In the MHSAA baseball playoffs, when one loss means the end of the road, the Saline Hornets are proving it doesn’t matter how it you do it, as long as you get the ‘W.’
Saline defeated Bedford 13-7 and Allen Park 4-3 Saturday at Saline to win the regional championship and advance to the quarterfinal Tuesday at the University of Michigan. Saline will play Portage Northern at 4 p.m. The winner will face Rochester or Hartland in the semifinal at 5 p.m., Friday, at Michigan State University.
“We face some good pitching and we played two good teams that played hard” coach Scott Theisen said.
Saline’s regional victory was a battle of attrition in the oppressive heat. Five Hornets pitched in the opener against Allen Park. Six Hornets threw in victory over Bedford.
“Fortunately we’ve got a lot of guys who can throw and it was a matter of, once we got the lead, finding someone who could consistently throw strikes,” Theisen said.
Zach Schwartzenberger, who hit a grand slam home run in the champion, said it felt good to win a tough regional.
“The coaches have been talking to us about staying in games and being tough and keeping energy up. We did that today,” Schwartzenberger said, who’s happy to go to the quarterfinals. “It feel’s great. We’ve got three more to go.”
Sean O’Keefe started and struggled with control in the opener. He waked the lead-off man and hit a batter and then allowed a run on a wild pitch. In the second, Allen Park scored a couple more. Allen Park chased O’Keefe with two more runs in the second. Josh Nelson came in and got the third out with runners on second and third.
In the fourth, the Hornets got two runs back. Zachary Owings and O’Keefe singled with one out. Jake Finkbeiner drove in the Hornets first run with a single. Richard Hovde’s sacrifice fly scored Saline’s second run.
Nelson, meanwhile, was getting in a groove. In the fourth, fifth and sixth, he allowed a single and a walk and he struck out seven batters.
Saline took their first lead of the day in the seventh. It all started with two out. Cole Daniels doubled to the wall in left-center. Mike Schuby singled up the middle to tie the score. He took second as Daniels slid Pete-Rose-style into home plate.
Kellen Huang singled to score a pinch runner. Saline led 4-3.
Allen Park wouldn’t go quietly in the seventh. Daniels walked the lead-off man. Theisen replaced him with Ted Eppinga, who got one out but then gave up a single and allowed another baserunner on an error.
Theisen then went to junior varsity call-up Paul Kiyabu, who made his varsity debut with the bases loaded, one out, a one-run lead and the season on the line.
“At that point we wanted someone who would throw strikes and let the defense do its job,” Theisen said. “One thing you know about Paul is that he’s going to be near the plate.”
Kiyabu realized the enormity of the situation.
“I was nervous, but the guys on the team calmed me down and helped me feel confident,” Kiyabu said.
Kiyabu got the job done. He struck out Devin Basley and got Tyler Beachnau to fly out to center to end the game.
Saline survived the first test. The Hornets now had a rematch with Bedford.
The Hornets truck first. Thomas Miller singled with one out. Zachary Owings reached base on a fielder’s choice. He stole second. After O’Keefe walked, Finkbeiner single to left to score Owings.
Richard Hovde started for the Hornets, but he didn’t last long. Kegan O’Brien singled. Hovde tried picking him off at first, but the ball bounced into foul territory. O’Keefe chased it down and then gunned down O’Brien at third. Jared Nanney doubled and then scored on a double by Joey Wiemer. Hovde walked Tanner Glass. Josh Nelson came into the game and got Bobby Bobroski to hit a tapper back to the mound. Nelson threw to Thomas Miller at second, who relayed to O’Keefe at first for the double play.
In the bottom of the second, the Mules took a three-run lead. David Jeffers led off with a double. Justin Rozek bunted him over to third. The next hitter reached on an error, allowing a run to score. Nelson struck out the next hitter, but O’Brien doubled to center to drive in Bedford’s third run.
Saline tied the game in the fourth. Hovde got it started with a one-out walk. Then Daniels walked. Schuby reached base on an error. Ryan Foley walked with the bases loaded to score Saline’s first run. Schwartzenberger’s fly ball to center scored another run. Zachary Owings tied the game with a double to right.
In the fifth, Saline put up four more. Finkbeiner walked and Hovde was hit by a pitch. Daniels bunted past the pitcher for an infield single to load the bases. Pitcher Tony Yambor looked like he might escape the jam when he retired Schuby and Foley.
He got ahead of Schwartzenberger, 0-2. Schwartzenberger worked his way back in the count and smashed a ball over the fence, but about 20 feet foul in right. Then, with a 3-and-2 count, he drilled a pitch over the wall in right for a grand slam.
“That was a huge momentum swing. It looked like we might go from having the bases loaded with no outs to scoring no runs. Zach had a great at-bat. That was a good piece of hitting,” Theisen said.
But the Mules weren’t done either. Jeffers hit a three-run homer over the centerfield fence to make it 8-7 in the bottom of the fifth. They threatened to score more. After giving up a one-out walk, Daniels was relieved by O’Keefe. Bedford loaded the bases with two singles. O’Keefe got Wiemer to hit a bouncer to short. Miller caught it, stepped on second and gunned down Wiemer at first for the double play, preserving the one-run lead.
Saline added five runs in the sixth to pad their lead. O’Keefe pitched a perfect sixth and seventh for Saline.