By Nate Thompson
GRAND HAVEN – With longtime rivals Grand Haven and Rockford engulfed in a pitcher’s dual during Wednesday’s Division 1 regional semifinal game, it was obvious that the first team to find some clutch hitting, or force the opposing defense to crack, would be the victor.
As it turned out, Rockford was the team that did it.
With the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, Rockford’s Owen Cairns hit a slow grounder down the first base line.
Possibly distracted by the idea of fielding the ball and tagging Cairns instead of throwing straight home, Grand Haven first baseman Caleb King couldn’t apply the tag to Cairns, and didn’t complete a quick throw to home to force out the Rams’ Cody Sterkenburg.
Sterkenburg scored easily without a throw, giving Rockford a thrilling 1-0 victory.
Rockford advances to Saturday’s regional finals against Byron Center. Grand Haven ended its season with a 16-12 record.
It was a cruel twist for Grand Haven, especially considering the job that King did on the mound after filling in for injured starter Ethan Prins in the second inning.
Grand Haven coach Mike Hansen said Prins felt a “pop” in his elbow during warm-ups, but still tried to give it a go against the Rams. Prins heard another pop in the second inning, and Hansen said the fear is Prins might have suffered ligament damage in his elbow.
King was up to the task in extended relief, tossing 6 ⅔ scoreless against a Rockford team that won the O-K Red Conference championship this spring.
“If you would have told me that Prins goes down in the second and Caleb has us in a scoreless game in the eighth, I would have been thrilled,” Hansen said. “He’s in our 3-4 range (in the pitching rotation) and he hasn’t pitched a lot of innings because we’ve had so many weekend rainouts. But as you saw, he’s very crafty, he’s smart and he throws strikes. He was tremendous.”
The Bucs couldn’t muster much offense against Rams’ starter Zach Marshall, who allowed just three hits and struck out seven. Grand Haven failed to advance a runner past second base.
Grand Haven stayed alive not only through King’s pitching effort, but with a pair of tremendous plays in center field by Tyler Harp. In the fifth, Harp threw out the Rams’ Caleb Engelsman, who tried to score from second following a single from teammate Joe Kelley. Harp’s throw was right on the money, and Engelsman was easily tagged.
Harp made another brilliant throw in the eighth, making a low, side-armed effort to allow Bucs’ third baseball Alex Kapala to tag out a Rams’ base runner and end the inning.
“Anytime (Harp) gets a chance to make a play like that, it seems like he does,” Hansen said. “He comes up big. He did it twice to keep us in it, because they had guys in scoring position and we didn’t really threaten the entire game.”
Hansen decided to replace King on the mound with two outs in the seventh inning, figuring reliever Kapala would fare better against the Rams’ Joe Kelley, one of the best power hitters in West Michigan. Kapala struck Kelley out, forcing the game to extra innings.
But Kapala couldn’t continue to keep the Rams in check. In the bottom of the eighth, Sterkenburg led off with a double to the left field wall. An intentional walk and a sacrifice bunt put runners on second and third, and Hansen chose to intentionally walk the bases loaded, giving his defense a potential force out at home. It just didn’t work out that way.
“You have to play the game that way,” Hansen said. “If you don’t, then you’re just basically exposing yourself to your opponent. And they’ll take advantage of us. You have to put pressure on (Rockford) to deliver. It’s a lot of pressure on a kid to make contact, too, especially against a pitcher like (Kapala). He didn’t hit it hard, either. So it sucks to lose like that.”