East Lansing – Warren De La Salle took a 4-0 lead in the second inning and then held on for a 7-6 triumph over Saline in a dramatic Division 1 baseball state championship game Saturday at McLane Stadium.
De La Salle (28-13) grabbed the 7-6 lead in the bottom of the sixth on a two-run single by sophomore Bryce Bush through a drawn-in infield, and then the Pilots turned a double play to end a Saline threat in the seventh to hoist the championship trophy.
Saline junior Sean O’Keefe had helped Saline to a 6-5 lead in the top of the sixth on a mammoth two-run homer, part of a three-run inning for the Hornets.
O’Keefe’s drive sailed just left of the scoreboard and went approximately 370 feet for the first home run at McLane Stadium in the three years the MHSAA state finals have been at the site.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” O’Keefe said after the game, stunned while standing by his teammates.
O’Keefe was brought in by Saline coach Scott Theisen to replace Josh Nelson, who was solid in relief before hitting a pair of batters in the sixth, resulting in Theisen making the move with one out.
O’Keefe was greeted by Bush’s sharp single just past the second baseman for the two-run single. He then retired the next two batters to end the inning.
“I had to stay tough, battle with two strikes on me, and he threw me a curveball so I sat back on it and hit it,” said Bush of his game-winning hit.
Bush has been big all postseason, hitting a home run in each of the regional games, then getting three hits in the quarterfinal win Tuesday. He reached safely in all four plate appearance Saturday, getting two singles and a walk while also being hit by a pitch.
"This is what we work for, the 5 a.m. workouts in the offseason,” Bush said. “It’s a great feeling.”
It was the fifth state championship game loss for Saline, which fell in the title game in 1998, then three straight years from 2008-10.
Things looked promising for Saline (35-7) in the top of the seventh. De La Salle coach Matt Cook lifted sophomore starter Easton Sikorski for sophomore Nino Puckett, who was the starter and winner in Thursday’s semifinal.
Puckett had to face the top of the lineup, walking leadoff hitter Zach Schwartzenberger. After a sacrifice bunt by Thomas Miller, Zachary Owings walked to set up a first-and-third, one-out situation for O’Keefe.
Theisen called for Owings to steal to get two runners in scoring position. The move worked, but then Cook took the bat out of O’Keefe’s hands, giving him the intentional walk to load the bases. Puckett then got the cleanup hitter, Jake Finkbeiner, to ground into a 4-6-3 double play to end the game.
“It was a little chess match there at the end,” said Theisen, who has been Saline’s coach for 24 seasons. “O’Keefe (6-3, 240) is probably a pretty big double-play candidate himself, so first and third he hits a ground ball and they might turn it on a slower guy like O’Keefe, so we wanted to send Owings and if they made a play maybe we were going to send the runner from third on the double steal. But, they didn’t take the bait, and then they did the right thing by countering with the intentional pass and it worked out for them.”
On the game-ending double play, Theisen said Finkbeiner “squared it up and hit it hard, but it was just absolutely right at the kid (second baseman Matt Held). Baseball’s a cruel game sometimes, no question.”
Theisen called O’Keefe’s homer “a big emotional lift for us.”
“It was a no-doubter, gone as soon as it was hit,” said Theisen. “It was a big moment on a big stage.”
As for the decision to bring in O'Keefe to replace Nelson, who worked 4.1 innings after going 4.1 Thursday in relief of O'Keefe in a 5-3 semifinal win over defending state champion Hartland?
“He (O’Keefe) came in in a tough situation (runners on first and third, sixth inning), got a ground ball, but with our infield pulled in a little bit it got through," said Theisen. " If our infield’s back we probably make that play, but being up one we were playing a little halfway to try and hold the lead late.”
Cook felt he wouldn’t need to pull Sikorski, especially early when he retired the first six batters he faced, but things soon changed.
“I knew if we had the lead I’d be coming in,” said Puckett. “It was pretty nerve-racking, but my coach believed in me, knowing I could get the double play, and I threw a two-seamer and got the double play.”
Said Cook: “We just came through with a couple of clutch hits at the end, double play to end it, can’t write a better ending than that for us.”
Nelson was again solid in relief for Saline. He also had an RBI-single in the sixth for the 6-5 lead.
Nelson has been called on by Theisen to save Saline throughout the postseason and the title game was no different.
Nelson entered in the second after De La Salle jumped on Saline starter Kellan Huang for six straight hits – all singles – to start the inning, highlighted by Darren Rydzewski’s two-run single, which chased Huang.
With two runners on, Nelson got the first batter to pop out, then after an infield single to load the bases, escaped trouble by getting Rob Zurawski on a called third strike and Held on a liner to left with Ryan Foley making a great diving catch.
“We thought it was ours to take, but I guess it wasn’t our year,” said Nelson, who suffered his first loss, ending his senior year at 11-1.