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Young arms will shoulder big load

BY DAN FELDMAN

Published February 24, 2006

The Michigan baseball team was picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten this spring - behind Ohio State, Purdue, and Minnesota - by both Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball.

But ask any Wolverine if they'd be satisfied with that result, and you'll get a wide variety of answers, ranging from "absolutely not" to "definitely not."

"Projections are projections," freshman utility player Zach Putnam said. "It's good motivation for us."

Filling the void left by Jim Brauer, Michael Penn, Derek Feldkamp and Clayton Richard - who pitched 60 percent of the team's total innings - is a concern, but not one that team believes will be too difficult to overcome.

"We lost a lot of pitchers, but there a lot of guys waiting in the wings to fill those spots," senior co-captain pitcher Paul Hammond said.

Michigan coach Rich Maloney said Hammond and senior co-captain Drew Taylor must pitch up to their ability. The coach plans for Adam Abraham, Putnam and Mike Wilson to pitch significant innings as well. Redshirt freshman Chris Fetter, sophomore Dan Lentz, junior Andrew Hess and seniors Ali Husain, Craig Murray and Jeff Niemiec will all be counted on to eat up the remaining lost innings.

Michigan lost its fair share of offense, too. Last year's team featured four players who hit above .350. The Wolverines no longer have three of them (Chris Getz, Kyle Bohm and Matt Butler).

Louisville Slugger preseason All-America second-team catcher Jeff Kunkel returns to anchor the offense. The fifth-year senior co-captain hit .384, drove in 45 runs and boasted a team-leading .462 on base percentage. Senior co-captain A.J Scheidt and his .297 batting average, four home runs and 39 RBI also will return.

In addition, sophomore outfielder Doug Pickens, junior shortstop Leif Mahler, junior outfielders Brad Roblin and Eric Rose and senior outfielder Mike Schmidt will return.

As with the pitching staff, the Wolverines will rely on youth to deliver on offense. In addition to his pitching duties, Putnam will provide a bat Maloney said should be in the lineup every day at either first base or designated hitter. Sophomore Derek VanBuskirk's should play a larger role.

Maloney knows his young players will need time to learn, but he is not worried because it will come at the beginning of the season. He said he isn't concerned with how his team starts, but how it finishes.

Hammond is even less worried about his team's inexperience.

"Not at all. They're inexperienced, but not wet under the ears," Hammond said. "The pressures of college baseball won't get to them. That's unusual, but these guys will step up."

Of all of the young Wolverines, Putnam arrives as the most highly touted. Last year - while playing at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School - he earned School Sports National High School Athlete of the Year and Michigan's Mr. Baseball honors.

Prior to the Major League Baseball draft, Putnam was projected to be a first- or second-round pick. But rumors that he would demand a high signing bonus caused his stock to fall, and he was not drafted until the 38th round (Detroit Tigers). Instead of signing with the Tigers, he joined the Wolverines.

"I've lived here my whole life," Putnam said. "I believe in what coach Maloney is trying to do with this team, and I want to be a part of it."