The Hornets are headed to the final four.
Saline defeated Portage North 5-1 in the MHSAA Division 1 baseball quarterfinal at University of Michigan’s Ray Fisher Stadium. The victory sends the Hornets to the final four for the first time since 2012. Saline faces Hartland at 5 p.m. Thursday at Michigan State University. The winner plays Traverse City West or Warren DeLaSalle in the state championship game at 11:30 a.m., Saturday, at MSU.
“We’ve been talking about it all last winter and all last season about getting to Michigan State and now we’re finally going,” said slugger Sean O’Keefe, whose biggest contribution was with the glove Tuesday. “It hasn’t really hit me yet, but I’m excited and I know we’re ready.”
Starter Kellan Huang earned the victory. He went 4 2/3 innings, one unearned run on four hits and two walks. He struck out two. Josh Nelson picked up the save. He entered the game with one out in the sixth inning, the bases loaded and the tying run at the plate. He went 1 2/3 scoreless innings, giving up two seventh inning hits and striking out three batters.
At the plate, the Hornets swung the bats well, especially the bottom of the lineup. Cole Daniels, Richard Hovde, Kellen Huang and Ryan Foley, the 6-9 hitters, went 7-for-9 with three RBI and five runs scored (counting pinch runners).
Portage North scored their only run in the second inning. Ryan Beadle reached on an error, took third on a single by Grant McNally and scored on a bunt by Michael Lincoln.
Saline answered in the bottom of the second. Cole Daniels, who didn’t swing the bat like someone battling a hamstring injury, got things started with rope to centerfield for a single. He took second on a passed ball. Andrew Diuble ran for Daniels at that point. Richard Hovde walked. Huang then reached on an error in the infield, to load the bases. Diuble scored on a passed ball.
Huang cruised through the third inning, striking out Tyler Helgeson and getting Tommy Henry on a fly ball. Jacob Begeman singled to left but Huang got Brady Young to hit one back to the mound. Huang threw him out at first. Saline went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the third.
Huang allowed a two-out walk in the fourth. Michael Lincoln took second on a wild pitch. But Jacob Finkbeiner made a sharp play at deep third and threw Noah Hecht out at first base.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Hornets assumed control of the game with a six-hit, four-run inning. Daniels started the rally with a one-out line drive down the first base line for a double. Hovde drove him in with a double to centerfield. Kellen Huang scored Hovde with a single past short. After Foley’s bunt attempt rolled foul, he smashed a triple to the gap in right-centerfield. Foley scored on Zach Schwartzenberger’s single.
Saline led 5-1.
Huang got into trouble in the fifth. Ryan Reeder led off with a single. Helgeson followed with a bunt single. With two on and no-outs, the top of the order was coming to the plate. Tommy Henry hit a screaming line drive down the first base line. Sean O’Keefe dove to his left to make the catch. Then he dove to first base to beat the runner who got caught leaning too far.
“There was not much to think about. The ball came at me really fast and got to me in a hurry. I knew I had a man on first. I just dove to get that second out,” O’Keefe said.
The play saved at least one run and prevented Portage Northern from generating a big inning.
Huang, however, was showing signs of fatigue. He walked the next batter. Saline coach Scott Theisen called in Ted Eppinga from the bullpen. Eppinga got the next hitter to ground out to third.
Saline’s four-run lead was still in act. Hovde had the Hornets’ only hit in the fifth. He stole second but the Hornets couldn’t bring him in.
In the sixth, Eppinga got into some trouble when he walked the leadoff man and struck the next batter. Eppinga got the next hitter to hit a ground back to the pitcher, but he loaded the bases when he struck Hecht. Theisen called for reliable Josh Nelson, who struck out Ryan Reeder and then retired Helgeson on a ground ball.
Saline threatened to extend its lead in the sixth. Ryan Foley led off with a bunt single. Schwartzenberger then walked. Miller hit into a double play, leaving only Schwartzenberger on second. He went to third on Zachary Owings’ infield hit. O’Keefe then got a rise out of the crowd with a long, high fly ball caught deep in left-centerfield.
In the seventh, Nelson got the first two outs and then allowed two hits, putting runners at second and third. He struck out Grant McNally to end the game.
The MHSAA quarterfinal game is a test of a team’s pitching depth. Even some of the best teams have two quality starters. Saline spent a lot of its pitching staff to win the regional Saturday. They called on Huang, who hadn’t pitched since the district tournament.
“I thought the outstanding – especially since he hadn’t pitched in 10 days,” coach Theisen said. “He got the win and he allowed some guys to get much needed rest. When we made some mistakes early, he kept his composure and didn’t let things bother him.”
Huang said he just wanted to go as long as he could and keep the Hornets in the game.
“I felt a little pressure. After I gave up that run it was getting pretty interesting,” Huang said.
He felt a lot better when the team tied the game and then surged ahead.
“It took a lot of weight off my shoulders. I could go out there and just pitch my game,” Huang said.
Hovde and Daniels swung the hottest bats for Saline. Hovde said the wanted to score a lot of runs for Huang in this big game.
“It was nice for us to come out and be aggressive at the plate and on the base paths and score a lot of runs. It helps your pitchers too,” Hovde said.
Theisen liked the way the team swung the bats.
“As the game went on I thought we made some adjustments to the way we approached our at bats. As the game went on we were better and better at the plate,” Theisen said. “It was really nice to get that hitting in the six, seven, eight and nine holes. When that happens we’re a dangerous team, 1 through nine.”
The Hornets now head to MSU in hopes of accomplishing the team’s ultimate goal – winning the state championship.
“It’s going to be a bigger circus up there. It always is when you get to the final four. But the game’s the same, regardless of all the stuff going around – the media, the fans, the atmosphere,” Theisen said. “But the game is the same between the lines. The kids know that. They’ve just got to do what they’ve done all year.”
The Saline Post 3 Stars
- Kellen Huang – Many high school baseball teams have had state championship seasons foiled because they didn’t have that pitcher who could win after their “aces” pitched in the regional. Huang gave the Hornets 4 2/3 quality innings, enough to let the bats take over the game. Huang also had an RBI single.
- Cole Daniels – Ignited both rallies. He had Saline’s first two hits. And those hits resulted in Saline’s first two runs. Richard Hovde hit the ball as hard as anyone and Ryan Foley also had a big day at the plate.
- Josh Nelson – He just keeps coming through for the Hornets. He entered the game with the tying run at the plate and one out and snuffed out Portage North’s season. Yet another clutch outing from the senior righthander.