ESKYlent efforts as “Mo’s” win district titles

PETOSKEY – Can you say clutch? The Escanaba Eskymos baseball team sure can after winning the Division 2 district title, Saturday at Petoskey’s Turcott Field.

In an amazing, heartstring pulling 7th inning rally that manager Kirk Schwalbach described as a 1-in-75 occurrence, Escanaba rallied from a 3-0 deficit in their final three outs in the top of the inning, to capture the title 5-3 over Petoskey.

“I still can’t believe we won,” Schwalbach exclaimed. “It was a team win, that’s what’s really satisfying.”

The Eskymos had to contend with Petoskey senior Jordan Swiss on the mound. Scouts from Grand Valley State University were in attendance at the brand new $2.1 million facility to watch Swiss play. Through six innings, though the Eskymos put plenty of balls in play, they couldn’t get many to drop, but as Schwalbach mentioned, Swiss was exactly whiffing them at the plate either.

“I know Swiss is a pretty good pitcher, but we’ve seen as good as that. Justin Jurek (Gladstone) I think is better and Sam Pouliot (Gladstone) throws just as good. You play those games against Wisconsin teams and the kids throw pretty hard. I think it paid off for us, because Swiss wasn’t anything we haven’t seen all year.

“The thing is, we hit the ball, we weren’t striking out. I’ll give credit to my kids. There’s nothing he threw that we couldn’t handle. We put the ball in play, it added up and I think by the seventh inning, he got a little tired. Good hitting is contagious and now we’re district champs. It’s still amazing to me.”

There were no signs of despair as the Eskymos came up to bat in the seventh with Petoskey leading 3-0. Sure enough, Bailey Lamb led off with a base hit. Tyler Hardwick followed with a hit, and Lamb advanced to third on a fielding error. Jack Valentine then ripped one through that scored Lamb and got Esky on the board.

With no outs still, Hunter LaMarch followed with a single to score Hardwick making it a 3-2 game. Cory McInerney followed with a fielder’s choice while Valentine was forced out. On the next play, Lewis Ostrander launched a deep double and LaMarch tore off for home, but Petoskey’s catcher had the ball, blocked the base path and LaMarch collided with him at the plate. The run was waved off and LaMarch declared out.

The tensions rose as Ben Kleiman came up to bat with two outs and runners at second and third. With two strikes however, Kleiman confidently let it rip, a double to left centerfield that scored two runs and gave Escanaba a 4-3 lead.

Brandon Punzel was intentionally walked to bring up Tyler Skufca, who ripped a base hit to score Klieman for an insurance run. Lamb then flied out to end the top of the inning.

Kleiman who had pitched the fifth and sixth innings, allowing four hits and striking out three, was dealing with a sore arm. So Schwalbach called upon Skufca, who had already caught two games in 85 degree heat to close the game on the mound.

“Coach told me he was going to need me, so I was kind of expecting it,” Skufca said. “But I didn’t know for sure it was going to come until we came back and he needed me.”

Skufca, acknowledging he was pitching on pure adrenaline, promptly hit the first batter with the first pitch he threw.

“I was like, ‘oh boy’, but I calmed my nerves and got the job done,” Skufca said.

Skufca got the next batter to fly out, then got a strike and and got the last batter to fly out, securing the win.

“It feels great, especially after the way we hit in the first game (against Cheboygan), we were kind of shocked that we didn’t hit like that in the second game, but the seventh inning came around and we got our bats hot again,” Skufca said. “I’m proud of my guys, I wouldn’t want to be on any other team but with them. I’m proud of all of them.”

Petoskey (17-8-1) manager Shawn Racignol, though stunned at the result, gave credit to the Eskymos for the rally.

“You have to give Escanaba credit. They put the ball in play and had some good two strike at bats,” he said. “This game is funny, you can be in control and in command all game, and then you have to struggle through those tougher innings, and that was definitely a tough inning where the ball found its way in the hole for them. It was their day.”

The win capped a long day for Escanaba, in which it had to overcome plenty of adversity. Regular catcher Sean Bissell was out with the flu, so Skufca moved in to take his place and McInerney played third base. Kleiman’s arm later on forced more changes, as Skufca went to the mound and Punzel took over at catcher.

“It’s kids stepping up,” said Schwalbach. “Kleiman, his arm was sore, but he got us what he could and kept the deficit at three. At the time we didn’t realize how important that was, but it turned out holding on to three and getting us in the seventh, that’s what wins games. You don’t know when you’re going to be contributing.”

Devin Olson started the game, going three innings with five strikeouts. He allowed two hits and a walk. Punzel and Skufca each had two hits for the Eskymos.

In the semifinal, Escanaba routed Cheboygan 19-3 in five innings.

Olson knocked down the first six batters he faced with three strikeouts and the Esky bats didn’t take long to pile on the hits. They led 11-0 after two innings. Skufca ad a triple and a double and Kleiman was 2-for-2 with a double and a walk.

Escanaba (16-9) will now advance to play Newaygo in Saturday’s Division 2 regional at Cadillac.

Schwalbach said during the week, Escanaba will scrimmage Gladstone in preparation. Both teams won their district.

“I congratulated (Gladstone manager) Don (Lauscher) this morning. He wished me good luck today, so I’m sure he’ll call me. We’re going to set up a couple scrimmages this week because we’re allowed to, and that’s going to benefit us and them so much,” he said.

“I appreciate the fact that we can utilize each others teams to help make us better. When we’re battling each other, it’s a rivalry, but we’re not in the same division, so we’re supporting them and they’re supporting us.”