EAST LANSING – Clutch pitching, squandered chances and plenty of extra baseball was the theme of Thursday’s second Division 1 Semifinal between Novi and Mattawan.
In a battle of two teams both seeking a first championship, it was Novi that ultimately prevailed in 10 innings, 4-1, at Michigan State’s McLane Stadium.
Novi was down to its last strike in the seventh inning, but finally broke through against Mattawan junior starter Brendan Garza to advance to the season’s final day for the first time since 1973.
With runners on first and second and two outs following a walk and hit batter, Novi senior Alex Czapski lined a single up the middle with two strikes to tie the game at 1-1, just as Garza was on the verge of tossing a one-hit shutout.
“Earlier in the game I was thinking off-speed,” Czapski said. “He was giving it to me, and I wasn’t hitting it. Overall, I wasn’t hitting it great, but I got a lucky poke on that. He was a great pitcher.”
Each team had a chance in the ninth inning, starting when Novi put runners at first and second base with nobody out. But the rally fizzled after an unsuccessful sacrifice bunt attempt and two strikeouts.
In the bottom of the ninth, Mattawan put a runner on third with one out following a leadoff double by sophomore Tyson Stratton and a sacrifice bunt, but couldn’t get the winning run across after a short flyout and strikeout. The flyout was a soft line drive to right, but the baserunner was partially up the line when the ball was caught and didn’t have enough time to go back to the base, tag up and try to run home.
In the top of the 10th inning, Novi took a 2-1 lead on a Mattawan throwing error. Novi put runners on first and second with nobody out after a hit and a walk, and on a sacrifice bunt attempt a throw went into left field allowing a run to score. With two outs, junior Andrew Kummer hit a ball that got past the shortstop and into left field, scoring two runs to give Novi a 4-1 lead.
Novi sophomore reliever Uli Fernsler capped off three scoreless innings by pitching a 1-2-3 ninth to finish the game.
Now, Novi will go for its first Finals title in head coach Rick Green’s 23rd year at the helm.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Green said. “I’m so thrilled and happy for these guys. It’s all about these guys and the guys in the past as well.”
Novi on the mound started senior Andrew Abler, who allowed five hits and a run over seven innings.
Up until Czapki’s tying single in the seventh, the story of the game was Garza, who was dominant throughout until the walk and hit batter in the seventh opened the door.
Garza also accounted for Mattawan’s lone run, singling it home in the first inning.
Mattawan, which stranded runners on second and third base in both the fifth and sixth innings, finished 25-12-1.
“We had two or three chances to win the game and didn’t capitalize,” Mattawan head coach Brett Vaughn said. “It was exactly what I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be a pitcher’s duel, and that’s exactly what it was right until the end.”
Brownstown Woodhaven 6, Macomb Dakota 4
Woodhaven has been following a pattern of clutch two-out hitting and improbable comebacks of late.
In a Division 1 Quarterfinal win over Grosse Pointe South, the Warriors rallied from a 7-3 deficit in the bottom of the sixth inning, scoring six runs with two outs en route to a 9-7 victory.
It was more of the same for Woodhaven in its Semifinal win over Dakota.
The Warriors trailed 4-0 in the fourth inning, but rallied for six runs — all with two outs — to earn a 6-4 victory and their second appearance in a Division 1 championship game since 2018.
Woodhaven (32-11) has won 21 of its last 23 games.
“We’ve been through a lot this season,” Woodhaven head coach Corey Farner said. “Almost every single situation you can think of, we’ve been through it. We were down big in the Quarterfinal. We just don’t quit. They don’t have that in them.”
A bulk of the rally for Woodhaven came in the bottom of the fourth inning, when the Warriors mounted a five-run rally with two outs.
With runners on second and third base, senior Tyler Harris doubled to left-center to cut the deficit to 4-2 Dakota.
Senior Michael Budai, junior Jacob Wright and senior Nick Phillips each added RBI singles with two outs to give the Warriors a 5-4 lead.
Woodhaven then added another run in the fifth inning when an RBI single with two outs by Budai gave the Warriors a 6-4 advantage.
Once given a lead, Woodhaven ace Evan Langlois settled in and didn’t give Dakota any great opportunities to get back into the game, allowing just one runner to get into scoring position over the last three innings after Dakota scored four runs in the top of the third to go up 4-0.
“I felt I was dialed in pretty much the whole entire time,” said Langlois, a senior who struck out five, walked one and allowed five hits in a complete-game win. “That rally will affect anybody. I just tried to stay focused the whole entire time and do my thing.”
Three of the four Dakota runs scored in the third inning were unearned. After loading the bases with one out, the Cougars took a 1-0 lead on an RBI groundout by senior Brendan Borowicz before forming a two-out rally. Dakota took a 2-0 lead following a throwing error, and then the Cougars grabbed a 4-0 lead when a single to right by senior Will DeMasse plated two runs.
But that would be all the offense for Dakota (26-13-2), which also ended its 2019 season at the Semifinals.
DeMasse had three hits to lead the way for the Cougars.
“One bad inning,” Dakota head coach Angelo Plouffe said. “It sucks, but that’s baseball. You’ve got to make three outs in an inning. That’s what it takes. I’m proud of my kids.”
PHOTOS (Top) Novi players, from left, Uli Fernsler, Brett Reed and Jonathan Aurilia celebrate their team’s Semifinal win Thursday at McLane Stadium. (Middle) Novi’s Alex Czapski drives a pitch against Mattawan. (Below) Woodhaven’s Evan Langlois (3) applies a tag during his team’s Semifinal win over Macomb Dakota.
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.)