EAST LANSING – Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice might have been making its third-straight trip to the MHSAA Semifinals and Grand Blanc its first ever, but Grand Blanc certainly wasn't nervous to start Thursday’s second Division 1 game at McLane Stadium.
Excited and ready from the first pitch, Grand Blanc scored four runs in the first inning, which set the tone for a 9-1 win.
“It can be a double-edge sword in certain situations,” Grand Blanc Kevin Hubbs said. “We kind of told our kids the pressure was kind of on them in a way because they’ve been here so many times. This is our first time. We just told the kids to come out and have fun regardless of what happens. If you’ve seen our kids in the dugout all season, win or lose, they are going to leave the ballpark having fun.”
Grand Blanc (32-11) jumped on Brother Rice in the top of the first inning, sending 10 hitters to the plate.
The Bobcats built a 3-0 lead just five batters into the game, and rolled from there in advancing to meet Portage Central in Saturday’s 9 a.m. championship game.
Following a leadoff double, Jonah Meleski scored after a bunt single by AJ Maxwell and subsequent throwing error. Following a walk to David Lally and a strikeout, Nathan Fidelino lined a two-run double down the right field line to make it 3-0 Grand Blanc. Brother Rice answered with a run in the bottom of the first inning on an RBI groundout by Will Shannon.
Grand Blanc kept up the pressure in the second, loading the bases and taking a 6-1 lead on a two-run single with two outs by Dylan Bowen. The Bobcats added a run in the fourth inning when Tim Welsh walked with the bases loaded to make it 7-1. They then made it 9-1 in the fifth inning with a two-out rally after the first two men were retired; Fidelino hit an RBI single to left, and then pinch hitter Kyle Keener hit an RBI single to right.
The damage done by Grand Blanc actually could have been worse. In addition to 12 hits, the Bobcats drew 10 walks and had three batters hit by Brother Rice pitching.
Fidelino finished 3-for-4 with three RBI and a run scored, and Bowen added two hits and two RBI to lead the attack for Grand Blanc.
“It’s surreal,” Fidelino said. “I’ve never felt anything like it. We had a whole city on our back today. It felt great. This is the best team we’ve ever had, and this is the furthest we’ve ever gone. Every game, we leave it all on the field.”
Lally, who has committed to Notre Dame, allowed four hits and struck out five in six innings of work on the mound for the Bobcats.
Brother Rice finished its season 29-11.
Portage Central 5, Midland Dow 1
The last high school start for Portage Central senior ace Gavin Brasosky went just like his other starts this year, with him dominating and winning.
Signed with Tennessee, Brasosky was in complete control Thursday, allowing one run, four singles and striking out 10 to lead Central to a 5-1 win over Midland Dow.
Brasosky didn’t give up a hit until Dow’s Tom Biacagalupo singled with two out in the fifth inning.
Central (35-4) advanced to the championship game for the first time since 2002, when it defeated Warren Mott to clinch the Division 1 title.
“I was a little sore,” Brasosky said. “But as I kept going, I felt a little better. I was trying to win so we could play on Saturday, and that’s what we did.”
Brasosky’s performance was needed, as Central’s normally high-powered offense generated only five hits against Dow pitching.
“I told him that he couldn’t have picked a better way to finish his career on the mound,” Central head coach Cory DeGroote said. “We really had to grind at the plate. They gave us a lot of different looks with a lot of different pitchers. We had to use our bunt game.”
Portage Central opened the scoring in the first on an RBI sacrifice fly by Zach MacDonald, then added two more in the second inning to take a 3-0 lead on a two-run single by Will Sachwitz.
The Mustangs added another run in the fourth on an RBI sacrifice fly by Luke Leto.
Dow did rally in the sixth inning and got on the board, cutting Central’s lead to 4-1 on an RBI single with two outs by Logan McCoy. But with runners on first and second, Brasosky induced a popout to end the inning.
Central added insurance in the bottom of the sixth, taking a 5-1 lead on an RBI squeeze bunt by Cole Mason. Dow (27-15) also put runners on first and second with one out in the seventh inning, but Brasosky shut down that threat with back-to-back strikeouts to end the game.
PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Blanc’s Nathan Fidelino rounds second base during his team’s Semifinal win over Brother Rice on Thursday. (Middle) Portage Central’s Gavin Brasosky makes his move toward the plate.
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.)