For any ballplayer, regardless of age, playing in a Major League ballpark can be a unique experience.
The junior varsity and varsity teams for Milan and Detroit Country Day shared that on Monday; the JV team won their game 5-2 in six innings, while varsity surrendered the lead late to lose 8-6 in regulation.
Both teams were allowed free substitutions throughout the contests. All 18 players for the junior varsity entered the game at various points and positions, as did the varsity’s roster during their match. Each of Milan’s teams used six pitchers in the games.
The matches, however, were close to not being reality.
The staff of the Tigers did not tarp the field despite rain on Sunday night, not realizing that high school teams were to play there the following afternoon. Games with other high schools, that were supposed to follow the two contests with Milan and Detroit Country Day, were cancelled as a result of the mix-up.
The players on both teams had to play under special conditions due to the issues with the field. Only pitchers were allowed to wear cleats, while position players were limited to wearing tennis shoes. To shorten game time in each contest, each at-bat began with batters having a 1-1 count.
The JV game got underway nearly an hour-and-a-half behind schedule, and due to time constraints, had a shortened contest.
Milan struck early, scoring two runs in the first inning. A walk, three hits and two Yellowjacket errors aided the inning.
Four hits, an error and sac fly led to three Big Red runs in the 5th. Country Day responded with two runs in the bottom half of the inning.
The Yellowjackets stranded two runners in the 6th, giving Milan the three-run victory.
JV coach Steven Price was thrilled at the experience, both for him and his players. “It was once in a lifetime,” he said by text message. “It’s something I never expected to experience as a coach. As a staff, it was a chance for us to feel like we were a kid – 10 years old – and remember why we coach. We all love the game, and seeing the kids get a chance to express that tonight was incredible.
“Winning was icing on the cake. As much talk as there is about experience, you get in that dugout and in the coaching box – and the competitive juices start flowing. We got two runs in the top of the 1st and the nerves were gone. It was another game you wanted to win. To have 18 kids play the way they did today and contribute to a win here is something special.”
The varsity, like their counterparts, took a commanding lead midway through their game.
Trailing 1-0, Milan combined for 5 runs in the 3rd and 4th innings. Jared Grubke hit a key two-RBI single that followed three straight hits – by Aaron Taylor, Brendan Ferenczy and Jaden Riling – that began the rally.
Milan added an insurance run in the top of the 6th, taking a 6-2 lead into the bottom half, but things slipped away during the latter part of the inning.
Country Day began the inning with a leadoff walk and back-to-back singles, loading the bases for leadoff hitter Steve Mann. Mann drove a ball into the left-field corner to narrow Milan’s lead to 6-5, but was thrown out attempting to advance to 3rd base for the first out of the inning.
Yellowjacket rightfielder Mike MacLean drove home a run on an RBI triple that tied the game at 6, with Will Krushena giving Country Day the lead in the next at-bat. Three batters later, Jeremiah Tyler – who began the inning with the leadoff walk – drove Krushena home to extend the lead to 8-6.
Milan attempted to rally in the 7th, when Jordan Hendricks hit a one-out double, and the next two batters drew walks. Antonio Walker was then called out on strikes, and Dan Armstrong ended the game with a groundout to short.
Despite the loss, varsity head coach Adam Gilles was happy with the overall experience. “It was pretty fun,” he said after the game. “It would have been fun to win, but we played pretty well. We talked about coming into last Friday’s game with a little bit of juice to get things flowing a bit. I think we’re going to leave today with that juice, which is what we need with a bunch of games coming up.
“We got a good learning experience from it. We hung in there with (Country Day). They have five Division I athletes on their roster, and they threw their ace pitcher for four innings – and we hit him. That’s what’s good for us; we needed to see that.”
The coach – in his 15th season with Milan – said his players had fun. “The kids came in… running down in the tunnel, trying to go in the batting cages,” he said. “I’m just happy that the kids got to experience this. It was pretty sweet.”
Gilles played at Comerica Park as part of a “Field of Dreams” summer camp in the past, and had the opportunity to coach in the visiting 1st-base dugout on Monday. “I can say I’ve been in both dugouts and played and coached here now,” he said. “I was in the 3rd-base dugout with the Field of Dreams, and now I’ve coached in the 1st-base dugout.”
Grubke said that he and his teammates had a fun experience. “It was awesome,” he said. “Everybody played real excited, and we were happy to be here and have fun. We played real well and that helped us. We haven’t played real well (lately), but we came out here and had fun.
“The hits that Chase (Riling) and Jordan (Hendricks) had would have been out on any other field and that gives us a lot of confidence – knowing that we’re going to come out and put the ball in play no matter who we play.”
Grubke said the overall experience was surreal. “It’s crazy to think about, being in the dugout that MLB players (have been) in,” he said. “My great-grandma is a huge Tigers fan, and I can’t wait to talk to her about it.”