GLADSTONE - The Sault High Blue Devils teed off early and often on Blake Ballard and the Gladstone Braves in the first game of their baseball doubleheader Friday evening, before coasting to 10-5 victory, handing Gladstone its first loss at Don Olsen Field, where the team was 9-0 coming into the game.
However, the tide certainly shifted in the nightcap as the Braves exploded in a 13-3 mercy-rule thrashing of the Blue Devils.
Sault's Ryan Wollan led off the first game with a walk before Kolbe Peller, Frank Bailey and Devon Dear each ripped doubles right down the middle to score three runs. In-between those monster hits, Braves pitcher Blake Ballard was called for a balk even though shortstop Sam Pouliot had possession of the ball. According to the MHSAA rulebook, if the ball is within five feet of the mound, the pitcher can still be called for a balk without possession.
Keith Shelton | Daily Press
Steve Phoreson of Sault High beats the throw to home plate and leaves Gladstone catcher Justin Jurek waiting as he scores in the first game of a doubleheader Friday night at Don Olsen Field.
Keith Shelton | Daily Press
Gladstone pitcher Blake Ballard (4) discusses strategy with catcher Justin Jurek in the second inning of the first game of a doubleheader against Sault Ste. Marie Tuesday evening at Don Olsen Field in Gladstone.
The Braves (11-5) initially seemed to shake off the call, and tied the game up at 3-3 in the bottom of the inning as red-hot Tom Bailey ripped a two-RBI double from his new spot in the order, batting cleanup. Pouliot followed with an RBI single.
It all fell apart in the second inning however. The Blue Devils tagged Ballard for six hits and six runs and took a commanding 9-3 lead.
"That's as hard as we've hit the ball in...years probably," said Blue Devils manager Greg Rambo. "We've apparently been saving it up these first 10 games. We haven't hit anything, and all of a sudden these kids came out and hit the ball well. I'm really pleased and I hope it continues."
Sault (5-7) had 13 hits altogether in the first game.
"We just came out and told Blake to throw strikes, and all he had going early on was his fastball," said Braves manager Don Lauscher. "He couldn't get his curve over and they were just teeing off on him."
The Braves were able to chip away somewhat but couldn't take full advantage of their opportunities. They loaded the bases with one out in the fifth and did the same in the seventh with two outs, but only scored one run in those situations.
"There were a couple times we got in trouble and really limited the damage by making the play," said Rambo. "We actually played a pretty complete game. We had pretty good defense, we didn't make any dumb mistakes baserunning or in the infield and our pitcher threw strikes."
Sault reached their final score in the fourth inning on an RBI single from Nate Lajoie. It was the second consecutive game in which the Braves allowed at least 10 runs.
"It was the fundamental things that we weren't very good at, just too many fundamental things going wrong," said Lauscher. "We just weren't playing mentally strong and we need to get a lot better at what we're going. I told them, 'it's up to you now.' Coaches can only talk so much, but ultimately you have to look from within."
Sault High pitcher Andrew Krupa went all seven innings, striking out seven and walking one, while allowing nine hits.
"At this level, when you can throw a curveball for a strike, which he did most of the day and throw changeups for strikes too, it's helpful for keeping guys off-balance," said Rambo.
Bailey went 3-3 at the plate with a fielders choice and had three RBIs to lead the Blue Devils. Dear, Lajoie and Michael James each had two hits.
Justin Jurek and Sam Pouliot had two-hit games for Gladstone, while Bailey collected three RBIs, one coming on a fielders choice.
In the nightcap Gladstone got out to a 2-0 lead in the second without the benefit of a hit on four walks and two wild pitches, very similar to what Escanaba did to the Braves in Thursday night's game.
"They can lose their focus a little bit when they come out slow and walk a bunch of batters and that's exactly what happened," said Lauscher. "They came out and the pitchers weren't very sharp and it dragged the whole team down."
Gladstone erupted for five runs in the third. Justin Jurek had a sacrifice-fly followed by a Ballard RBI single and Hunter Garling ripped a stand-up RBI triple to kick off the inning. The Braves triggered the mercy rule in the sixth inning coming up with three runs after the benefit of three consecutive walks.
"I couldn't believe the difference in the two games," said Lauscher. "The kids swung the bats better and the focus was there. In the first game, it surely wasn't. It helps too when the pitcher comes out and throws strikes. It helps keep everyone focused."
Jake Peterson pitched the first five innings and scattered six hits while striking out three and walking five. Two runs against him were both unearned. Sault scored twice in the fifth on two errors and a bases loaded walk. Luke LaCosse relieved Peterson and pitched the final inning, allowing two hits and a run.
Lauscher had nothing but good things to say about Bailey, who was a vocal leader for the Braves throughout the game, made a couple big plays in the infield and even shook off a razor close call at first base.
"Tom Bailey has probably been our No. 1 supporter and No. 1 leader on this team," Lauscher said. "He took that role a couple weeks ago. He's hitting the ball very well and right now, he's the only one playing with that positive attitude. If everybody could just feed off of him, I think we'll be good going forward."