By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Despite its slow start this season, Muskegon Clippers Manager Walt Gawkowski has repeatedly insisted that his team has the talent to turn things around and compete for a division title.

The Clippers’ gutsy performance on Monday suggested that Gawkowski may be right.

Muskegon lost an early lead, battled back to tie the game in the sixth inning, then grabbed an exciting 8-7 walk-off win over the St. Clair Green Giants at Marsh Field.

The walk-off hit came from centerfielder Wyatt Featherston, whose one-out single in the bottom of the ninth drove home Nolan Bryant from second base with the winning run.

Muskegon’s Tyler Trovinger heads for home plate with coach Walt Gawkowski congratulating him after belting a 2-run homer. Photo/Jason Goorman

“I was like, I’ve got to do something with the baseball, put it in play and see what happens,” said Featherston, who also produced the game’s first run with a solo homer.

The victory was the second in a row for the Clippers, who have now beaten St. Clair, the first-place team in their division, three out of four games this season.

The Clippers are now 5-6 on the season and in third place in the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League’s Northern Division. They are 2 ½ games behind St. Clair and only a half-game behind Grand River and Lake Erie, who are tied for second place.

They will hit the road on Tuesday for five games in the next four days, including a doubleheader on Thursday.

“We have a very talented team,” Gawkowski said after the game. “Some of these kids are just starting to feel comfortable. Some of them were redshirt freshmen (with their college teams) and didn’t play at all during the spring, while others were freshmen who played, but not very much. They are just starting to hit their stride.

“We still have some guys that need to get on track, but I really like this team. We are athletic with a nice blend of speed and power.”

Clipper third baseman Jacob Buchberger fields the bunt. Photo/Jason Goorman

The Clippers continued their recent pattern of grabbing early leads in the second inning, when Featherston and Jacob Buchberger hit back-to-back solo homers to give the home team a 2-0 lead.

Then the back-and-forth battle started.

St. Clair scored four runs in the top of the fifth to take a 4-2 lead.

Muskegon responded with three runs in the bottom of the fifth to pull ahead 5-4. The Clippers scored on a sacrifice fly from Bryce Kelley, an RBI single by Ryan Blake-Jones, and a sacrifice fly by Pete Zimmerman.

St. Clair scored three times in the top of the sixth to take a 7-5 lead. The big blow of the inning was a two-run homer by Matt Deneau.

But the Clippers fought back again to tie the game 7-7 in the bottom of the inning, thanks to a two-run blast over the left-center field fence by Tyler Trovinger.

Wyatt Featherston makes a catch in deep center field for Muskegon. Photo/Jason Goorman

The score remained tied until the bottom of the ninth, when the Clippers manufactured the winning run.

Bryant led off the inning on a walk, then took second on a sacrifice bunt by Blake-Jones. Zimmerman grounded to short, leaving Bryant at second, then Cameron Bair was intentionally walked, bringing Featherston to the plate.

His hit went up the middle, barely got past the diving shortstop, and found its way into center field to drive Bryant home and end the game.

“I kind of had an eye on it, and I was like ‘get through, get through,’ and it did,” Featherston said. “I got a good piece of it and it went through.”

Reliever Andrew Null pitched the final two innings to earn the victory, striking out three, walking three and allowing one hit. Mitch Ashcraft pitched the first five innings while Brian Taggett worked the sixth and seventh for Muskegon.