Grand Haven baseball’s season came to a heartbreaking end in the regional quarterfinals Wednesday, as Rockford plated the only run of the game in the bottom of the eighth inning on a Buccaneer mental lapse.
With the bases loaded and the Rams swinging as the home team, Rockford knocked a blooper toward Caleb King at first base. The sophomore collected the ball and turned to second, spinning toward home to watch the run score, ending the game with the ball in his hands.
The non-play brought a tough end to a fantastic outing for King, who threw six and two-thirds innings of scoreless baseball in relief of an injured Ethan Prins, who took the start but managed just two live pitches before exiting with an elbow injury.
The unexpected pitching change put King in the spotlight after a quiet year on the mound, and he performed admirably with six and two-thirds innings pitched, giving up just four hits with no walks and one strikeout.
“I mean gee whiz, if you would have told me that Prins goes down in the second inning, and we’re into the eighth 0-0, I’d have been happy,” said Grand Haven head coach Mike Hansen. “You really can’t say enough about a kid who can come in and do that.
“King is usually in our No. 3-4 range, but he hasn’t thrown a lot of innings this year because we have had so many weekend rainouts. He’s very crafty, he’s smart and he throws strikes. I’m not surprised by his performance one bit, our pitching is deep.”
It wasn’t just King dealing at the mound. Rockford’s pitcher kept the Bucs off the basepath all day, giving up just two hits in a solid performance.
“Boy, he threw extremely well,” Hansen said. “You have to tip your cap to him. We didn’t threaten to score because he had an outstanding game. Some days you just had to acknowledge — he was better than us today.”
With both pitchers tossing gems key defensive plays carried massive weight, and the Grand Haven field carried it well.
Tyler Harp showed off a monster arm in the bottom of the fifth to keep a clean sheet. After a single and a bunt gave the Rams their first runner at second base all day, a base hit snuck through a gap into dead center field. As Rockford’s runner rounded third, Harp collected the ball and heaved it skyward toward home. The throw found catcher Riley Walcott in perfect position defending the plate, making for an easy tag to end the scoring threat.
Owen Krizan followed up the mega toss with impressive reflexes, snagging a hard shot at full extension from first base on the very next batter to end the inning.
Harp continued to crush the Ram’s scoring dreams in the sixth, gathering another gap shot in center field and gunning down a sliding runner at third base with a sidearm bounce shot to Kapala.
“That’s how we play — Harp in particular,” Hansen said of the pair of plays. “He is just a baseball player. Any time he has a chance to make a play like that, it seems like he does. He loves the game and came up big twice for us today.”
The play to third saved the scoreless tie heading into the seventh inning, where the Bucs failed to get on base once again.
The bottom saw King taken deep twice for flyouts as the Rockford roster timed him up, forcing a pitching change with one out left in regulation. Kapala took the mound to face the O-K Red Conference leader in home runs, dishing a vicious strikeout to end the inning.
Another three quick batters put the pressure on Grand Haven’s defense in the bottom of the eighth, where it was tested mightily.
A leadoff double put the press on early, but Hansen was comfortable with his fielding as he intentionally walked a batter to first to set up a play. Rockford responded with small ball, executing a sacrifice bunt to advance runners to second and third as the Bucs fielding to first base for the first out of the inning.
Hansen again defaulted to his defense, intentionally walking another batter to load the bases, setting up a play at any bag — assumedly home. Kapala took the game-winning at bat to a full count before giving up the decisive blooper single.
“I have the utmost confidence in our defense because we practice that stuff incessantly,” Hansen said. “One run wins the game, so you have to make it easy for them. I have all the confidence in the world that we will make the right play at the right time, we just didn’t deliver on that last one.
“You hate to see a game end like that. Everybody knows that comes home. That’s high school baseball. A 17-year-old mind sometimes wanders and that’s what happened. It’s especially tough after how well he pitched.”
Grand Haven’s season comes to an end at 16-12 overall after winning their second district title in three years. This year’s senior class was part of both runs and Hansen credits their work ethic for the sustained success.
“I’m just proud as heck of them,” Hansen said of his seniors. “What I love about my seniors this year is, after they graduated three weeks ago, they kept showing up early, they kept taking extra batting practice and ground balls. They just really love to play. That says a lot about their character, which I certainly appreciate.”