Garling, Schwalbach step up to lead underdog Braves

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Two underclassmen helped the Gladstone Braves reach the elite in just the program’s second year of existence.

Ben Schwalbach is a freshman but his impact in Tuesday’s MHSAA Division 3 state quarterfinal was tremendous.

With the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the seventh and Gladstone clinging to a slim 3-2 lead, Muskegon Oakridge cleanup hitter James Abriatis launched a ball toward right field. If it had dropped, two runs would surely have scored, putting the Braves behind the 8-ball. Instead, Schwalbach dropped back, his glove appearing to slip, but the young infielder came down with the final out, sealing history with a 3-2 victory.

The Gladstone Braves baseball team is heading to the Final Four at Michigan State University. This second-year program, which last year didn’t even win its district has made such a jump in year two, it’s hard to believe.

“We beat a good Muskegon team today, no doubt,” said Braves manager Don Lauscher. “They were every bit as good as advertised. We just made the play, but hats off to Muskegon, they were great. We had a few miscues today and we weren’t as sharp as we have been, but all-in-all, we’re going to Michigan State, and that’s the bottom line.”

The Braves were certainly underdogs in this one. Oakridge (22-10-1) had history as a powerhouse program that has made Final Four appearances in the recent past. The Eagles pitched their ace, Wyatt Hilton, who just pitched in Oakridge’s regional semifinal, Saturday. Gladstone meanwhile, put out sophomore Hunter Garling, who technically is their No. 4 pitcher in the rotation. The gap was significant. Garling had pitched just 35 innings this season coming into the game. He hadn’t pitched in nearly two weeks. Hilton had pitched at least four times that many innings.

Garling was shaky at times as he struggled a bit with his control, but when he was on, he was on and he seemed to gain confidence as the game went on.

“I just knew I had to throw strikes,” Garling said. “I knew if I did that, good things would happen. I had a good defense behind me, we made some errors, but we picked each other up from it.

“The win means everything, I can’t even describe it, it’s crazy.”

The performance was frustrating to Oakridge manager Brandon Barry.

“It was one of those pitching performances you almost don’t like to see as an opposing coach because he was a little erratic here, a little erratic there, but then when he was in the zone, he was in the zone. So he kind of kept you a little uncomfortable,” he said.

“That was just a nice ball team. They played very solid defensively. They did everything basically correct. I thought Gladstone looked a lot like us to be honest. They played good small ball, they stole bases well, they put pressure on the other team defensively.”

Garling struck out three and allowed five hits. He walked two, but he also had some adversity and had to overcome a couple key errors late. Two infield miscues helped Oakridge load the bases in the seventh, but more importantly was Garling’s ability to overcome it.

“Hunter pitched outstanding. He started a little bit slow finding the strike zone and getting his release point, but for not pitching in 12-13 days, he did very well,” said Lauscher. “Just putting a sophomore in that situation, in the biggest game of our Gladstone career, to go out there with ice in his veins to make it happen, that’s huge on his part. I give a lot of credit to (assistant coach) Kurt (Lauscher) too, because Kurt keeps him focused, keeps him in line.”

Oakridge took a 1-0 lead in the first inning on an RBI single from Jordan Fairchild, but Gladstone answered quickly in the bottom of the inning. Garling ripped a double and with two outs, Tom Bailey singled him home to tie the game at 1-1.

Later in the fifth inning, with the scored tied 2-2, Gladstone pulled ahead for good. With two outs, Tom Bailey ripped a single. Christian Groleau then reached second base on an error – a high flyball that should have been caught by the left fielder, but wasn’t due to the sun being in his eyes. That advanced Nick Trudeau, who was pinch-running for Bailey, to third. Trudeau then scored the winning run on a passed ball.

Still, Barry had nothing but compliments for his ace pitcher.

“Wyatt was a bulldog like he has been all year. He’s just a battler, I can’t say enough about him,” he said. “He’s thrown more pitches than probably anyone else in the state of Michigan. He recovers in three days rest, he takes care of himself. He’s a great athlete and we were really hoping to get him the win because he deserved it.”

And as for that bases loaded fly-out that could have won it?

“Abriatis just smoked it, he tore the cover off the ball. I’m sure the glove of the second baseman (Schwalbach) came halfway off, and I was wishing it came all the way off,” said Barry. “But the kid did a nice job of squeezing it and making the last out.

“We hoped, obviously that it wouldn’t get to that point where you’re relying on a 2-out rally, but give a lot of credit to Gladstone.”

Barry also seemed to admire Gladstone’s pre-game routine during lineup announcements.

“I really liked the class act of Gladstone, shaking hands before the game, I thought that was really cool,” he said. “I might even have to put that into our repertoire next year, that was great.”

Justin Jurek had another RBI batting as a designated hitter. His RBI double in the third, scoring Garling, briefly gave the Braves a 2-1 lead.

“That’s kudos to Justin. He can’t throw, he can’t do anything, but he continues to hit the ball,” said Lauscher. “He stays positive, a positive force in the dugout and that says a lot about Justin as a man. He continues to motivate our kids.”

For Lauscher personally, it represents a career achievement for the veteran manager.

“It’s so great,” he said. “I’ve been to a quarterfinal before (while coaching Escanaba) but I’ve never won one, I’ve never been to the big dance, so coming up on Friday, I’m so excited, so happy.”

Gladstone (29-4) now advances to the Division 3 state semifinal, Friday at Michigan State University. The Braves will be in good position with Sam Pouliot and Jake Peterson available to pitch.

“That’s why we’re confident,” said Lauscher. “Because we’re going to throw our No. 1 and No. 2 at you and if they beat us, that’s OK too. We have good defense and pitching. We can hit the ball and whatever happens, happens.”