DEXTER — The Howell baseball team showed there is more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to winning games on Saturday.
Nick Rauch and Caleb Balgaard were a big part of that.
Rauch hit a two-run homer and Balgaard a three-run triple as part of a four-RBI effort as the Highlanders blasted their way past Pinckney 9-0 in a Division 1 district semifinal at Dexter High School on Saturday.
Then, in the championship game against Ann Arbor Skyline, the Highlanders laid down three bunts in a row, the last a safety squeeze by Rauch to drive in the only run as Howell edged the Eagles 1-0.
“We get the job done whenever we need to,” Rauch said. “It’s important because we practice (bunting) a lot. We’ve got to be versatile in everything we do.”
While the Highlanders shifted gears on offense, an airtight defense (no errors in 14 scoreless innings) and lights-out pitching kept the Pirates and Eagles at bay all afternoon.
“That’s what you hope you have: Pitching and solid defense,” Howell co-coach Jason Ladd said. “Hitting’s going to come and go, especially when you face a pitcher like we did.”
That would be Skyline’s Eamon Horwedel, who baffled Brighton in Tuesday’s predistrict, which Skyline won in nine innings 1-0.
“He had some good offspeed pitches,” Rauch said. “He worked the counts. He did what a good pitcher does. We tip our hats to him. He was a very good pitcher.”
On this day, however, Sam Weatherly was better. After allowing a leadoff single to Skyline’s Sean Haddlesey, the Eagles (17-16) managed only three walks the rest of the way.
“We tried to draw out his pitch count a little bit, taking some pitches,” Skyline coach Jeff Rhein said. “But by taking some pitches, we put ourselves into some situations.”
Weatherly went 6 2/3 innings, striking out nine before leaving due to the pitch count rule. He was replaced by Evan Maize, who was just as dominant against Pinckney.
Maize struck out nine in four innings and faced one batter over the minimum before giving way to Blake Arnold, who was nearly as dominant.
“All of my stuff was working, and my arm felt great,” Maize said. “Just a great day, honestly, The guys all pulled together in the first game, and it’s real easy to pitch when you’ve got runs behind you.”
The Highlanders (29-9-1) got two in the first and four in the second on Balgaard’s triple to put the game out of reach.
In the championship game, Horwedel retired Howell in order in the first three innings. Johnny Shields broke the spell with a singled to center.
Weatherly dropped a perfect drag bunt that he beat out for a hit. Both moved up on a sacrifice by Balgaard, and Shields scored on a safety squeeze bunt by Rauch.
“We saw (Shields) creep down the line and we couldn’t relay the information fast enough to our third baseman,” Rhein said. “That’s baseball.”
For the Pirates, it was the end to a season that showed both promise and how much work lies ahead.
“We’re going to build on this,” Pinckney coach Ryan Rogowski said. “We could have caved in and quit, but they did not. I’m proud of them.”
The 11 wins was the most for the Pirates since 2011, when they also won 11 times.
It was the sixth consecutive district title for the Highlanders, all under co-coaches Ladd and Mike Weatherly, and the Howell players, coaches and parents celebrated at length afterward.
Asked if winning district titles had become routine, Balgaard smiled.
“Not even close,” he said. “It’s my fourth in a row, and it’s just as fun as the first one.”
The Highlanders will play Holt in a regional at Grand Ledge next weekend.