EAST LANSING – It’s one thing to simulate double plays while taking infield practice, but the situation is entirely different once you have to come up with one at a do-or-die moment of the state championship.
After Saline loaded the bases in the seventh, Warren De La Salle got that game-ending double play to preserve a wild 7-6 win. Second baseman Matt Held fielded the ground ball cleanly, flipped to shortstop Mike Karam covering second, Karam’s throw to Bryce Bush at first nipped the Saline batter by a step and the Pilots erupted in celebration.
“Oh man, we work on it all the time in practice, we don’t get the opportunity to do it much in a game but I knew as soon as I got the ball I could count on Mike,” Held said. “All throughout the state tournament, whenever we needed that clutch hit, the clutch play in the field, and we got it, it’s just how we roll.”
Turns out that De La Salle (27-13) needed some of each Saturday. After failing to hold an early four-run lead, the Pilots found themselves down, 6-5, in the bottom of the sixth. Mike Kostuch and Mac Graybill both reached after being hit by pitches, moved ahead on a wild pitch, and came home when Bush rapped a hard grounder through the box.
“They gave me nothing good to hit all day, so I had to sit back on an outside curve and there was no one up the middle, so that was a good place and I was aiming to hit the ball there. I got a good piece of it,” Bush said.
But Saline (35-7) nearly stole the win, scoring three times in the sixth to grab a one-run-lead. Sean O’Keefe stroked a two-run homer over the leftfield fence — the first round-tripper in a state final in four years — to tie the game. The Hornets went ahead three batters later on an RBI single by relief pitcher Josh Nelson, who quieted the De La Salle bats over 41/3innings.
“We’ve done it all year, we knew we could do it today, that’s all we thought about; there was nothing different,” O’Keefe said. “Obviously it could have been the greatest home run in the world, but now it doesn’t mean anything right now. It doesn’t mean anything to me and it never will — we lost.”
For awhile, it looked like the Pilots were going to win in a laugher, after batting around in the second, scoring four runs behind six consecutive singles and chasing Saline starter Kellen Huang after he only faced 10 batters. But Nelson buckled down, just as he did in Thursday’s semifinal, and allowed two Pilot singles while the Hornets crept back in it.
“That’s a tough game. The kids battled back,” said Saline coach Scott Theisen, who made his fifth appearance in a championship game without winning one. “They strung several hits together in their second and that was the difference in the game. We battled back, took the lead, and then they got a big two-out hit, and we hit the ball right at the kid for a double play, and it just worked out for them.”
The Pilots, meanwhile, won their fourth championship in school history, and the first under coach Matt Cook.
“That was a fantastic baseball game,” Cook said. “I give a lot of credit to Saline, they could have easily folded. My guys, we just came up with a couple of clutch hits late and a double play to end it, you can’t write a better ending.”