, it may be his arm that helps bring the Blue Devils an MHSAA Division 2 championship.
McInerney’s sixth-inning RBI double broke a 1-1 tie and lifted Richmond to a 2-1 win over DeWitt in their Semifinal at Michigan State University’s McLane Baseball Stadium.
Richmond (35-3) will play Mount Pleasant (31-8-1) in the title game Saturday. The Blue Devils, ranked No. 10, could turn to McInerney – or any number of standout arms – as they try to take the step that eluded them last season when they lost, 3-0, in the Final to Grand Rapids Christian.
“We just want it more this year because we lost last year,” said McInerney, who had two of Richmond’s eight hits. “We’re hungry. We’re not done yet, that’s for sure.”
Zach Leach went the distance for the win, striking out five, walking two and surrendering four hits. Leach improved to 11-1, while McInerney is 12-0 with a 1.00 earned run average and could get the ball in Saturday’s Final.
Third-year Richmond coach Scott Evans would not tip his hand as to who would start, but did say his players know full well what it’s going to take to win their 33rd consecutive game Saturday.
“You’ve got to have that stud rise up, and (Leach) was our guy today,” Evans said. “When it comes time for Saturday’s game, one of our studs has to play like a stud. Last year, no one stepped up for us in that final game.”
Leach stepped up big time when his team most needed him Thursday. Trailing 1-0 in the fifth inning, DeWitt loaded the bases on a Chris Ruby single and two walks. Ruby scored on a wild pitch, but Leach regained his composure and got the final out of the inning on a called third strike, stranding runners at second and third and keeping the game tied.
“I’ve just learned to clear my head and not worry about the base runners or what’s going on behind me and just throw the next strike,” Leach said. “(The umpire) gave me a low strike call, and I thank him for that because that was definitely a tight spot and if I wouldn’t have gotten that call it would have been bases loaded with two outs.”
“That was a good opportunity,” DeWitt coach Alan Shankel said. “It was a close call and it didn’t go our way. That’s the way the game is. It’s an uncontrollable factor. We don’t worry about those things, and you go to the next opportunity. They did a great job of keeping us off balance and limiting our opportunities.”
It didn’t take long for Richmond to regain the lead. Evan Kratt singled with one out in the top of the sixth inning, and then McInerney smoked the ball over the head of the centerfielder for a double, scoring Kratt with the go-ahead run.
Leach held the fort one last time when the Panthers threatened in the bottom of the seventh. Timmy Lowe doubled and reached third with two outs, but Leach got a game-ending grounder.
Evans stuck with Leach, a senior right-hander, despite several relief options, including Ryan Boyd, his shortstop and closer.
“He’s a four-year starter,” Evans said of Leach, “and he’s a guy that when you go out to talk to him at about 85 or 90 pitches, he says ‘I’m just getting loose Coach, get back to the dugout.’”
Leach doubled with two out in the second inning and scored on a Boyd single to break a scoreless tie.
Sam Smith struck out five and walked two in taking the loss. DeWitt, making its first Semifinal appearance since 2003, finished 23-11. Click for the box score.
Mount Pleasant 7, Richland Gull Lake 1
Hunter Buczkowski had three hits, drove in three runs and pitched a complete game in leading the Oilers to their first MHSAA title game since 2008.
Buczkowski struck out four, walked three and allowed five hits.
Dean Marais also had three hits including a two-run double off the top of the fence in right field in the first inning, staking the Oilers – who had 12 hits – to a 2-0 lead.
Joe Genia added a pair of two-run singles for Mount Pleasant, which will vie for its third MHSAA title and first since 2007.
The Oilers fell in the Quarterfinals last season.
“They weren’t playing not to lose; they came here to win, and that’s what I’m most proud of,” Mount Pleasant coach Luke Epple said. “We thought we could have been here last year pretty easily, but we didn’t execute at the end (of the Quarterfinal loss) and we didn’t throw strikes.
“This year we’ve played much better defense and our pitching has been strong just like last year, but you’re seeing some of our young guys swing the bat and hit with men on. These are big games for us. Five of our (starting) guys today were underclassmen. We have confidence in them, and we know that they’re going to be good ballplayers.”
Buczkowski, one of four sophomores in the Oilers’ lineup Thursday, issued all three of his free passes and hit a batter in the seventh inning when the Blue Devils (30-10) scored their only run.
Buczkowski struck out Gull Lake cleanup hitter Jarod Burton with the bases loaded to end the game. Epple twice visited Buczkowski on the mound in the seventh.
“He said, ‘This is your game and I want you to finish it,’” said Buczkowski, who threw 115 pitches in improving to 8-2. “That seventh inning was the longest inning I think I’ve ever played.”
Walter Graf walked two and struck out two in taking the loss for Gull Lake. Click for the box score.
PHOTOS: (Top) A Richmond hitter connects during his team’s 2-1 Semifinal win over DeWitt on Thursday. (Middle) Hunter Buczkowski threw a complete game for Mount Pleasant as it advanced to Saturday’s Division 2 championship game.
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.)