Gladstone’s championship run halted

Austin Hemmingson | Daily Press Gladstone’s Zach Hanson (right) dives back into first base in front of Grosse Pointe Liggett’s Mickey Walkowiak during Friday’s Division 3 state semifinal at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

EAST LANSING – It felt a little bit like David vs. Goliath — a small school from the U.P. against a downstate school that privately recruits. Only this time, Goliath flexed its muscle.

The Gladstone Braves put up a respectable fight, but they just didn’t have enough firepower to overcome Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett in a 5-0 loss in a Division 3 baseball state semifinal here Friday.

Liggett jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning on a two-run home run to left field by Logan King after Braves’ pitcher Carson Shea got the first two outs of the game.

“We got off to a good start. Carson got two ground balls right off the bat, then they got a single … but then he hung that next pitch and they bombed it right over the fence to make it 2-0,” Braves’ coach Kelly Shea said. “Boy, that really took the wind out of our sails. It looked like it really affected us at the plate too. It looked like we were beaten right off the bat.”

The early deficit may have felt bigger than it was, considering they had the tall task of going up against Knights’ senior ace pitcher Alec Azar. Azar was dominant in pitching a shutout, surrendering just three hits and no walks while striking out 12.

“He threw the ball really well,” Knights’ coach Dan Cimini said. “He had great stuff – his fastball, his slider – he did everything he could for our team today to get us a win. That’s all I’ve ever asked from him for four years.”

Billy Kopicki led off the Knights’ half of the third inning with a long at-bat before drawing a walk on a 3-2 pitch. Kellen Banaszewski followed with a perfectly placed bunt single, and Drew Zelenak grounded out to second to move the runners to second and third with one out. After King drove in a run with an RBI groundout, Azar reached on a Gladstone error – allowing another run to score. Nick Post capped the inning with a deep RBI double to left to make it 5-0. King led the Knights (24-9) with a hit and three RBIs while Post added two hits and an RBI. Azar also had two hits.

“We knew that their pitcher pounded the strike zone, so we weren’t just going to give up strikes,” Cimini said. “We were going to come up their swinging and that’s what we did. I thought we hit the ball pretty well. I told Logan King if anyone has the power to hit that ball out of here, you do. And boy, did he smoke that ball. That really got us motivated and going and got us pumped up.”

The Braves mounted a few threats throughout the rest of the game, most notably in the sixth. With one out, Caden Alworden hit a sharp single to left. After Zach Hanson was robbed of a hit to left field on a diving catch by King, Shea singled to put runners on first and second with two down. Dan Martin was up next and smoked a line drive down the right field line, but it was six inches outside the foul line. Azar then got him to ground out harmlessly to first to end the inning.

“If that ball that went down the line was fair, who knows? We’ve been known to come back before. We would have got a little energy and a little excitement. If that would have been a fair ball, things could have got interesting,” coach Shea said.

“We tried to battle back a little bit, but that’s a tough pitcher. He throws that slider that comes right down the middle, and then it breaks off at the very end. We haven’t seen pitching like that all year. We don’t see pitching like that in the U.P.”

Shea took the loss on the mound, surrendering five runs (three earned) on nine hits while walking one and fanning three through six innings. Jared Crow retired the side in order in the seventh, fanning two. Crow, Shea and Alworden each had one hit.

It was a bittersweet ending for the Braves (29-8), who reached the semis for the fourth time in seven years before falling short in Shea’s first year as head coach.

“We had our list of things that we wanted to check off. The first thing was we won the GNC (Great Northern Conference), we won the district, we won the regional and the super regional, and we got to MSU,” coach Shea said. “I’m happy and disappointed. We had a great year and got down here, which is our goal. But darn it, what do we have to do to win this thing? We’ve been here four out of the last seven years but we just can’t get past this semifinal game.”