East Lansing — Saline finally found out how it feels like to be state champions, jumping out to a 3-0 first-inning lead and going on to close the deal with a 5-2 victory over Northville in the Division 1 title game at Michigan State's McLane Baseball Stadium at Kobs Field Saturday morning.
Saline — 39-3 and ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 12 nationally by USA Today — held a 6-5 lead late in last year’s state championship game against Warren De La Salle before falling 7-6. It also lost state title games three straight years from 2008-10 and in 1998.
There would be no heartache this time around, just jubilation.
“It’s hard to describe since it’s been so many years of hard work by so many kids, so many families, so many coaches, just the peak of all peaks so it feels fantastic,” said Scott Theisen, who completed his 25th year as Saline’s head coach by lifting the ultimate trophy following his 639th career win.
“We kind of took advantage of maybe some early game nerves and maybe being here in the past helped us in that regard and maybe batting first helped us in that regard, but our hitters were disciplined I thought and didn’t do too much. If they were going to walk us they took it and then (Ryan) Foley’s aggressiveness was a big run when he turned the single into a double, stole third and scored on that passed ball (in the second).”
Saline took advantage of wild streaks by Northville pitchers in the top of the first to score three times.
Northville starter Ben Schmidt gave up a lead-off single to Ryan Foley, then walked Zach Schwartzenberger before failing to retire a runner after fielding Jake Finkbeiner’s sacrifice bunt.
Jonathan Michalak replaced Schmidt and got Sean O’Keefe to pop out, but then walked Cole Daniels to force in one run, then walked Ethan Collick to force in another. Kellan Huang‘s sacrifice fly scored Finkbeiner for the 3-0 cushion.
“Ultimately, it was the first inning, nerves, and jitters and then the double plays we hit into with all the baserunners we had, 10 hits and score two runs, that’s not going to happen so credit them for making the plays,” said Northville coach John Kostrzewa, pointing out Saline turned three double plays, including one in the second inning with the bases loaded.
“I think early on, the bunt, I think Ben (Schmidt) froze (on a bunt in the first inning). We do that every day in practice. We do it every day for 20 minutes in practice and they can do it with their eyes closed, but you get into that environment for the first time in your life, and in the first inning with guys on first and second and the catcher says, ‘One’ (first base) and he just froze, and that stuff happens.”
Saline opened up a 4-0 lead in the second when Foley doubled, stole third … standing up and scored on a wild pitch.
Saline starter Danny Weidmayer worked out of trouble in the bottom of the second when he got Alex Garbacik to ground into a double play with the bases loaded with Finkbeiner at short throwing the ball to second baseman Kellan Huang, who made the perfect throw to first.
Northville (30-11), which had three hits from first baseman Aram Shahrigian and two apiece from Nick Prystash and and Garbacik, did cut the deficit to 4-2 when junior Paul Kiyabu replaced Weidmayer with one on and no outs in the fourth, then gave up a run-producing triple to Jack Sargent who scored on a sacrifice fly by Michael Lionas.
Northville again loaded the bases in the bottom of the fifth, but Huang — who had just took over on the mound — retired Sargent on the first pitch trying to reach safely by bunting.
“We gave him an option, he’s our best bunter and he always has the option to do that and we’re not going to second guess him for doing that since he felt comfortable doing that,” said Kostrzewa of Sargent bunting with the bases loaded. “Certainly the outcome is something you can second guess obviously, but we don’t have a problem with it. He’s done that before and got a base hit out of it.”
Said Sargent: “We had a talk (third base coach Bill Flohr) and we were really influenced if he (Sean Millspaugh) had played back at third that I could bunt because I bunted down third base all season. But, I don’t know, it was not a good decision to make. I should have just swung because right now my bat is obviously pretty hot. It was a good pitch. It was inside and the bunt went straight up the middle, right to the pitcher and that was that.”
Theisen was shocked to see the bunt.
“I was surprised,” he said. “We were pleasantly surprised that it went back to the pitcher and we took the out.”
Said Finkbeiner: “I was shell-shocked because they had two outs and he had to bunt it perfectly to get on.”
Foley was the hero at the plate for Saline with a single and pair of doubles to pace Saline’s eight-hit attack. And, he was rewarded with an offer from Wayne State and could possibly be Finkbeiner’s college teammate if he accepts the offer.
Foley was thrilled to earn the state title for Theisen.
“It feels fantastic,” Foley said. “There’s nobody else that deserves a ring more than him. It means so much for the senior class and everybody else on this team.”
Finkbeiner played outstanding on defense, playing a hand in turning three double plays. He also took the flip from Huang who fielded the grounder off the bat of Sargent with runners on first and second with two out in the seventh to start the wild celebration.
“Me and Kellan (Huang), my second baseman, we’ve been really working hard after practice these past weeks, just working on fielding and turning two and it paid off today,” said Finkbeiner of Huang who had two singles. “We’ve never turned three before so it’s something special to get it done today.
“I feel so good that Coach (Theisen) finally gets his trophy. He’s been here 24, 25 years and he deserves it.”