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Ballantine goes out a winner on senior day

James Coller/Daily
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By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 19, 2014

Don’t blink, or you’d miss out on all the fun.

Senior right-hander Ben Ballantine was on the mound in the second inning of Michigan baseball’s 4-0 win over No. 22 Kansas — possibly for the last time as a Wolverine, possibly for the last time ever — and wasn’t wasting any time.

Firing fastball after fastball, Ballantine not only struck out the Jayhawks’ Nos. 4 and 5 hitters — dominated them. After a groundout to shortstop ended the inning, Ballantine had thrown just 12 pitches and two balls.

“I was just throwing the ball absolutely as hard as I could,” Ballantine said. “It was going exactly where I wanted it to go. It was one of those days where everything was working, but all in all, the biggest thing was my mentality. I wanted to leave it all on the field and do what I could to get a win.”

The third inning was just as efficient. Another strikeout, another groundout to shortstop, a ground ball so weak it ended up being a base hit, then a flyout one pitch later.

As quickly as it began, Ballantine’s time on the mound at Ray Fisher Stadium had run out.

Sunday’s game featured goodbye moments from all the seniors. There was catcher Cole Martin’s two-run single in the third that ended up manufacturing the go-ahead runs. There was infielder Brett Winger’s return to the lineup, where he delivered his first base hit of the season to a standing ovation. There was the pitching trio of left-hander Logan McAnallen, Ballantine and right-hander Alex Lakatos.

While other seniors milked their final games at what many call “The Fish” by tipping their caps, walking slow and soaking the crowd’s cheers in, Ballantine made the trip from the mound to the dugout in his typical, focused fashion. Even on senior day, Ballantine’s performance had nothing to do with him.

“I’m glad we were all able to go out like that, glad we got a win and glad more than anything that it ended up being a total team effort,” he said.

Ballantine’s outing more than likely ended a long career with the Wolverines. After playing for two head coaches and four pitching coaches, missing almost an entire season to injury and being named a captain, only to see his spot in the rotation disappear senior year, Ballantine stayed the course and was able to go out a winner.

***

The Napa, Calif. native arrived to Ann Arbor in the fall of 2009 as a powerful, 6-foot-8 right-hander brimming with potential. Pitching right away, the potential went unrealized in the 2010 season, as Ballantine posted a 6.59 earned-run average and a .377 opponent batting average in 11 innings.

The following two seasons showed plenty of growth. Ballantine, who was converted into a starter, went 5-4 with a 4.34 ERA and 87 strikeouts in his sophomore and junior campaigns.

Despite the improvement, the best was yet to come for Ballantine.

Leading a fresh-faced team with first-year coach Erik Bakich at the helm, Ballantine stormed out to a hot start in 2012. In his first five starts, Ballantine struck out nearly a batter an inning and posted a 2.62 ERA, poised for a great season to come.

But a broken ankle ended his season before conference play began, leading to yet another setback for the pitcher.

“I assumed that my career was over and that I wasn’t going to get another chance to play for Michigan,” he said.

Spending almost an entire calendar year rehabbing and training for the 2014 season, Ballantine quickly became the ace of Michigan’s experienced pitching staff.

Through five non-conference starts, the senior posted a 2-0 record with a 2.02 ERA, including standout performances against Notre Dame and Air Force.

But beginning with a start against Indiana, Ballantine’s dream fifth season turned into a nightmare. His ERA more than doubled to 4.43 over his next five starts, in which Ballantine never threw more than four innings. Worse than the numbers, Ballantine lost his coach’s trust in the big games.

“I came in this year with really high personal expectations for myself,” Ballantine said. “The way things were going early on, I was pretty content with things and the way I was pitching. But for every guy in every season there’s going to be a rough patch.

“Once I got those Friday starts I put some added pressure on myself and raised my expectations when I didn’t need to and made a bigger deal out of everything. It’s definitely tough when I’ve been in that role for a few years and suddenly I’m not in that role anymore, but I really have found other ways to lead and find enjoyment every time I go out there, no matter what the situation.”

Pitching for the first time since a five-inning, one-run start against Oakland on April 29, Sunday’s outing served as a reminder that Ballantine’s role on the field has diminished from ace to spot-starter.

A strong Senior Day showing won’t put him back in the three-man rotation, but the Wolverines will need to win at least four games if they want to capture the Big Ten Tournament title, meaning Ballantine might have his name called when his team needs him most.

“I anticipate and eagerly await that opportunity,” Ballantine said. “I can’t imagine a better way to go out after five years here than to pitch on the biggest stage in college baseball potentially with our season on the line. Those are the games you come to Michigan for.”

Though not for certain, Ballantine may have a chance to go out a winner yet again.

* * *

Playing under four different pitching coaches in five years, Ballantine constantly changed the pitches in his arsenal. But on Sunday, he threw every pitching coach’s favorite pitch, a strike, 19 of 25 times, allowing only one lazy fly ball to travel beyond the infield.

It’s unclear if and when Ballantine will get to pitch again. But if he doesn’t, Ballantine can ensure he ended his long career at Michigan as strong as he’s ever been.

“It’s surreal when it sets in that it’s going to be your very last game here,” Ballantine said. “I wanted to do everything that I could to leave it all on the line one last time in front of our fans. I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from having a good outing today, and when I look back on my last outing here, I want nothing but good memories.”

Making 64 appearances on the mound, playing under four different pitching coaches and suffering a season-ending injury, Ballantine has nearly as many bad memories as good ones in his half-decade in Ann Arbor.

But with the first round of the Big Ten Tournament scheduled for Wednesday night, Ballantine and his fellow seniors will have one more chance to make a great memory.

“As a senior class, we still haven’t accomplished anything,” Ballantine said. “We still have a job to do and a title to win. This week is our last shot, and we want to make sure we get it done.”

Following the team’s win Sunday, before the preparation for the postseason began, Ballantine was all smiles. Shaking hands, signing autographs and taking photos with his family, Ballantine went out a winner, and loved every second of it.

Don’t blink, or you’ll miss out on all the fun.


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