BATTLE CREEK - In 2011, the Gladstone Braves were three outs away from advancing to the Division III softball state title game, but Clinton rallied with a walkoff hit in the bottom of the seventh.
There would be no rally by the Springport Spartans Friday at Bailey Park. The Braves found themselves in the same predicament, a one-run lead and three outs away, but this time was different. The defense stepped up, Alison Austin stood tall in a 1-2-3 seventh inning and Gladstone advanced to Saturday's title game with a 5-4 victory.
Gladstone (30-5-1) will get another crack at Clinton (42-1-0) in the title game today at 10 a.m.
Gladstone catcher Jordan Kowalski makes a diving tag on Springport’s Hannah Baum on a pickle play during Friday’s Division 3 semifinal game at Bailey Park in Battle Creek. Gladstone pitcher Alison Austin (23) reacts to the outcome of the key play. (Daily Press photo by Keith Shelton)
"It did cross my mind for a second," said Braves catcher Jordan Kowalski of thinking back to being on the losing end of a rally. "But then I thought, this is a different year, this is our time now."
Kowalski came up big for the Braves, scoring Jordan Schwartz on a perfectly executed suicide squeeze bunt in the first inning. The Braves led 2-0 as a Katie Becker triple and RBI single by Schwartz scored the preceding run. Springport (39-3-1) stormed back with a three-run bottom of the inning. The Spartans hot bats chased Braves starting pitcher Christine Sharon after not even a full inning.
Manager Gerry Smith turned to co-ace Austin, who got the Braves out of the inning with no further damage. Still, with Spartans sophomore Sam Bates on the mound, one had to wonder how many chances the Braves would have to rally.
Bates, one of the state's top pitchers, allowed just three hits the rest of the way but was let down by shaky fielding as the Spartans committed five errors.
Bates took the loss, going seven innings and allowing two earned runs on five hits and a walk.
In the third inning, Gladstone tied it up after Becker reached first on an error, followed by a Schwartz single and a walk to Kowalski to load the bases with no outs. Nicole Sharon grounded out and Becker slid home, tying the game 3-3, grimacing and favoring her ankle as she did.
In the fifth, Lexi Hongisto took advantage of a pinch hitting opportunity with a two-out single. Kowalski followed with a timely double to score Hongisto and give the Braves a 4-3 lead.
"I like being in situations like that, I like the pressure. It helps me perform better," said Kowalski of hitting a go-ahead double with two outs.
Springport came back again in the sixth when Kelsi Lauer hit a fly ball to left field that inexplicably dropped, enabling her to get to second. Kim Keeler grounded out and Lauer ran to third. Karri Weil then hit a grounder to first and was forced out, but the throw to home did not come in time and Lauer scored, tying the game at 4-4.
The Braves committed three errors but Smith said more fielding mistakes led to additional Spartan runs.
"We made a lot more mistakes than we ever have before, but we were able to recover and we handled it well," he said.
Springport was not as fortunate. Three consecutive Spartan errors in the seventh inning led directly to Gladstone's victory. Austin got to first on a high throw, Courtney Nevala got to second on a mishandled ball and Becker got to second on another high throw, scoring Alexis St. Cyr who came on as a pinch-runner for Austin. That turned out to be the winning run as Austin shut down the Spartans in the bottom of the inning.
Springport manager Jody Johnston couldn't point to what caused the litany of mistakes.
"We had more errors than ever today. There were a lot of bobbled balls," she said. "I don't think we were jittery. We were ready to play, it just wasn't our day today. Gladstone did a great job of executing, especially with that suicide squeeze bunt in the first."
Springport was last at Bailey Park in 2005 when they bowed out in the semifinal. Previous to that, the Spartans played in the title game in 2002.
"I think this was a very successful season. Obviously we would have liked to finish better, but it just wasn't in the cards," Johnston said.
It wasn't all downhill pitching for Austin. Springport threatened in the fifth when Hannah Baum led off with a single and advanced to second on an error. She reached third on a wild pitch with the Spartans in good position with only one out. Baum however, got caught in a pickle when she tried to make a dash for home. Kowalski ran out to tag her, appearing to hurt her elbow on the play, but after shaking it off, stayed in the game.
"I definitely felt the pressure," said Austin of that inning, and again in the sixth and seventh innings. "We huddled between each inning and said OK, it's a 0-0 game again and I focused on getting the out," Austin said.
Of getting the call in the first inning, Austin said "I was warmed up, but I didn't expect it, and I didn't expect them to be able to hit Teener (Sharon). Smitty came by and asked me if I was ready to go in."
Of having the luxury of being able to put in a pitcher of equal quality after Sharon got off to rough start, Smith said "They're (Sharon and Austin) a 180 (degrees) from each other in terms of style and speed. It's nice to be able to have the option of having the other one available to you."
The Braves had a lot of information on Bates. Aside from being a true ace, Bates had also hit 12 home runs this season. Austin admitted Bates concerned her.
"We knew a lot about her, so I was nervous. she would come up to the plate and I knew she was a good hitter," she said. "So I just tried to treat her like any other batter and threw strikes."
Smith said when the pressure was on in the seventh inning, his thoughts never went back to last year.
"I have to be truthful. It never crossed my mind," he said. "Springport certainly teed off well though. They hit the ball hard today."
Clinton defeated Unionville-Sebewaing Area 8-1 in the other semifinal.
"We know Clinton has a good pitcher (Megan Nelson) and we'll play them accordingly," said Smith.