EAST LANSING – Jacob Wilson just wanted to start jumping up and down Friday after his game-winning single sent Homer to the MHSAA Division 3 Baseball Final.
But before he could fully celebrate, he had to make it to first base, something he admitted he had to be reminded to do.
“The coach told me to (run to first),” Wilson said.
He made it without issue and was mobbed by his teammates as Homer defeated Pewamo-Westphalia 2-1 in nine innings at McLane Baseball Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University. The Trojans advanced to Saturday’s Final against Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett, which defeated Gladstone 5-0 in the other Semifinal.
“What an unbelievable setting, and to have a 2-1 walkoff in the bottom of the ninth at Michigan State, that’s stuff you dream of at the beginning of the season,” Homer coach Scott Salow said. “It was an unbelievable ballgame. Two great teams.”
Wilson’s hit down the third-base line ended a game dominated by pitching and defense, as he and Pewamo-Westphalia starter Brendan Thelen kept hitters off balance for the majority.
In the ninth inning, however, Homer was able to load the bases with no outs, and Wilson drove in Zach Butters for the walk-off win.
“I was up to bat and I was looking at my teammates while they were on base, and they were just looking at me smiling, giving me a thumbs up,” Wilson said. “I just had faith in myself that I could get it down.”
Butters’ run was the first since the second inning, and ended one of the few Homer threats. Thelen threw 7 2/3 innings prior to reaching his pitch-count maximum, striking out five and allowing three walks, two hits and one run. He allowed just one Homer runner to get to third base.
“Their coach, Scott Salow, has a great program, and he said that’s the best pitcher they’ve seen all year,” Pewamo-Westphalia coach Mark Rademacher said. “They only got two hits on him, and he said that’s the best pitcher they’ve seen. Brendan rose up to the occasion. He kept us in the game when we were leaving guys stranded on base, and our defense was helping him out. It was just a great performance on his part.”
Wilson put together a gem of his own, allowing six hits and two walks while striking out five in 6 2/3 innings, also leaving the game because of his pitch count. He pitched out of a jam in the sixth inning, as Pewamo-Westphalia had a runner at third with one out. Wilson was able to get a strikeout and a popout to end the threat.
“Just survive,” Salow said of Wilson. “I don’t know how many chances they had with leadoff guys on. It seemed like we were fighting fires most of the game, especially in the middle innings.”
Pewamo-Westphalia opened the scoring in the second inning, as Aaron Bearss drove in Ethan Thelen with a single.
Homer responded in the bottom of the second, as Kyle Compton stole home on a designed play. Wilson, who was on first, purposefully fell on a steal attempt, forcing a throw to first and allowing Compton to head home.
“We spend a lot of time on our first-and-third offense, trying to put balls in play without the aid of a bat,” Salow said. “It’s a play that we practice all the time, and it worked out almost to perfection.”
Compton finished with two hits and two walks for Homer (32-3). Butters picked up the win in relief, striking out one and allowing two hits in 2 1/3 innings.
Tanner Wirth and Ethan Thelen each had two hits for the Pirates (31-3).
Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett 5, Gladstone 0
Alec Azar had all the run support he needed before he stepped on the mound.
The Liggett senior pitcher threw his first pitch with a 2-0 lead, which was more than enough as he put together a dominant outing to lead the Knights into the Division 3 Final, their first since 2016.
“That’s what I like about being away,” Azar said. “You get ahead, and then I can come out on the mound and get really comfortable and throw my game.”
Azar carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning and finished the game with 12 strikeouts and two hits allowed.
“He was lights out,” Liggett coach Dan Cimini said. “I told him this was going to be his last start as a senior at Liggett and I need his best, and he gave us his best. He almost had a no-hitter, threw the ball really well, had his best stuff, great slider, fastball. He just did everything he could for our team today to get us a W.”
Logan King hit a two-run home run with two outs in the top of the first inning, which Gladstone coach Kelly Shea said stunned his team. The Braves remained stunned as Azar struck out the first four batters he faced.
“Our pitcher got them with two ground balls to start the first inning, and I thought we’re going to get out of the inning,” Shea said. “Then they had a kind of so-so base hit, then he hangs that next pitch and they pounded it over the fence. It kind of took the wind out of our sails, and we never got back.”
Azar added two hits at the plate, while Nick Post had two hits, including an RBI double for the Knights. King finished with three RBI on the day.
Carson Shea, who started on the mound for Gladstone, broke up Azar’s no-hitter with two outs in the sixth inning. Jared Crow added a double for the Braves in the seventh.
PHOTOS: (Top) Homer’s Zach Butters heads home for the game-winning run in Friday’s first Semifinal against Pewamo-Westphalia. (Middle) Liggett's Alec Azar 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.)