Saline defeated Holt 3-2 in the MHSAA Division 1 baseball quarterfinal at the University of Michigan’s Ray Fisher Stadium Tuesday.
It was a contest between a perennial state contender, the number-one ranked Hornets, and an up-and-coming baseball program from Holt. The Rams came to Ray Fisher Stadium to upend the favorite Hornets and dash their state championship aspirations, but the Hornets persevered.
Coach Scott Theisen said his team found a way to win a tough game.
“It was a dogfight. Both teams settled in after a little bit of uneasiness early. Both pitchers settled in. It was a tough win. It was a good win,” Theisen said.
Saline travels to Michigan State University to play in the semifinal game against Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett at 11:30 a.m. Thursday. The winner advances to the state championship game at 9 a.m. Saturday against Northville or Grand Haven.
“I’ve never been so happy in my life than to win a game against the Holt Rams. I’m so excited to go back to East Lansing and finish this thing,” said Saline senior Sean O’Keefe, the winning pitcher, who sounded particularly fierce after the game.
O’Keefe, pitching for the first time since May 19, was the winning pitcher. He went six innings in the oppressive heat. He gave up six hits, including a couple infield rollers, and walked two batters. He struck out five.
O’Keefe gave up a single to start the seventh and was relieved by Kellan Huang.
“We were trying to see how far we could go with Sean. He looked tired and left a couple balls up, so we made the change,” Theisen said.
Huang had been playing catcher for six innings before the switch. He gave up a sacrifice bunt and then hit a batter. Coach Scott Theisen returned to the mound to make another change.
“I don’t think Kellan had much left in the tank either,” said Theisen.
He called in reliever Paul Kiyabu, who had been playing second base.
It proved to be a great call. Kiyabu entered the game with a one-run lead, runners on first and second, and one out in the top of the seventh. On his first pitch, he got a ground ball to short, where Jake Finkbeiner scooped it up and tossed to Huang at second. Huang relayed to Ted Eppinga at first and the game was over.
Theisen has no reservations about going to his pint-sized pitcher in the most crucial moments. Last year, he came up big in a relief appearance in the regional tournament.
“He throws a lot of strikes. He keeps the ball down. He competes. He wants the ball in a situation like that. No moment is too big for him. I like that,” Theisen said.
The 6-4-3 double play was emblematic of the Hornets’ defensive play since the tournament started. Finkbeiner, whose eyes lit up when he saw the ground ball bouncing toward him, agrees.
“All the extra work we’ve put in during practice is finally paying off,” he said. “Me and Kellan always work it up the middle. Mills (Sean Millspaugh) is working hard at third base. It’s finally paying off her in the games.”
After hitting three home runs and several doubles during the regional tournament last weekend, the Hornets couldn’t find their power stroke against Holt pitcher Burrell Jones. O’Keefe’s double in the bottom of the third was Saline’s only extra-base hit. The Hornets managed six hits in six innings off Jones.
“We had to engineer a few things with a couple bunts here and there. They're a very good defensive team and with Jones on the mound, it was a tough game,” Theisen said.
Both pitchers struggled a little bit early. O’Keefe allowed an infield tapper for a single and a walk in the first inning, but he struck out the next two batters to escape unharmed. Ryan Foley singled to start Saline’s first inning but he was erased when Huang hit into a double play. Finkbeiner walked and then O’Keefe reached on an error, but Jones got Cole Daniels to ground out.
Holt scored both of their runs in the top of the second. Drake Sobleskey started the inning with an infield single. He advanced to second on a ground out and then scored on Robert Butterson’s single to center. With two outs, Jesse Heikkinen slashed a double down the left-field line to make it 2-0. Heikkinen took third but was stranded there when Tyler Brown grounded out to Finkbeiner at shortstop.
Zach Schwartzenberger helped get Saline on the scoreboard when he led the second inning with a line-drive single to centerfield. He moved to third when Ethan Collick’s hard ground ball ate up the second basemen, who then made a throwing error. Millspaugh tried to squeeze Schwartzenberger home. The third-basemen made an error, allowing Schwartzenberger to score and Collick to take third. Jones got out of the inning when Foley popped up and Huang struck out.
After giving up a lead-off single in the third, O’Keefe settled in. He retired 12 of the next 13 hitters, giving up only a walk in the fifth.
Saline scored two runs in the third to take the lead. Finkbeiner started the third with a single to right. Sean O’Keefe lined to left for a double, putting runners at second and third. Finkbeiner scored on a passed-ball.
Freshman Alex Morrison, courtesy runner for O’Keefe, scored the game-winning run when the third-basemen made an error on Zach Schwartzenberger’s bunt.