Saline’s heart breaks again; De La Salle wins D1 title, 7-6
East Lansing – Some seemingly good managerial moves backfire. A stolen base by Saline in the seventh inning of a one-run game can be categorized as such.
That stolen base placed runners on second and third, and Warren De La Salle coach Matt Cook elected to walk Sean O’Keefe, who had homered in his previous at-bat, to fill the bases. Nino Puckett got Jake Finkbeiner to bounce into a game-ending double play and De La Salle escaped with a 7-6 victory over Saline on Saturday in the Division 1 final at McLane Stadium on the campus of Michigan State.
It’s De La Salle’s third state title and first since 2009. Saline is 0-5 in state final games.
“I don’t think I would have done anything different,” Saline coach Scott Theisen said. “Jake is a very good hitter. They did the right thing by walking Sean to set up the double play. You can only control the process of the at-bat. If that grounder goes a little left or right (second baseman Matt Held) maybe you get a fielder’s choice.”
If the shoe were on the other foot Cook said he’d likely do what Theisen did.
“When they took that base, we had to walk him,” Cook said. “I wasn’t surprised they took a base. The guy they brought up is a good hitter. Their whole lineup is good.”
Puckett wanted a shot at O’Keefe whose two-run home run well beyond the left field fence in the sixth tied the game at 5-5.
“I did (want to face him),” Puckett said. “I could show him my best stuff.”
Puckett, a cousin of Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, relieved starter and winning pitcher Easton Sikorski to start the top of the seventh. Puckett walked the first batter. A sacrifice and a wild pitch placed a runner at third and Zachary Owings walked with one out putting runners on the corners. Owings stole second without a throw.
Puckett went six-plus innings and was the winning pitcher in Thursday’s 3-1 semifinal victory over Traverse City West.
The Pilots (28-13) took a 4-0 lead in the second on six consecutive singles that knocked starter Kellen Huang out of the game.
Saline (35-7) chipped away at the lead with a run in the third and two in the fourth before taking a 6-5 lead in the sixth. O’Keefe’s homer tied it and Josh Nelson’s single scored Stevie Wise with the go-ahead run.
The Pilots scored two runs on one hit in the sixth to take a 7-6 lead. With runners on first and second and one out Nelson, in relief of Huang, threw a pitch in the dirt. Pinch runner Brett Sandora read the play, raced for third and just barely beat catcher Cal Livesay’s throw. Mac Graybill moved to second on the play and Bryce Bush brought both runners in with a single through the middle of the infield.
“We’re not a big base-stealing team,” Cook said. “We tell our guys to read ball-in-dirt. We don’t like to give away outs.
It was a remarkable run for the Pilots. They have eight sophomores on the roster and many, like Puckett, Sikorski, Bush, centerfielder Jacob Badalamenti, pitcher Ben Hyndman and catcher Mike Kostuch, played important roles.
Baseball can be a strange game. In 2012 De La Salle reached the state final after finishing the regular season 12-21.
Theisen can attest to the game’s oddities. Saline has had one of the state’s program for 15 years or more and are still in search of a state title.
“Snake-bit? No,” Theisen said. “A little frustrated, yes. (Five state-final losses) are all tough.”