By Andy Sneddon
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING – Aaron Leasher didn’t need a whole lot of run support.
Still, it was a nice luxury to have as the senior left-hander tossed a four-hitter Saturday in leading Mount Pleasant to a 7-2 win over Richmond in the MHSAA Division 2 Final at McLane Baseball Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University.
It was the Oilers’ third MHSAA championship and first since 2007, and it goes in the books as another highlight in an outstanding run that includes eight District championships and Seven regional titles over the past decade.
“We came in pretty focused, and we pretty much peaked in the tournament here,” said Luke Epple, who completed his 21st year as the Oilers’ coach and has led the program to a 615-166 record and all three of its championships. “I knew we were better than what a lot of people thought we were. We’re young, and just had to keep working at things and make the plays you can make and throw strikes, put the ball in play and keep pressure on them.
“We expect to do well in this tournament, but you’ve still got to execute. Some years past we’ve matched up very good, and we didn’t execute. This team, we really stressed that execution with everything – small ball, driving runs in with two outs, making the plays you should make. We came in focused, and that was what I was most proud of. They didn’t let the other things around them bother them. They wanted to win, and they played to win today.”
And there’s good reason to believe that Mount Pleasant could contend next year and beyond. Five underclassmen were in the Oilers’ starting lineup Saturday. One, sophomore Zach Heeke, gave his team a 1-0 lead with a first-inning sacrifice fly.
Mount Pleasant (32-8-1) tacked on three runs in the third, getting an RBI single from Hunter Buczkowski, a sacrifice fly from Joe Genia, and getting another run on a balk by Richmond starter Dillon McInerney.
Leasher went the distance, striking out seven (four on called third strikes) and walking three.
“I was struggling a little bit early on with trying to get the first pitch across, but in the later innings I started to get my first pitch (for a strike), and that’s where it went from there,” said Leasher, who got outstanding support from a defense that turned two inning-ending double plays behind him. “My defense stayed strong, and we got early run support, so that was great. It calms your nerves down and you just get settled in on the mound, and you can work on trying to throw to contact instead of trying to strike guys out.”
Robert Backus had two hits and two RBI to lead the Oilers as the plate, while Dean Marais also had two hits.
Zach Leach and McInerney had two hits apiece for Richmond, but the Blue Devils never put more than one runner on base in any inning until the sixth. And by then, they trailed 5-0 and Leasher was clearly in a groove.
Richmond (35-3) lost in the MHSAA Final for the second straight year, and saw its winning streak end at 33 games.
“Every run they tack on, it takes away our small ball; (then) we have to play for a bigger inning,” said Scott Evans, who is 92-20 in three years as Richmond’s coach. “We just hit balls at people.”
Evans returned six starters from a team that fell, 3-0, to Grand Rapids Christian in last year’s Division 2 Final.
“I think we were 100 percent overwhelmed last year,” he said. “(This year) we went deep in all of our at-bats. We only had one strikeout on a ball that was out of the zone. I’m not disappointed in our effort at the plate.
“It’s a great group of kids. I’ll never forget them. They’re like my sons. It’s never been about me; it’s about those boys.”
And for the Oilers, it was all about pitching throughout the tournament as Leasher and Buczkowski, a sophomore right-hander, dominated. In Mount Pleasant’s seven tournament games, they combined to surrender six runs and post two shutouts.
The two runs scored by Richmond – both came in the seventh inning – were the most the Oilers had allowed in any of their tournament games.
“We have some other good pitchers, but these two, we had to go with them,” Epple said. “They were dominating all the way through. They dominated through the regular season. They’ve got a couple losses, but they were like 1-0 (scores) in eight innings.
“We knew if we could pick the ball up, move the runners, score some runs and make the play that you should make (that) we had a good chance to win. And they believed that.”
McInerney took the loss, his first of the season against 12 victories. He allowed four runs on seven hits, while walking one and striking out two over three innings. Jake Schmidt went the final three frames for Richmond, surrendering three runs on three hits, while walking one and striking out three.”
Click for the full box score.
PHOTOS: (Top) Mount Pleasant players rush the field to celebrate their third MHSAA baseball championship. (Middle) Oilers pitcher Aaron Leasher struck out seven batters in throwing the shutout.