EVANSTON – Christian Molfetta’s swing-and-miss brought him to his knees. The fifth-year third baseman regained his feet and composure, taking a practice swing before stepping back into the box. He crushed the next pitch he saw over the left-field fence for a leadoff home run.
It was the first of five homers for the Michigan baseball team (21-11), but the Wolverines couldn’t capitalize on an all-hands-on-deck performance by the offense. Illinois (15-16) outhit them and won a contentious game, 13-7.
Both starting pitchers, sophomore left-hander Jacob Denner and the Illini’s Riley Gowens, struggled in the first inning before settling in. Illinois got off to a hot start in the top of the first, getting its leadoff man aboard with a walk and following up with a two-run, opposite field home run by Jackson Raper that put Michigan in an early hole.
“Denner just didn’t have his breaking ball today,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “It’s a good-hitting team and you really need to have three pitches against a team like that.”
The Wolverines made Gowens work, taking long at-bats, holding the strike zone and fouling off his best pitches,. But for the first three innings, Gowens kept the ball away from the barrel, never offered an inner-half fastball and kept hitters off-balance with his offspeed pitches. Michigan managed to get two runners on via walks in the third inning, but the Illini made the third out when fifth-year catcher Griffin Mazur grounded out to shortstop. Mazur and Bakich were both ejected for protesting the close call. Had Mazur been ruled safe, the Wolverines would have had runners on the corners with some of its most dangerous hitters up to bat.
“We got fired up,” fifth-year center fielder Christian Bullock said. “We know coach Bakich has our back no matter what …. Shout-out to Griff, not giving in to the blue when he made a bad call.”
After recording two outs in the fourth, Denner walked two hitters in a row, falling victim to the home plate umpire’s inconsistent strike zone around the knees and at the corners. A single loaded the bases, a passed ball scored a run and a two-run single by Raper had the Wolverines trailing5-1.
Michigan responded in the bottom of the fourth, putting the pressure on Illinois’ pitching. Fifth-year shortstop Benjamin Sems and sophomore first baseman Tito Flores both hit solo home runs on back-to-back pitches. Two batters later, Fifth-year center fielder Christian Bullock followed with an opposite-field home run, making it a 5-4 game.
“Our approach was just to hit it to left field in the air and let the wind do the work,” Bullock said.
But Michigan’s work to get back in the game was quickly erased as the Illini added five runs to their lead in an impressive fifth-inning rally. Against Denner, senior right-hander Blake Beers and senior left-hander Jack White, they batted around and posted eight quality at-bats. The Wolverines’ pitchers didn’t make many mistakes, but Illinois punished them anyway with opposite-field hitting, aggressive baserunning and productive outs.
“They were very selective of the plate,” sophomore infielder Ted Burton said. “They weren’t chasing much, and they gave our pitchers the run for their money. Hats off to them.”
Two Michigan players drew two-out walks in the bottom of the fifth, but couldn’t score. In the bottom of the sixth, another two walked, bringing up sophomore designated hitter Jimmy Obertop. He swung at the first pitch and homered to left field, making the score 10-7.
White retired the side in order in the top of the sixth, but the Illini roughed him up in the seventh. Two singles and a walk loaded the bases, and Raper drove in two with his fourth hit of the day. The next batter hit White’s curveball — a rare accomplishment — for a run-scoring single, effectively putting the game out of reach at 13-7.
The Wolverines faced a six-run deficit in the bottom of the seventh and the offense could not muster a rally. The Illinois reliever threw strikes and retired the side in order.
While Michigan had a successful offensive approach and stayed within shouting distance, it couldn’t match the hitting clinic put on by the Illini. The Wolverines will have the chance to bounce back against some of Illinois’ weakest pitchers in game two, if it can put the loss behind it.