Sophomore outfielder Dominic Clementi stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the 11th inning Sunday against Illinois (13-8 Big Ten, 29-17 overall) for one of the biggest at-bats of his career. On the mound was his childhood best friend, Illini reliever Ryan Schmitt.
Schmitt got the early advantage, getting two quick strikes. But with his back against the wall, Clementi was able to barrel a 2-2 slider into right field. The fielder, junior Jack Yalowitz, ranged back to make the catch, but junior third baseman Jimmy Kerr slid into the plate just ahead of the throw to give Michigan (15-5 Big Ten, 32-16 overall) a 5-4 win.
After Kerr crossed the plate, Clementi was mobbed at first base. Across the diamond, Schmitt walked dejectedly toward the visiting dugout.
“The competitors that him and I are — it was cool to do it against him," Clementi said. "It was kinda surreal because we’ve been talking about stuff like that since we were little."
“When we were going through the line and we were shaking hands, he kinda looked at me like, ‘Man, I hate you.”
Two innings earlier, the Wolverines were up 4-2 and an out away from a much simpler win. After two quick outs, junior left-hander William Tribucher issued back-to-back walks and lost control of a wild pitch to put the tying run on second.
Yalowitz then hit a grounder to freshman first baseman Jesse Franklin, who made a sliding stop to his backhand but had no one covering first. By the time Franklin realized there was no play at first, left fielder Doran Turchin was charging toward home and slid under Franklin’s throw to the plate to tie the game.
“They were able to rebound and be resilient,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “And (they) put it behind them quick and moved on to the next inning, which we needed to do right away.”
In the tenth, second baseman Michael Massey smashed a one-out hit over junior center fielder Jonathan Engelmann’s head with runners on first and second. Fortunately for the Wolverines, the Illinois runners thought Engelmann had caught it and they tagged up, enabling Michigan to get an out at the plate on freshman shortstop Jack Blomgren’s relay throw.
“That to me was as much the game as anything because that was a mistake," Bakich said. "With one out, you can’t try to tag there. So it was a huge play because it should have been a run scored."
“We had given all the momentum to them in the ninth inning and we got some of it back in the 10th, which helped us for the 11th.”
The game almost did not reach the 11th. Clementi’s leadoff walk in the bottom of the 10th was followed by a questionable full count strikeout call on Engelmann. Franklin was up next and appeared to be hit by an uncalled hit-by-pitch before popping out to the shortstop. Had either of those calls gone the other way, freshman left fielder Jordan Nwogu’s single to left would have won the game for the Wolverines.
“We expect that we’re gonna get blown calls,” Bakich said, “So it was a bad call on the strikeout and missed the hit by pitch, but so what?
“We’ve been fighting through adversity all year. It’s nothing compared to going 4-11 and losing to an NAIA school.”
Vancena again got into trouble in the 11th, putting runners on first and second with Illini star Bren Spillane on-deck. Vancena, though, was able to win a ten-pitch battle to avoid loading the bases for Spillane.
In the bottom of the frame, Kerr smacked a leadoff single to right. Bakich called for a sacrifice bunt, and catcher David Craan fired the ball into center field in an attempt to get Kerr out at second. Blomgren followed up with another bunt, this time to third baseman Grant Van Scoy, who tried to throw Kerr out at third. Kerr, though, beat the throw on a tight call to put himself in position for the winning run.
“He had a great jump, great speed and slid head first. And if he goes feet first, he’s out,” Bakich said. “So Jimmy did a nice job there of creating some opportunities for the team.”
The early Michigan lead was set up by seven strong innings from sophomore right-hander Karl Kauffmann, who gave up just two runs on three hits.
“Karl Kauffmann did a great job,” Nwogu said, “He shut them down for seven straight innings and in turn, every big strikeout or huge defensive play behind him … fueled the offense.”
While it was not enough to get Kauffmann his seventh win of the season, it put the Wolverines in position to come away victorious on senior day.
“To do it for (the seniors) and to do it for the team — it’s something special and I’m really glad I could do it for them,” Clementi said. “Jonathan Engelmann especially has taught me an absolute ton about hitting, outfield and off the field, how to carry yourself.”
Most importantly, though, the win helped Michigan avoid a sweep and remain in striking distance of the Big Ten title and an at-large NCAA Tournament bid with three regular season games to go.