By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – For the first time in their three seasons in the tough Great Lakes Summer Collegiate Baseball League, the Muskegon Clippers have made the playoffs.

Muskegon Clippers Coach Walt Gawkowski congratulates his team after securing the club’s first ever playoff birth. Photo/Jason Goorman

And veteran Clippers Manager Walt Gawkowski, who has led the team since its inception in another league six years ago, could not be more happy and proud.

“It is a tough league, and it’s tough to win games, and I’m so proud of our organization,” said Gawkowski, whose team clinched the second and final playoff spot in the Northern Division with a convincing 7-2 victory over the first-place Lima Locos in front of a big crowd at Marsh Field on Monday.

“We’ve worked really, really hard to make this special, not only for the kids playing, but for the baseball community in Muskegon. To have this many people come out and support our guys makes me so proud, and getting to the playoffs is very special.

“A lot of credit goes to Pete (his brother and team owner Pete Gawkowski) and all the other guys who work so hard behind the scenes.”

The victory was a big accomplishment in a pressure-filled situation for the Clippers. They came into their final three-game series of the regular season tied for second place with the Michigan Monarchs. Both teams lost on Sunday, leaving the race for the last playoff spot still knotted with two games to go.

But the Clippers’ win on Monday, combined with the Monarchs’ 2-0 loss to St. Clair, gave the battle for the playoff spot to Muskegon. Each team plays their last regular season game on Tuesday night, and still could end up tied for second, but the Clippers would get the nod because they have the better record in head-to-head matchups with the Monarchs.

Muskegon, now 21-19, will meet Lima in a 2-of-3 semifinal playoff series later this week. Game 1 will be Thursday night in Lima, Ohio, the second game will be Friday in Muskegon, while the third game, if necessary, will be back in Lima on Saturday.

The winner will advance to the league championship series.

Jacob Gilhaus follows through after making the pitch for Muskegon. Photo/Jason Goorman

The playoff matchup means the Clippers will play at least five straight games against the Locos, who have the top record in the league, but Gawkowski said that’s irrelevant.

“It doesn’t matter to us,” said Gawkowski, whose team will host Lima in the final regular season game on Tuesday at 7 p.m. “They are going to run some really good arms out there at us. We’re going to have our pitching set up too. We’re expecting some very competitive games.”

Muskegon won the big game with a combination of lucky breaks (four hit batters and five errors by the Locos), timely hitting and great pitching.

The Clippers took a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Tre Morris reached base on a throwing error by the Lima shortstop, stole second, then scored on an RBI single by Micah Allen.

They added two more runs in the second inning when the first two batters, Cooper Peterson and Noah Hecht, were hit by pitches, Josh Holt reached on an error, and Austin Eifrid delivered a two-run single to left field.

The Clippers went up 6-0 in the third. Ty Olejnik walked and stole second, Peterson was hit by a pitch again, Hecht reached based on a squibber that hugged the first base line and rolled fair at the last second, then Holt hit an RBI single.

Michael Malewitz then hit a grounder to third with the bases loaded, which resulted in a quick force out, but the third baseman threw wild to the plate and another run scored. Eifrid delivered an RBI sacrifice fly to cap the big inning.

Muskegon third baseman Michael Malewitz fires the throw to first base in time to make the out. Photo/Jason Goorman

The final Muskegon run came in the fourth inning with two outs, when Lima committed three straight errors – a dropped fly ball in center field, a bobbled grounder by the pitcher, and a dropped pop fly by the shortstop.

Those runs were more than enough for Muskegon’s pitchers, who handled the Locos with ease.

The victory went to starter Ian Leatherman, who held Lima scoreless for five innings while only giving up one hit, striking out eight and walking two. Jacob Gilhaus and Owen Shellhammer sewed up the win by pitching two solid innings apiece.

“Ian Leatherman was really good,” Gawkowski said. “He set the pace with five shutout innings, we got some big hits, and they ended up chasing us. I just couldn’t be more proud of this group of guys.”

The hitting star was Eifrid, a shortstop from Ashland University, who delivered two hits and three RBIs. Allen finished with two hits and knocked in two runs.

“It was fun,” Eifrid said after the game. “We knew what was on the line, and we didn’t want to press anything. We just relaxed and played good baseball. If we press things tend to not go our way. When we relax things just come naturally.

“That’s what you play for, a chance to be in the playoffs.”