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Blue begins to see sun set on season as MSU sweeps series

BY ZACH HELFAND
Daily Sports Writer
Published March 27, 2011

The meeting began directly after the Michigan baseball team’s second loss on Sunday, its third in as many games. The sun was still up in the sky. At the end of the game, it shined so brightly that the players in the Michigan dugout had to squint to see the batter.

About 45 minutes later, when the players and coaches began to trickle out of the clubhouse after the meeting was finally over, the sun had set behind the fence and darkness descended upon the stadium.

After the sweep at the hands of their in-state rival, it was tough for Michigan to avoid the feeling that the sun was quickly setting on the Wolverines’ season, too.

The sweep was especially painful for the Wolverines considering that just last weekend Michigan ran the table at the Oestrike Classic. The run seemed to renew confidence and reboot the Wolverines’ season. But even during last weekend’s success, the offense struggled to put up runs — the pitching won the series.

This weekend, the rotation couldn’t bail out the struggling offense. Michigan State (15-5) outplayed Michigan (6-15) in every facet of the game — defense, pitching and especially hitting.

“I quite honestly have not experienced such a drought of hitting for such a long extended period of time,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “I’m just amazed at how long the drought has been.”

According to Maloney, Michigan has averaged about a .315 batting average during his tenure, and is currently batting a paltry .252. The Wolverines had more runners left on base this weekend (21) than hits (19).

Surprisingly, the team jumped out to an early lead in the first two games. On Friday, Michigan led 3-1 before surrendering eight unanswered runs — four unearned — and falling silent at the plate.

In the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader, Michigan led through five innings before redshirt sophomore left-hander Bobby Brosnahan ran into trouble in the sixth and seventh. Brosnahan looked great for five innings, showing command of his breaking ball and good pitch selection, but gave up five runs in the sixth and seventh innings combined. The Wolverines’ biggest offensive surge of the series — a three-run seventh behind junior designated hitter Coley Crank’s three-run home run — wasn’t enough as they lost 5-4.

The nightcap was over from the start. The Spartans tagged sophomore right-hander Kyle Clark — Michigan’s most consistent starter this season — for four runs in four innings, and the offense was lost at the plate.

“I wish I had an answer,” Maloney said of the Wolverines’ offensive woes. “The only thing I know is you keep working on the fundamentals of hitting. We’re hitting way too many fly outs and lazy fly balls. We’re not being aggressive on fastball strikes.”

Redshirt senior second baseman Anthony Toth, a team captain, voiced his frustration at the work ethic of some of the team. After the long meeting, sophomore shortstop Derek Dennis, who was 0-8 in Sunday’s doubleheader after missing Friday’s game with an illness, was in the batting cages taking extra swings. Freshman designated hitter Brett Winger, who got his first start on Sunday, joined him. Toth noted others didn’t take the same initiative.

“We’ve had our first half of the season, which was nonconference, and we failed," Toth said. “But, we’ll see what happens tomorrow, and see how many guys are here tomorrow. We’ll see how many are in here early at practice. As far as the mood goes, you can tell by my body language, I was ticked. And they knew I was ticked. And I let them know that I was ticked.”

Maloney added: “I know if I was a player whenever I was going through something I’d be working."

The defense was only marginally better than the offense. It committed six errors on the series and had several other mental mistakes. On Friday, redshirt junior first baseman Garrett Stephens inexplicably cut off a throw from freshman right fielder Michael O’Neill that looked like it would beat the Spartan runner to the plate. Mistakes like that plagued Michigan all weekend.

The only positive is that the series does not count for the Big Ten standings. Michigan’s first official conference series will be this weekend against Indiana.

“We just did a trial run of a Big Ten series, and we got it handed to us, and that’s rough to take,” Maloney said. “We just got to get better.”