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Stellar starting pitching strengthens Wolverines

By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 11, 2014

The numbers looked fudged somehow.

The pitching section of the box score simply couldn’t be real. It looked like a hypothetical a coach would hopelessly dream of, or at the very least the work of a brilliant video game player.

But for Michigan baseball’s starting rotation, the weekend numbers were real, and they were spectacular.

Three starts, 24.2 innings, 16 strikeouts, .173 opponent batting average, one run.

Yes, one run in nearly 25 innings pitched, good for a 0.37 earned-run average.

These numbers weren’t in cupcake games either. They were against a rival Ohio State team that heading into the weekend was No. 4 in the Big Ten in runs and had five starters batting over .300. They were in the Wolverines’ (13-11 Big Ten, 26-26-1 overall) final Big Ten series, ending just 10 days before the Big Ten Tournament begins.

In its most important series of the year, the Michigan left-handed trio of junior Trent Szkutnik, sophomore Evan Hill and freshman Brett Adcock showed the Buckeyes no mercy, winning the series and sending a message to the rest of the conference.

“The starting pitching we got all weekend was championship-caliber starting pitching,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “With the tone Trent Szkutnik set on Friday, you think that it would be hard to mimic that, let alone top it. Yet each guy seemed to get better with each start, which is really tough to do.”

The tone set by Szkutnik was nothing short of the Wolverines’ longest start of the season. Going 8.2 innings, the junior came only one out away from his first career complete game, striking out six and allowing just nine Buckeyes to reach base.

Unfortunately for Szkutnik, the lone mistake the starting staff made all weekend ended up costing Michigan a shot at a victory.

After going nearly an hour without throwing due to a rain delay in the second inning, Szkutnik spent almost an entire inning regaining command of his curveball. By the time he was back in a groove, Szkutnik had allowed the lone run in the 1-0 loss.

Despite the hiccup, Szkutnik turned in arguably the best Wolverine start of the season. Yet not even 24 hours later, Hill’s work was even better.

Allowing just five hits over eight innings in the 5-1 win, the sophomore had his best stuff of the season. After struggling the previous week, Hill regained confidence in four no-hit innings in a midweek game against Central Michigan on May 6.

“That helped a lot to get my feet under me and get back to the basics,” Hill said Saturday. “I was doing a nice job of throwing hard, attacking the hitters, and it was really nice to just go out there and feel good about my pitches before today.”

For the entire season, Hill and Szkutnik have been the team’s most consistent players, so while the shut-down performances were surprising, they were nothing compared to Adcock’s.

Making just his third start of the season and first against a Big Ten team, the freshman outshone even the veteran aces, pitching eight innings of two-hit baseball with a career-high seven strikeouts.

“He did an excellent job pounding the zone,” Bakich said. “Much like Evan pounded the zone yesterday, and Trent pounded the zone Friday. I really couldn’t have asked for more from those three this weekend.”

The successful starts — particularly Adcock’s — excite a team that has battled inconsistency all season. The Wolverines were unable to score against Big Ten Pitcher of the Year candidate Tanner Tully on Friday, but Michigan can expect to win most games in which the pitching allows only one run.

With three regular-season games remaining before the conference tournament, the Wolverines — who won’t earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and must win the Big Ten Tournament to qualify — will look to keep their suddenly lights-out rotation confident that it can beat anybody.

“The Big Ten Tournament is what matters,” Bakich said. “But we know these next three games are critical for our mentality and building our momentum to keep this mojo going.”

With three starts anywhere close to the three seen this weekend, Michigan just might be able to stuff its worries in a sack.

“A lot of good things happen when you can let you defense work and pitch to contact,” Bakich said. “And if our pitchers can keep us in the game, we’re confident that we can beat anybody.”