EVANSTON – Willie Weiss stepped off the mound and stared at the infield grass, not bothering to watch his mistake pitch explode off the barrel and land well over the fence in left field. The junior right-hander had just allowed Illinois’ fourth home run of the game, and he knew he messed up.
Four home runs cost the Michigan baseball team (20-10 Big Ten) in a 5-4, seven-inning loss to the Illini (14-15), and spoiled a strong start by redshirt sophomore left-hander Steven Hajjar and a much-improved offensive performance.
From the top of the first inning, Michigan’s offense returned to the brand of baseball that made it so successful earlier in the season. The first four Wolverines drew quality at-bats: three doubles — one by sophomore designated hitter Jimmy Obertop in his return to the cleanup spot — and a sacrifice bunt. Two runs scored in the first, and more looked to be on the horizon.
Michigan coach Erik Bakich said he was happy to have Obertop back in the heart of the order.
Hajjar got off to a hot start, striking out the first four Illini he faced. He consistently put two strikes on Illinois batters and made quick work of them. A solo home run in the second inning was his lone blemish early on.
While the Wolverines put at least one runner on base in all but one inning, and wore Illinois pitcher Andrew Hoffman out with long at-bats, Hoffman settled in and limited the Michigan offense his second time going through the order. He struck out Obertop with a steady stream of outer-half pitches in the third, and he wisely started fifth-year catcher Griffin Mazur with a breaking ball and got him to fly out in the fourth.
The Illini put two runners in scoring position on a seeing-eye single and infield error in the fourth, but Hajjar escaped the jam. In the fifth, Fifth-year catcher Christian Molfetta broke out of his slump with a solo home run to add to the Wolverines lead. But Illinois responded in the bottom of the inning with a solo homer of its own, cutting the Michigan lead to one.
Hajjar’s struggles didn’t end there. He subsequently gave up a two-run homer — giving the Illini the lead.
“A couple mistakes with the wind-aided home runs, but overall, he didn’t pitch badly,” Bakich said.
The Michigan offense fought back in the sixth, putting two runners on base via walk and single. One of those runners came around to score on a double steal when the throw to third base rolled into the outfield, tying the game at four.
But Weiss couldn’t protect the tie in the sixth, allowing a go-ahead home run.
Wolverines tried to pull off another last-inning comeback. Junior second baseman Riley Bertram led off with a single, but no one could advance him.
While Michigan’s offensive approach improved markedly from last weekend, a few mistakes on the mound and an unfriendly breeze cost it the game — and a shot at offensive redemption.