• Michigan

Alec Azar fixes the glitch, pitching University Liggett past Riverview Gabriel Richard, to its first-ever CHSL C-D tourney title

By: Matthew B. Mowery, May 24, 2019, 6:00 pm

DETROIT — Something rattled loose on Alec Azar’s delivery.

The senior right-hander bought himself some time to correct it mid-game in the bullpen, then went back to dominating, tossing a two-hit shutout as No. 4 Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett beat No. 3 Riverview Gabriel Richard, 2-0, in the Detroit Catholic League C-D tournament championship game at Comerica Park Friday.

“Yeah. Honestly, that rarely happens to me. I’m usually pretty consistent pounding the strike zone, and I think I had like five or six balls in a row. I just tried to step off, take a deep breath. Luckily, I got that pickoff that got me out of it, and then I went down to the bullpen, and was able to collect myself,” Azar said. “That pickoff really kind of changed the momentum of the game for us.”

It was the first-ever Catholic League title for University Liggett, which joined the league with Ann Arbor Greenhills two years ago, and just this year became postseason eligible.

“It’s huge. It’s what we wanted, and it’s what our goals were. We struggled a little bit in a three-game stretch … but we were just struggling with the bats. I knew the bats would sooner or later come around, and they did. If we can stay hot with the bats, we’re going to be tough to beat,” said Liggett coach Dan Cimini, who will let the Knights celebrate the title for the weekend, before heading into the MHSAA postseason back in Division 3, after two years opting up to D1.

“We’re very confident. I had a long talk with the team yesterday, and we’ve been winning a lot of games against really good programs. We’ve just gotta play our game, and not worry about who we’re playing, just worry about what we’re doing.”

The Knights are always confident with Azar on the mound, but he had an odd little hiccup in the fifth inning, when he couldn’t seem to throw strikes, sailing everything high.

“His release point, if you noticed that. That’s why I kept having him throw to second base on the pickoffs, to try to get him to fix it — because you can’t call time to have him throw a bullpen,” Cimini said. “So I’m calling the pickoff over and over again, and the kid just happened to step on our player’s foot, and got tagged. That was a huge turning point in the game, because then he went down in the bullpen and got it fixed, and he was fine again. It happens. I love the way he can make himself adjust, and fix that. It’s very hard to do when you’re a pitcher.”

The Pioneers had runners in the sixth and seventh innings, but couldn’t get any of them past second, as Azar finished with 11 strikeouts, including the side in order after a seventh-inning walk.

Looming even larger that the pickoff might’ve been the outfield assist in the fourth that cut down David Zubor at the plate, trying to score from second on a single by Cole Atkinson.

“That was great. It was 2-1, and I knew I needed to get a fastball over, and he put a good bat on it,” Azar said. “Will Nicholson had a great throw to home, and that was another play that just kept us in it, and kept our confidence up.”

A junior, Nicholson was in left field for his defense, and came up firing, throwing a strike to catcher Patrick Ilitch behind the plate. Zubor tried to leap over the tag, but Ilitch got him on the hip, mid-air.

“Oh, my God, it was gigantic. Nicholson’s in there for his defense. He hasn’t had an at-bat all year, but he’s a good defensive guy,” Cimini said. “We told him, ‘When the big time comes, you gotta make a play for us, and he did.’ That paid off for us, big-time. No one else would’ve made that play.”

The Knights got on the board first, in the top of the third, as a two-out error prolonged the inning, and Logan King doubled home Kellen Banaszewski for a 1-0 Liggett lead.

Cole Atkinson, who’d beaten the Knights — with Azar on the mound — twice in the regular season, kept the game a 1-0 contest until the seventh, when his counterpart helped himself by adding an insurance run.

Billy Kopicki singled, then Banaszewski reached on a perfect push bunt. A Richard throwing error on a fielder’s choice loaded the bases for Azar, who was 0-for-3 on the day, despite crushing a ball to left-center field, a blast that likely would’ve been out anywhere but Comerica.

“Honestly, I didn’t even know I hit the ball that far. I squared it up, and I didn’t even really see it. Everyone said it went pretty far,” Azar said. “It felt pretty good, and if we would’ve been at our home field, that definitely would’ve been out.”

The senior got some retribution for that out with a two-out RBI single in the seventh to make it 2-0.

“That felt really good. I was a little nervous going up there with two outs, but I just wanted to put something in play,” Azar said. “It really helped me going into the bottom of the seventh, a little confidence booster.”

The Pioneers are the defending Division 3 champions, and with Liggett back in D3, the two teams could potentially run into each other again with a title on the line. Should both survive that far, they wouldn’t meet until the D3 title game.

“Wouldn’t surprise me if we didn’t end up seeing each other down the road,” Cimini said. “Absolutely I want to see them again. Why wouldn’t we want two teams, if we can, from the same league in the state championship.”