EAST LANSING – Up until there were two outs in the top of the seventh inning of its Division 4 Semifinal on Thursday, Riverview Gabriel Richard was winning with an unusual formula.
At that point, the Pioneers had three more errors (5) than hits (2), but still found themselves up a run as they looked for some insurance.
After the first two batters made outs, the Pioneers found insurance, and then some.
With a lengthy two-out rally, Gabriel Richard tacked on six runs en route to a 10-3 win over Rudyard.
The Pioneers (16-12) are headed back to Finals day with an opportunity to add to their Division 3 title in 2018.
“It definitely wasn’t the way we drew it up,” Gabriel Richard coach Mike Magier said. “We actually have been playing pretty clean. I don’t know if was nerves or what, but we just didn’t play a very good game today. We finally did wake up and hit some balls there in the seventh inning.”
Gabriel Richard was cruising along with a 4-0 lead and two outs in the sixth, but Rudyard got on the board when senior Austin Warner singled and then scored on a two-out throwing error.
The rally continued and the Bulldogs pulled to within 4-3 on another two-out error and an RBI single by sophomore Eli Sprague.
But Gabriel Richard got the runs back in the seventh.
With the bases loaded and two outs, Gabriel Richard took a 5-3 lead on a wild pitch, and then senior Ashton Nowak delivered a two-run single to make it 7-3.
“It felt really good,” Nowak said. “Especially since I haven’t been really doing well at the plate the last couple of games. I’ve been getting on base, but not a lot of big hits. That was really nice.”
Senior Brenden Hills followed Nowak with an RBI single, a Rudyard error made it 9-3, and then another wild pitch scored a run to make it 10-3.
Senior Connor Silka didn’t allow an earned run in six innings of work on the mound, then Nowak pitched a scoreless seventh to finish the game for Gabriel Richard.
Rudyard had troubles in the field as well, committing four errors, allowing four unearned runs and throwing eight wild pitches.
Gabriel Richard opened the scoring in the first inning, taking a 1-0 lead on an RBI groundout by Hills that scored Nowak, who was hit by a pitch to start the inning, took second on a throwing error and went to third on a wild pitch.
The score remained that way until the fifth inning when Gabriel Richard loaded the bases with nobody out and took a 2-0 lead on a sacrifice fly by senior Bryan Tuttle.
The Pioneers took a 3-0 lead on a two-out error. Gabriel Richard added another run in the sixth inning on another two-out error by the Bulldogs that made it 4-0.
Rudyard, which was making its first Semifinal appearance, finished 28-7-1.
Beal City 14, Whitmore Lake 4 (6 innings)
No. 1-ranked Beal City certainly didn’t play its cleanest game of the year, but ultimately did what it had to in advancing to its seventh championship game.
The Aggies overcame three errors and six walks allowed during the first three innings by banging out 17 hits.
Beal City (30-2) employed a bunt game that was largely responsible for five Whitmore Lake errors and other defensive lapses.
“I told my kids that back in 2018 when we won it, we could bunt, but you guys can’t bunt,” said Beal City coach Steve Pickens, referring to Division 4 championship team in 2018. “We have worked on bunting all year. The best practice we had all year was (Wednesday), and I said that we were going to be able to win bunting. We bunted.”
Whitmore Lake took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first inning, loading the bases on a single by Zane Gregg, double by Alex Di Dio and walk before plating its runs on a double-play groundout and wild pitch.
Beal City answered in the bottom of the first, cutting its deficit to 2-1 on an RBI double by senior Hunter Miles. The Aggies then scored three runs in the second inning to take a 4-2 lead, mainly using their bunt game including a pair of bunt singles.
Whitmore Lake answered in the third inning, taking advantage of three walks, two errors and a misplay in the outfield to score two runs and tie the game at 4-4. But in the fifth inning, Beal City took a 5-4 lead on an RBI bunt single by Konnor Wilson.
The Aggies made it 8-4 scoring three runs in the fourth inning on another bunt single by Wilson, an RBI sacrifice fly by Wade Wilson and an RBI triple by sophomore Jack Fussman. They scored three more in the fifth inning, thanks in large part to RBI singles by Miles and Josh Wilson, to go up 11-4.
Beal City then finished out the game by scoring three runs in the sixth inning to evoke the 10-run differential rule.
Miles and senior Kaiden Andrews each had three RBI for Beal City.
Di Dio had three hits for Whitmore Lake (22-10), which had advanced to the Semifinals for the first time.
“We just didn’t take care of the little things today,” Whitmore Lake coach Hank Dreffs said. “Couldn’t be prouder of this team. Program history by making it all the way to East Lansing. Hats off to Beal City. They got their small-ball game going against us, and let the ball fly.”
PHOTOS (Top) Riverview Gabriel Richard celebrates Thursday’s Semifinal win with a backflip. (Middle) Beal City congratulates Wade Wilson (20) after he crosses the plate during the second inning.
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.)