By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 28, 2011
If the Michigan baseball team drops two games this weekend, it will most likely fall into 10th place in the Big Ten standings. On the flip side, a strong showing could vault the Wolverines into first place.
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The stakes are high.
And this weekend’s series is against Ohio State — in Columbus.
With .500 records in Big Ten play, the Wolverines (6-6 Big Ten, 13-25 overall) and the Buckeyes (6-6, 16-18) are tied for fourth with three other teams in the crowded conference standings.
Just two games separate the ninth-place team and the three teams tied atop the conference.
Two weeks ago, the Wolverines’ situation looked dire, as it appeared Michigan would be left out of the six-team Big Ten Tournament. But thanks to back-to-back series wins over Illinois and Iowa, the Wolverines have found momentum.
“Certainly the guys are more confident now and we’ll get ready to go to Columbus and have a dog fight of a battle there with two teams that are 6-6,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “Whoever wins (this) series will throw themselves in the race for the final three weeks, and the other team will be fighting for playoff survival.
“The good thing for us is we’re playing better than we were, but there’s still four weekends to go and we’ve got to get hot. Certainly you can’t say that we’re hot, but we’re showing improvement.”
One storyline to watch is two best friends who now sit on opposite sides of the rivalry. Freshman right fielder Michael O’Neill and Ohio State first baseman Josh Dezse grew up outside of Columbus and were teammates at Olentangy Liberty High School.
Both players lead their teams in RBI, and with Dezse also making appearances from the bullpen, the possibility of the two going head to head, the excitement is already building.
“I want to face him,” O’Neill said. “He knows what I like to hit and I know what he likes to pitch and where he likes to pitch.
“(Last year), he was my boy trying to encourage me to get a hit, and now he’s trying to strike me out (and) make me look bad. So, it’s not that I don’t want to face him, it’s not that. I’m like, ‘Okay, he’s just going to strike me out.’ It’s just going to be weird seeing him on the mound.”
If the matchup does arise, O’Neill had a prediction for the outcome.
“I don’t now what I’m going to do if I have to face him, to be honest,” O’Neill said. “I told him the other day, I said, ‘If you hit me, I’m going to put a hit out on you.’ He’s just one of those kids that the jitters will just (get to him and) somehow that 95 mile-an-hour fastball will end up in my back.”
Aside from O’Neill, fifth-year senior second baseman Anthony Toth and sophomore shortstop Derek Dennis also grew up in Ohio as Buckeye fans.
But O’Neill — who joked the stands will be sold out because of the his family and friends coming to watch — expects heckling from fans of the team he once cheered for.
“It’s a homecoming,” O’Neill said. “They have stands out in right field, so I’m pretty sure a bunch of my friends will sit out in right field and give me crap all game for three days. I’m sure when my name gets announced everybody will applaud or whatever, but if my friends boo me — that’s fine.”
Michigan received a last-minute shake-up to their lineup when it learned Friday that sophomore starting pitcher Kyle Clark is out for the season with a broken hand that resulted from a “freak accident moving furniture.” He was scheduled to start Saturday.
Junior pitcher Brandon Sinnery — coming off back-to-back complete games, including a shutout — and sophomore Bobby Brosnahan, are each penciled in as starters.
Redshirt sophomore pitcher Tyler Mills — who was pulled from the rotation two weeks ago in favor of Sinnery — might earn back his spot. Freshman Alex Lakatos, sophomore Ben Ballentine and junior Kevin Vangheluwe are also in contention for the rotation's No. 3 spot.
Fighting back from adversity isn’t new for the young Wolverine squad. Michigan has showed resiliency in overcoming injuries and rough outings, and Maloney is just excited to be back in contention.
“The big thing for us is just trying to win the series, so it’s just nice to be able to even talk about the fact — considering how our season went — that we’re in the thick of it,” Maloney said. “We’re a game out with 12 to go, and the next 12 games will really determine this team's season.”