EAST LANSING – As much as he tried to keep it out of his mind, it became nearly impossible for Ada Forest Hills Eastern senior pitcher Jacob Pallo to do so late in his team’s Division 2 Semifinal against Goodrich.
Pallo was four outs away from a no-hitter Thursday, but then a bloop single with two outs in the sixth ended that hope of him making history.
“A little bit,” Pallo said when asked if he had to compose himself after the no-hitter was broken up. “But I just tried to keep it out of my mind as much as I could.”
Pallo might not have done something historic, but he did something extraordinary for his team and set up another historic opportunity. His 6 2/3 shutout innings helped lead No. 1 Forest Hills Eastern to a 6-0 win over No. 4 Goodrich and its first trip to an MHSAA Finals championship game.
It was the type of game where scoring first seemed more important than usual, given Pallo (9-0, 0.95 ERA, 79 K, 12 BB going into the game) was going up against Goodrich ace Noah Keller (12-0, 141 K, 14 BB), who had given up just one earned run all year.
But the Hawks (38-4) put pressure on Goodrich’s defense with its bunt game and got some timely hits to give Pallo a lead.
“Keller is a helluva pitcher, and we just had to figure out how to manufacture stuff,” Forest Hills Eastern coach Ian Hearn said. “He’s a winner. We had a couple of situations where we thought the bunt could work, and we moved some runners over. Of course, after you move runners over, you still have to get a key hit. We were able to get a couple of those.”
Forest Hills Eastern struck first on an RBI single by senior Brian Messing, who hit a grounder just past a drawn-in infield to score pinch-runner Walter Brockie from third base and make it 1-0.
Following a leadoff single by senior Leo Hearn, Brockie had ended up reaching third base after a successful sacrifice bunt by junior Mac DenBraber. Brockie rounded second base and beat the throw to third as the Goodrich third baseman was racing back to the bag after trying to field the bunt.
Forest Hills Eastern took a 2-0 lead in the third inning on an RBI single by senior Evan Parks, who brought home senior Caleb Kuiper after he reached second on two Goodrich errors. The Hawks then plated another run in the fourth inning on a two-out single by senior Collin Fridsma, who scored to make it 3-0.
After Liford broke up Pallo’s no-hit bid in the sixth, Keller singled to put runners on first and second for the Martians. But Pallo got out of the jam with a strikeout to preserve a 3-0 lead.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, Forest Hills Eastern added three insurance runs. Following a leadoff double by Messing and a sacrifice bunt, freshman Brendan Thompson singled home Messing to make it 4-0 Hawks. A bunt single by Fridsma advanced Thompson to third, and Forest Hills Eastern then went up 5-0 on a successful squeeze bunt by Kuiper. Parks then followed it up with an RBI single to give Forest Hills Eastern a 6-0 lead.
Pallo finished with nine strikeouts and three walks in improving to 10-0 on the year.
Keller allowed five earned runs and struck out nine for Goodrich (37-3), which committed three errors.
“It’s hard to win a game when you don’t score any runs,” Goodrich head coach Bob Foreback said. “Their kid threw a good game. We had hard-hit shots early in the game right at guys, and that made the difference. Whoever had the lead early on was probably going to win this game.”
Grand Rapids Christian 9, Grosse Ile 1
Hot bats carried Grand Rapids Christian to East Lansing and the Division 2 Semifinals, so it was fitting they carried the Eagles again once there.
Entering the contest with 49 runs over five previous tournament games, Grand Rapids Christian added nine more on 17 hits.
Junior Ty Uchman went 3-for-4 with three RBI, junior Kyle Remington had three hits and senior Nathan Hedlund added two hits and two RBI to lead Grand Rapids Christian (27-8).
“We’ve been on a hot streak lately,” Uchman said. “There’s energy and when we have that, we can do a lot of good things. That’s really helped us.”
Grand Rapids Christian broke through in the top of the third inning, scoring a pair of runs to grab a 2-0 lead. Remington led off the inning with a double, and then went to third when sophomore Jackson Isaacs reached second on a throwing error. Remington then scored on an RBI single to center by Uchman, and Isaacs scored on a fielder’s choice groundout from Hedlund.
Grosse Ile broke through in the fourth inning, cutting its deficit to 2-1 on an RBI single to center by senior William Lowery, who plated junior Cannon Kawadri after Kawadri hit a one-out double to the gap in left-center.
But the Eagles essentially put the game away with a big rally in the sixth inning, scoring seven runs on nine hits. The first came on an RBI triple over the centerfielder’s head by junior Josh Winkle, and then sophomore Cannon Paul scored Winkle with an RBI single to make it 4-1 Grand Rapids Christian.
Senior Alec Koval and Uchman followed with two-run doubles, and Hedlund hit an RBI single, to make it 9-1 Eagles.
“I think we were having good at-bats, and then we all of a sudden started to find some holes and got a little momentum going throughout that inning,” Grand Rapids Christian coach Brent Gates said. “It was nice getting those runs later in the game, for sure.”
The offense was more than enough support for Remington, who allowed five hits, struck out nine and didn’t walk a batter in a complete-game win.
Kawadri and senior Tyler Garza each had two hits for Grosse Ile, which finished 23-7.
PHOTOS (Top) Ada Forest Hills Eastern players celebrate during Thursday’s Division 2 Semifinal win over Goodrich. (Middle) Grand Rapids Christian’s Christian Burgess connects on a bunt. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)