EAST LANSING – Warren De La Salle sophomore pitcher Nino Puckett began the state tournament with a 2-5 record.
Three weeks later he is 5-5 and the Pilots are in the Division 1 state championship game.
Puckett fired a remarkable two-hitter Thursday to spark De La Salle to a 3-1 victory over Traverse City West.
The amazing aspect of Puckett’s performance is that for a while he needed a GPS to locate home plate.
“I couldn’t find it early, but I let my defense help me,” he said. “I think I found it in the later innings.”
Puckett walked seven batters and struck out only three, but used his lack of control to his advantage to keep the West hitters off balance.
“Obviously, he was pretty effective,” said West coach Matt Bocian. “We did get some base runners because of wildness at times. We just couldn’t capitalize and get a big hit. We only scored one run on two hits, so obviously he’s got to be effectively wild.”
He was also effectively composed, despite putting at least one runner on base in every inning.
“Nino battled today,” said De La Salle coach Matt Cook. “I don’t think he had his best stuff. He walked quite a few guys, but the way he makes his ball move, he’s a hard guy to hit. Even with base runners on, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t let it bother him. I know a lot of pitchers might fold in a moment like that, but not Nino.”
West (41-3) led, 1-0, until sophomore Jake Badalamenti lined a shot to center to score two runs in the fourth.
“It was a great pitch, right down the middle,” Badalamenti said. “I got a nice piece of it and had to do what had to be done.”
He also took the same approach when making an outstanding diving catch with a runner on first and nobody out in the seventh inning after sophomore Easton Sikorski relieved Puckett following a leadoff walk.
“I got a great job on the ball,” he said. “I had to use my speed. It was a big play for a big inning — had to be done. It was clutch timing.”
As the game wore on, Puckett eventually found his control and the Titans struggled against him.
“I was getting ahead in the count,” he said, “and then I was using my slider for a strikeout pitch.”
This has been an amazing tournament for the Pilots (27-13), who were a pedestrian 10-10 in the Catholic League.
“We had some real close losses, especially in the Catholic League,” Cook said. “In a great league we’re playing in, it put us in position for games like today to not be able to shy away from the moment.”
It has also been a surprising tournament run for Puckett.
“Don’t let his record make you think he’s not a good pitcher,” Cook said. “Those five losses were all in the league. The fact that he came out today and threw a great game does not shock me at all.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1