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Offensive struggles doom Michigan in North Carolina

Paul Sherman/Daily
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By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 2, 2014

For the first two weekends of the season, the Michigan baseball team could attribute its disappointing 1-5-1 record to a shaky and inexperienced bullpen. But at the USA Baseball Irish Classic in Cary, North Carolina this weekend, a slumping offense led to the Wolverines’ demise.

Michigan finished 1-3 against stiff competition to fall to 2-8-1 on the season.

“We didn’t string quality at-bats together like we wanted to,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “They were pitching at an elite level, but we need to do a better job at creating opportunities for ourselves. When we put some quality at-bats together, we can score six, seven runs or get a rally when we need to, when we don’t, it’s really hard for us to manufacture runs.”

The struggles began Friday against No. 6 North Carolina State. Facing its first ranked competition of the season, Michigan mustered just five hits and eight baserunners as it lost, 3-0.

Things improved briefly for the Wolverines on Saturday, who put together two two-run innings to come back and beat Notre Dame, 4-2, in ten innings. But Michigan was unable to carry the momentum into its games against Appalachian State and No. 19 UCLA, as the Wolverines (2-8-1) earned only nine hits and one total run in the two games.

Since scoring 22 runs in its opening weekend, Michigan has scored just nine runs in its past seven games and is hitting .184 in those games. With contests against Florida Gulf Coast and Central Florida looming Tuesday and Wednesday, there isn’t time to change his team’s approach at the plate between games.

“We need to stick with the process and continue to go after quality at-bats,” Bakich said. “It hasn’t worked out the way we want it to yet, but it will. It just takes some time.”

On the other side of the ball, the pitching staff looked much improved. After giving up three runs in the first two innings, Junior left-hander Trent Szkutnik and the bullpen pitched three-hit ball, shutting out one of the nation's top offenses and striking out eight in the game.

The success was continued by senior Ben Ballantine against the Irish. The right-hander threw 5 ⅔ shutout innings with a career-high eight strikeouts to lower his season ERA to 0.95, far ahead of any other starter.

Despite Ballantine’s effort, the Wolverines were shut down for much of the game at the plate. Two Irish runs in the seventh made it look like another solid pitching effort would be wasted before an RBI single by sophomore Jacob Cronenworth woke up the bats.

Cronenworth continued his hot game in the ninth in his bullpen debut, striking out four over two innings of work, Cronenworth earned the win on the mound while driving home the go-ahead run in the tenth inning.

“He’s a huge boost to our team,” Bakich said. “We missed him (pitching) the first couple weeks, but we’ll be able to take advantage of having him back and what he brings to our staff.”

It was Michigan’s only win on the weekend, but there were more positives from the pitching staff. Senior left-hander Logan McAnallen -- making his first start of the season -- kept his team in the game, striking out eight over six innings of work after letting up three runs in the top of the first. On Sunday, sophomore Evan Hill had his worst start of the season, but kept the Wolverines in the game by allowing just four runs on 10 hits.

Once the starters left the game, the formerly shaky bullpen shone in each game. Behind Cronenworth and junior right-hander James Bourque’s return to the relief crew, relievers combined for a 2.13 ERA and 11 strikeouts in 12 ⅔ innings.

“We’ve been able to shorten (the reliever’s) outings and are now pitching them in the right situations,” Bakich said. “The first weekend was difficult because we (were shorthanded), but now we have starters going deeper into games and our bullpen is in better shape overall.”

But no matter how good the pitching is, a functioning offense is required for a team to be successful, with Big Ten season less than a month away, Michigan must find a way to score efficiently for any hope at a winning season. The only way to do that, says Bakich, is by focusing on the little things first.

“We need to win pitches,” Bakich said. “We want to win games, but before we can do that we need to play in the moment and be competitive for every pitch, every inning, the rest will take care of itself.”