There’s a viral video of Michigan coach Erik Bakich excitedly jumping off the team bus in South Bend. I hope he told the driver to keep it idling outside the stadium, because the Wolverines won’t be there for long.
This weekend, the Michigan baseball team will need to win three or four games to win the regional. The last time it won three or more games in a weekend series was in early March against a terrible Purdue team. For the remainder of the regular season, the Wolverines failed to sweep a three-game series or win three of four, and it played only two regional-caliber teams in that time.
In light of that, I will be shocked if Michigan wins the three or four games required to advance. I don’t think they can dominate an entire weekend of play against this caliber of competition.
But I do see a path forward for the Wolverines. Redshirt sophomore left-hander Steve Hajjar and sophomore right-hander Cameron Weston will have to go extremely deep into games — I mean eight or nine innings each — to keep the bullpen’s best arms fresh and ready to relieve senior left-hander Ben Dragani in the third game.
Michigan’s offense must carry its winning approach into every pitch, and if the Wolverines do lose a game, hitters must remain disciplined and not freak out.
Michigan’s excellent defense is extraordinarily unlikely to cost it a win, but the unit could improve if junior second baseman Riley Bertram breaks out of his slump, retakes the position and moves sophomore Ted Burton over to first base, allowing sophomore Jimmy Obertop to be the designated hitter.
Even if all that happens, and Michigan plays its best baseball of the year, I’m not positive it will be enough to win the weekend. But at the very least, I think the Wolverines will vindicate the selection committee’s decision to give them a bid by winning a game and losing the others with dignity.
I’m a bit more optimistic about the Wolverines’ chances than Jack is; the frontline duo of Hajjar and Weston has the ability to dominate any lineup, while the offense is powerful and explosive.
But too many Michigan players are trending in the wrong direction. Obertop has not been the same since his mid-season knee injury— he hit eight home runs in 22 games prior to the injury and has just two in his 18 games since returning. Other players have fallen off a bit as well; graduate transfer infielder Christian Molfetta was hitting a scorching .349 after the same first 22 games, yet fell off to just .284 by the end of the season and was subsequently moved down in the batting order.
Burton—a first team all-Big Ten selection—and sophomore outfielder Tito Flores have been on fire lately, but they can’t be asked to carry as much of the load as they have lately if this team is to make a run in the postseason.
From a talent standpoint, Michigan is good enough to make it out, and everyone knows by now about the experience of the run in 2019 that this team can draw on. But the pitching depth is a bit of a question mark, even this late in the season, while the bats have gone cold for long stretches before. If Michigan drops into the loser’s bracket at any point, it will likely be too difficult to make it back. Thus, I am predicting that Michigan will fall to Notre Dame in the regional final, but this region could definitely be a wild one and I do think the Wolverines have a decent chance to make it out on the backs of Hajjar and Weston— if the team can get production from the bottom of the order.
One thing I’ve learned about Michigan baseball this season is that predicting whether or not they’ll be able to score a run, much less win a game, is virtually impossible.
As Jack and Steel both mentioned, Hajjar and Weston are stalwarts on the mound and are surrounded by a talented defense. I’ve written several stories focused on the defense and how it’s been able to climb out of tough situations and continue to give the offense opportunities to make plays.
Despite this, the last few months compel me to say that it falls on the offense to close out the deal for the Wolverines. In the beginning of the season, Molfetta, Obertop and sophomore infielder/outfielder Clark Elliot fueled Michigan’s offense with big hits, which has shifted to Flores and Burton more recently. Rather than relying on a few players for production, the Wolverines’ will need a variety of players to step up in order to get out to early leads and then maintain them throughout games. I have a hard time seeing Michigan actually holding up to that proposition, since it hasn’t been able to do that for the duration of a three or four game series since Purdue.
One wildcard for the team will be whether the bullpen can close out games. Junior right-hander Willie Weiss, junior right-hander Will Proctor, graduate right-hander Joe Pace, and more recently redshirt junior right-hander Isaiah Paige have provided impressive reliefs during the season, but struggled in the last three series against Indiana, Maryland, and Nebraska, all of which are top-4 teams in the Big Ten.
I could see the Wolverines scrapping out a win over Connecticut, but I think Michigan has little to no chance against Notre Dame. Then again, the Wolverines’ experience from 2019 and their offense’s ability to pour in runs at the very last moment could prove me wrong, but the more realistic outcome is a short postseason for Michigan.
In 2019, Michigan was an afterthought. Despite a strong performance in the Big Ten, the national spotlight was shown elsewhere. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, they were a game away from winning the national championship. In 2021, they should hope to replicate the same type of Cinderella run.
The Wolverines have not played their best baseball down the stretch, nor do they possess the star power and depth of the 2019 squad. However, they still have a chance to get hot. The most pertinent factors are starting pitchers Hajjar and Weston. The two combined for an 11-4 record while each sport sub-3.00 ERA’s. They will need to go at least six or seven innings deep to keep Michigan competitive. The longer they stay on the bump, the more they will lessen the pressure on the bullpen.
One of the bright spots in the bullpen is right-hander Paige. He started a game in the College World Series championship and has been a versatile piece for Bakich. His talent is undeniable and his experience is invaluable.
Even if the pitching excels, the Wolverine offense has more questions than answers right now. Burton and Flores have starred, but who else can they rely on? The time is now for guys like Obertop and fifth-year catcher Griffin Mazur and fifth-year shortstop Benjamin Sems. Bakich has stressed the importance of quality at-bats and challenging pitchers this season. In the postseason, he will need even more from his lineup.
A reason for optimism is the team’s ability to strike in a hurry. Whether it be eight runs in the bottom of the ninth inning versus Michigan State or a 14-run onslaught against Maryland, the Wolverines can sure hit the ball when they are hot. Can they put it all together at the right time?
Hajjar should be able to get Michigan past UConn Friday night. Bakich could have a well-rested bullpen behind Weston on Saturday, but No. 10 Notre Dame poses too many challenges and should ultimately top the Wolverines. They can still replicate their 2019 magic, but the path may not be as straightforward.