MANISTEE — Following a thrilling, extra-inning affair Saturday in the first game of their opening weekend series of the season, the Manistee Saints dominated the visiting Michigan Sports Academy the rest of the way in a four-game sweep at Rietz Park.
Levi Irish, the returning Pitcher of the Year, had some hard luck in the season opener, taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning before giving up a hit and being lifted for a reliever.
Perhaps between 300 to 400 people fluctuated in and out of the park throughout the weekend, and the Saints certainly held up their end of the bargain in their first action of the season. The games with Oil City the week before were canceled because of unforeseen circumstances involving the Stags team.
Unfortunately, the Gaylord native was denied the victory when the Saints rallied for the winning run in the bottom of the eighth inning in a gritty 4-3 decision that delighted a baseball-starved crowd that lined the fences around the park.
"We had our pitchers on a pitch count," Saints' manager Tyrone Collins said. "He (Irish) was actually going to be out a full inning ahead of that based on his pitch number.
"Unfortunately, or fortunately, he had a no-no going so I couldn't pull him. I think people might have (been upset) if I would have pulled him when he had a no-hitter going.
"I told the pitcher I had ready to go (Kirk Myers, the only Manistee player on the roster) that if (Irish) gives up a hit, you're in there. (Irish) gave up a hit. Trust me, Levi did not want come out of that game when I went out to pull him.
"But, we have a long season to go, and arm care and pitch count is crucial this first couple of weekends. So, we got him out of there. Unfortunately, his gem of a pitching performance yielded him a no-decision."
The Saints built a 3-0 lead after five only to see the Sports Academy score two in the sixth and one in the seventh to forge a 3-3 tie and force extra innings before Alex Strickland won it with a walk-off single that plated Lucas Weinert in the bottom of the eighth.
Keaton Peck stroked a double to score Lucas Richardson to give the Saints a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second. Nick Brzezinski made it 3-0 with a two-run blast in the bottom of the fifth.
But the Sports Academy scored two runs in the top of the sixth and a single run in the seventh to tie the score, 3-3. The Saints couldn't score in the bottom of the seventh, setting up Strickland's heroics in the eighth. Cam Fewless got the win in relief.
"It was a good team win, as it turned out," said Collins. "Levi did everything right to get us to where we needed to be, and then we floundered just a little bit. But, we also battled back and got the job done.
"Our bats definitely came alive throughout the weekend. Their pitching wasn't spectacular after their first guy. They walked a few of our guys, but not a crazy amount. It was just nice to be back playing the game."
Brzezinski was 2 for 4 with four RBIs to lead the Saints in game two Saturday, while Strickland crushed a deep home run over the fence and drove in a pair. Cole Proctor, Austin Harper and Peck each had two RBIs.
The Saints rolled the rest of the way, outscoring the Sports Academy by a whopping 35-9 margin in the remaining three games in a rousing return after sports was shut down in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic which is still very much around necessitating safety precautions to keep everyone healthy.
Versatile veteran Rodd MacNeil took the hill in Sunday's first game and threw a no-hitter, finishing the day with eight strikeouts while allowing just three walks in an 11-0 victory that went only five innings because of the mercy rule. The Saints won the nightcap, 5-1.
Proctor finished 2 for 3 at the plate with three RBIs in game one on Sunday, while Brzezinski collected two RBIs. Kyle Gorski went the distance in the second game for the win, giving up one run on four hits while striking out three and walking none. The Saints had only two hits, one each by Nate Lange (Ludington) and Matt Felt, each with an RBI.
The Saints are on the road this weekend before returning home for the July 4 weekend, and Collins said he's hopeful the park will be open and fans allowed inside the fenced in area, and concessions again available.