EAST LANSING – A big opening inning produced two positive results for the Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Prep baseball team Friday.
Seven early runs helped propel the Irish to an 11-1 six-inning win over Marlette in a Division 4 Semifinal at Michigan State’s McLane Stadium.
The opening surge also provided the opportunity to have starter Sam Shea pitch in Saturday’s 5 p.m. Final against Marine City Cardinal Mooney.
Shea threw only 23 pitches in the first inning, as he was quickly replaced by Alex Blasen.
“It did work out for us,” first-year Hackett coach Smiley Verduzco said. “The whole idea as we talked about before was that first inning. If we get close to 10 (runs) then you have a chance, and without that you don’t have a chance to do that because you have to win the game. There is no tomorrow.
“Sam was pitching fantastic, and then Alex came in and just shut them down. He did a great job.”
Blasen allowed only one run on two hits over the final five innings. He struck out four and walked four.
The fifth-ranked Irish (30-9) tallied those seven early runs on only two hits. They were aided by an error and walks.
After a leadoff triple by Steven Widger, who had a game-high three hits, and a pair of walks, Brenden Collins drove in a pair of runs with a single.
“We like to score a lot of runs, and when we came out and got that seven it was huge for momentum,” Collins said. “We knew it was crucial to get them down early so that we could roll over them and get to the win.”
Said Verduzco: “Did you see the energy (after the triple)? It just pumps the kids up, and let’s go. Then things started to happen. It was pretty fun to watch, and they have earned it. They’ve worked hard all year, and to get a win against a good team, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Marlette’s starter didn't get out of the first inning after walking four and hitting a batter.
“The first inning was a killer; that was very disappointing,” said Marlette coach Dave Hayden, whose team was making its first appearance in the Semifinals.
“We knew after that first inning that it would be very difficult to come back on them. I thought we settled down after that, but the first inning kind of did us in.”
The Irish added two more runs in the third inning. Widger ripped an RBI single and then scored on a wild pitch.
The Red Raiders scored in the top of the fourth on a sacrifice fly by Aaron Bower. He brought home Cody Hayden, who was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning.
Hackett ended the game in the sixth after a pair of singles and a ground out scored a pair of runs.
The Irish, who are averaging 10 runs a game in the postseason, will attempt to win their first Finals title in their first trip.
“We worked hard to get our school here for the first time, and now everyone is watching you,” Collins said. “It’s kind of cool that we can put our school on the map like that.”
Marine City Cardinal Mooney 12, Maple City Glen Lake 2
Cardinal Mooney continued its impressive postseason run with another lopsided affair.
The Cardinals scored in bunches early en route to a 12-2 five-inning victory over Maple City Glen Lake in the second Division 4 Semifinal.
Mooney (28-6), which will face Hackett in the Final, has outscored its six postseason opponents by a combined 71-8.
“It’s let's get out in front and never let go,” said Cardinals sophomore Blake Lutzky, who went 2-for-3 with four RBI and a run scored. “Never let off the gas.”
Mooney jumped out to a comfortable lead by scoring four runs in the second inning and adding another three in the following inning.
That was just the cushion starting pitcher Thomas Gill needed as he went the distance and scattered five hits while recording five strikeouts.
“When Tommy Gill, our senior pitcher, gets a run or two, it seems like seven runs,” Mooney coach Mike Rice said. “And in these types of games, I want to get seven or eight runs, but when he’s on the mound and throws first-pitch strikes and with our defense, it makes us unstoppable.”
Rice has been pleased with his team’s approach at the plate, as well as its ability to produce timely hitting.
Mooney totaled 12 hits and walked 10 times.
“We’re hitting, and we’re focusing on hitting strikes and not swinging at bad pitches,” Rice said. “The pitcher’s goal is to throw the ball over the plate, and when he does we’re raking it.”
The early deficit was too much for eighth-ranked Glen Lake (27-8) to overcome.
“You can't fall behind against a team like that because they are too good,” Glen Lake coach Kris Herman said. “They are ranked No. 2 in the state for a reason. If you dig yourself in a hole like that, then you have to fight your way out of it.
“I was proud of our fight. I thought they kept grinding, and we just ran into a better team.”
Glen Lake’s fight came in the fifth when they trimmed the deficit to 7-2.
However, in the bottom of the inning, Mooney countered with five runs of its own to end the game.
“We let go a little bit, and we thought we had the game in the bag,” Lutzky said. “But they scored two, and we just put them back on the board. There’s a lot of positive energy on this team, and we’re ready to play all the time.”
Trent Rice, Rocco Comito and Julian Iodice also had two hits each for Mooney.
PHOTOS: (Top) A Hackett Catholic Prep hitter keeps his eyes on a drive during Friday’s Semifinal win. (Middle) Cardinal Mooney’s Julian Iodice eludes a tag to score at McLane Stadium.
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.)