Walker Cleveland hadn’t pitched in a competitive game since June, but on Tuesday night in California, that didn't seem to bother him.
Buoyed by a strong defensive performance, the sophomore left-hander, in his first start and appearance of the season, threw four scoreless innings, helping his team to a 5-0 win over Cal.
In the top of the fourth inning, junior shortstop Jack Bloomgren took a few paces to his left, settling in the infield dirt just to the right of second base. A few dozen feet away, the overshift allowed sophomore left-hander Walker Cleveland to stay in his groove, throwing within his means and locating strikes that forced batters to hit to the right side of the field.
An unusual sight for the Michigan defense, but one that was successful in achieving its goal.
Although this was the lefty’s first start since last spring, his solid performance shouldn’t come as a surprise. Coming off a freshman campaign that included three starts and 15 appearances, including a scoreless inning of relief in a World Series game, Cleveland is known for his big game abilities.
“Walker’s a big-game pitcher,” sophomore second baseman Riley Bertram said. “Every time he gets on the mound for a start, you can expect four or five innings scoreless.”
One Cleveland’s primary strengths — picking off baserunners — was on full display in his four innings of work. He capitalized on his advantage as a lefty to make light work of Golden Bears’ baserunners. As the innings wore on, Cal baserunners grew more and more hesitant to take any sort of lead off of first base.
His ability to pick off baserunners minimized any threat that the Golden Bears posed on the basepaths. Cal had six baserunners during Cleveland’s four innings of work and none of them advanced past second base.
“He allowed some baserunners,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “But he picked a couple guys off and really did a good job of pitching out of any jams he was in and even when he was behind he could still generate lead contact and minimize any kind of damage and just did a good job.”
In the second inning, after throwing to four hitters in the first and allowing only one baserunner, Cleveland hit the first batter he faced. But before that runner could become a threat, Cleveland used his sharp pick-off throw, one that he has been working on with pitching coach Chris Fetter, to throw the runner out at first.
Once the next batter reached base on a single, Cleveland was once again quick to pull the trigger on the pick-off throw.
“It’s a good rally killer,” Cleveland said. “It’s a nice weapon to have. It really helps out.”
While his pick-off throw is a valuable asset, Cleveland could only rely on it because of the strong defense he had behind him. Cal batters made frequent contact with his pitches, especially when he fell behind in the strike count. But the pitcher wasn’t afraid to allow batters to connect with the ball. This could have shaken him mentally, but he felt, and looked, comfortable on the mound with the confidence that his teammates behind him would bail him out in any situation.
“It's awesome (having the defense behind me),” Cleveland said. “Cam Hart at third making bare hands look easy and Bloomgren is always automatic and Riley’s making diving plays and (first baseman Matt) Schmidt is shoving guys off the base on pick offs so its awesome.”
Cleveland’s four scoreless innings were the difference maker in the game as it allowed Michigan’s offense to jump out to an early and lasting lead.
“Walker did a great job putting four zeros,” Bakich said. “I thought that really set the tone for the game.”