Jackson Lamb has experienced plenty during his three-plus years at Michigan. As a freshman in 2014, he appeared primarily as an outfielder, making 29 starts. Moving to pitcher full-time the next season, he pitched just 17.2 innings combined as injuries sidelined him for long stretches of time.
Lamb’s talent has never been in question. Standing an imposing 6-foot-6 and possessing a powerful fastball, he recorded a 1.50 earned-run average and 10.1 strikeouts per game over his first three seasons, albeit in limited playing time, and was drafted in the 35th round of the MLB Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals last summer. But until this year, he had yet to carve out a steady role in the Wolverines’ bullpen.
So on Saturday, when Lamb took the mound inheriting two baserunners with two outs in the eighth inning facing Southern California third baseman Adalberto Carrillo, who had already homered in the game, it was a new role for the senior right-hander. But according to Michigan coach Erik Bakich, it’s not a role he’s unprepared for.
“He pitches with a lot of passion and conviction,” Bakich said. “His mindset is a good fit for the closer role, and he likes being in those situations.”
Lamb would go on to strike out Carrillo and retire the side in the ninth inning to close out the Trojans and record his second save of the season, further asserting himself in the late-inning role he has seemed destined to fill. In 6.2 innings this season, he has struck out three and has yet to allow a run, and has prompted Bakich to call him a closer “on a mission”.
In a way, Lamb’s career as a whole has been a microcosm of Michigan’s bullpen this season. The Wolverines possess a deep stable of skilled relievers, and while they have had several huge moments, they have still suffered from inconsistency. This was exemplified in late blown leads against Seton Hall during the opening weekend and in a near-collapse against Creighton during the Jack Gifford Tournament last week. Bakich believes that this is not due to any issues with talent, but is more a product of the necessary process of nailing down clearer roles for the relievers early in the season.
“We’ve gotten a lot of good looks in certain situations from various people and feel comfortable with some of our relievers in multiple roles,” Bakich said. “It’s just going to be trimming those roles down so they can get comfortable in those roles and have the most success in them.”
The USC game also saw a crucial performance from right-hander Keith Lehmann, a senior whose career has mirrored Lamb’s in many ways. By the end of his freshman season, Lehmann had become one of Michigan’s most consistent pitchers, recording a 2.91 ERA in 49.1 innings, and began his sophomore season as the Wolverines’ No. 2 starter. But tightness in his forearm gradually decreased his effectiveness, and in turn his playing time, to the point where it became necessary to shut him down.
“It’s been an interesting year and a half for him, and I know it’s been frustrating for him,” Bakich said. “He tried to come back last year and pitch in some certain spots, but he just wasn’t ready, so we gave him some time off. If he’s healthy he’s going to be a weapon for us in the bullpen and a huge asset.”
After the time off, Lehmann has turned back the clock to begin this season, replicating his successes as a freshman. His talent and experience came through for the Wolverines against the Trojans. After allowing a bases-loading walk in the seventh inning and quickly surrendering a 3-0 count to pinch-hitter John Thomas, Lehmann buckled down and struck out Thomas to preserve the Wolverines’ three-run lead.
“To have (Lamb and Lehmann) in the game in the eighth and ninth was a big deal,” Bakich said. “Number one because they’re healthy, and number two because they’re seniors. They have good stuff and they showed their veteran experience in the bullpen and were able to hold the lead in a close game. They’re doing a really good job of performing in pressure situations.”
Another key performance out of Michigan’s bullpen this weekend came from another pitcher who is still searching for a defined role. Junior Alec Rennard began the season as the Wolverines’ No. 2 starter, but was replaced in that role over spring break by junior Ryan Nutof. But Rennard still was able to display what Bakich called his “winner’s mentality” against San Diego, as he entered in relief of starter Michael Hendrickson and retired nine straight batters, struck out three and earned the save on Sunday.
And it hasn’t just been the upperclassmen who have made an impact. Freshman left-hander Tommy Henry has clearly earned the trust of the coaching staff, making several appearances in high-leverage situations this season and logging a 1.08 ERA and 12 strikeouts. While it was his throwing error that allowed UCLA to score the winning run Friday, Henry showed poise in keeping the game scoreless throughout the seventh and eighth innings.
Through 12 games of Michigan’s season, it is clear that the team possesses a wealth of experience, an aggressive offense and strong starting pitching. The bullpen, however, has been up-and-down, mirroring the careers of Lamb and Lehmann themselves. But just as Lamb and Lehmann have found roles for their talent to shine through in relief, the bullpen as a whole continues to take shape, which may give the Wolverines the necessary ingredient for their aspirations to come into play.