When the Michigan baseball team opens at home against University of Illinois – Chicago next Friday, it will have played 17 games in 30 days, traveling an incredible 18,454 miles to do so. Red-eye flights and long bus rides, combined with several doubleheaders and an extra-inning game, have put the team’s mental and physical toughness to the test early in the season.
But the Wolverines are not worn out. Instead, Michigan has ignited extra reserves of energy across the board, cruising to an 11-3 road record to open the season — the best start for a Wolverine team this century.
A barrage of hitting helped Michigan sweep Canisius in Florida. Shutdown pitching led the Wolverines to big victories over both No. 10 California and Saint Joseph’s in northern California. And it all came together in Hawaii, where the Wolverines triumphed over the Rainbow Warriors in four consecutive games.
The thing that sticks out the most to Michigan coach Erik Bakich and his players about this year’s squad, though, is the enthusiasm and intensity that the team brings to the field every day.
“We play with a lot of excitement,” said junior catcher Harrison Wenson. “Even the fans and coaches on other teams have pointed out that we play with a lot of energy.”
That will only amplify when Michigan opens at home next Friday.
“We've got some of the best fans in the nation,” Wenson said. “Everyone's excited to get back here to The Fish.”
In the meantime, Michigan has had to make do on the road.
Wenson has been the one to lead the Wolverines’ charge across the country. He has racked up a team-high .404 batting average, belted three home runs and moved into the cleanup spot in Michigan’s batting order.
“He’s one of the nation’s best defensive catchers, and he’s an outstanding offensive player,” Bakich said of Wenson. “It’s fun to watch the energy with which he plays, the confidence with which he plays (and) the way he leads.”
In addition to his offensive contributions, Wenson helps to lead a defense that is not short on energy, either. The fielding percentage is about average for a college baseball team at .961, but errors have been the result of aggressive defensive plays. For example, against Hawaii, senior center fielder Cody Brewer tried to throw behind a runner as he rounded first and the ball sailed high. Later in the game, freshman second baseman Ako Thomas made a Jeter-esque play on a ball up the middle and one-hopped the throw, but the ball got away.
“Coach (Bakich) always says, ‘If you’re going to make a mistake, make it aggressive’,” Wenson said. “We’ve been able to get to balls that normal teams wouldn’t be able to get to.”
The energy of the defense has also set the tone for the pitching staff. Michigan’ hurlers have accumulated a 1.83 earned-run average through the first 14 games, and they set a program record with 20 strikeouts in a 10-innning win against Hawaii last Friday. Junior left-handed pitcher Brett Adcock was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Week on Monday, marking the third time in four weeks that a member of the pitching staff has won the award.
Though the Wolverine coaching staff recognizes the importance of rest, recovery, and academics after several long trips, the emphasis on energy has not faded. Bakich says that despite tiring cross-country trips, the practices are getting more intense and challenging every day.
“We try to have tougher training sessions and easy games, as opposed to easy training sessions and tough games,” Bakich said.
So in spite of all the difficult training and long stretches of travel, how is Michigan managing to bring such energy to the field?
“I don’t know if anyone will complain about a traveling day if you’re going to Hawaii,” Bruder said.
But even when the Wolverines return to Ray Fischer Stadium and aren’t playing with palm trees in the backdrop, don’t expect their spirit to fade. As Adcock puts it, “It’s going to be a loud dugout.”
While Michigan has yet another trip in store this weekend, to Stillwater to face No. 25 Oklahoma State, the Wolverines hope the home crowd will bolster that enthusiasm even more when the first pitch is thrown March 25 at “The Fish”.