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Friday, October 31, 2014

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Timely hitting absent for Michigan in two losses to Nebraska

By Brad Whipple, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 27, 2014

This weekend against Nebraska, the Michigan baseball team’s bats found too many gloves and not enough ground.

With runners on first and second and two outs in the eighth inning Saturday, the Wolverines hoped to tie the game at three, but they wouldn’t get the chance.

Freshman right fielder Johnny Slater saw five pitches that at-bat, and the final one resulted in a swing and a miss, ending the inning for Michigan.

With his hands on his hips, Slater walked to the outfield and kicked the dirt, all while looking at a scoreboard that wouldn’t change. In a pair of two-run losses against the Cornhuskers on Friday and Saturday, these were moments that characterized Michigan, which left a combined 17 runners on base in two two-run losses.

Michigan coach Erik Bakich attributed the difficulty in getting the timely hits early on to Nebraska’s well-rounded and experienced pitching staff.

“You hate to tip your cap to the other team,” Bakich said. “But this is the best Big Ten team we’ve seen since Indiana — their pitching staff is a veteran pitching staff.”

In the series opener, the Cornhuskers (10-5 Big Ten, 28-17 overall) pitched right-hander Christian DeLeon, who has pitched 80.1 innings this season, the most of any pitcher in the Big Ten. In his five-inning outing, he allowed only one earned run.

DeLeon had just two strikeouts Friday, but they both came in one of the Wolverines’ most important moments of the game. Michigan was up by one in a bases-loaded, no-out situation during the second inning, but two batters struck out looking and the last flew out, putting a bases-loaded opportunity to extend the lead to waste. In total, the Wolverines left nine runners stranded for the game.

Later in the ninth inning, Michigan strung together seven straight quality at-bats to score three runs and bring the game within two, but a fielder’s choice ended the game, leaving another runner stranded as another loss concluded.

“We’ve been on the unfortunate side of execution offensively,” Bakich said. “But we just got to stick with the process of having quality at-bats and getting better.”

In Saturday’s 3-1 loss, Nebraska’s right-hander Chance Sinclair, who boasts a conference-best 1.66 ERA, put up 7.1 innings of lights-out pitching, striking out four and allowing only one unearned run.

There’s no denying that the Cornhusker’s pitching made hitting the ball tough, but there is always one way to mitigate the challenge: having some confidence. The question is if the Wolverines still have it.

“Hitting is a difficult thing,” Bakich said. “You’re trying to take a round bat and a round ball and hit it square — it can be difficult sometimes, especially since it is so directly tied in with confidence.”

Confidence is what allowed sophomore shortstop Travis Maezes to hit a bases-clearing double against Indiana to serve the Hoosiers one of their two conference losses this season. Confidence is also what gave center fielder Jackson Glines a walk-off hit against Iowa en route to Michigan’s Hawkeye sweep.

But confidence is not junior second baseman Eric Jacobson swinging at a ball in the dirt and then slamming his bat on the ground in frustration in Saturday’s loss. Nor is it Jacobson walking back to the dugout with his head hung low and his face expressionless.

The Wolverines (9-9, 19-24) are capable of producing at the plate, and they did so in Sunday’s 7-5 win over Nebraska, a culmination of hard-hit balls to the outfield along with perfectly executed sacrifice bunts.

Bakich said confidence with 18- to 22-year-olds is “fragile” because the confidence to win comes from winning itself. And if the Wolverines want to keep a Big Ten Championship within arm’s reach, facilitating that confidence seems to be the only way.

“When guys are probably not feeling their best or having their A-game, they just got to stick with it and grind it out,” Bakich said. “Just make sure those controllable things, their attitude and approach, are at the highest level.”