In the eighth inning on Tuesday, Bryan Pall was on the mound and the Michigan baseball team was leading Central Michigan, 9-6. Pall had just walked the bases loaded and was pitching to Robert Greenman with only one out.
It was a high-pressure situation, but Pall kept his composure and forced a crucial 6-4-3 double play to end the inning and keep the game out of reach for the Chippewas.
Moments like these have become routine for the Wolverines’ bullpen early in the season.
The starting rotation, composed of left-handers junior Brett Adcock, sophomore Oliver Jaskie and senior Evan Hill, along with right-hander sophomore Ryan Nutof, has been dominant. The four have posted a combined ERA of 2.39 and started 21 of 22 contests for Michigan.
But especially in recent games, it has been the bullpen that has led the Wolverines to victory.
Clutch outs late in games from pitchers such as freshman William Tribucher and junior Mac Lozer have helped Michigan (17-5) to its best start in 20 years. And not only do these key outs hold the opponent at bay, they also ignite the batting order.
“It is instantly able to energize the offense and get the momentum back into your dugout,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “Guys are hustling off the field, fired up and ready to go hit.
Added junior outfielder Johnny Slater: “Fighting at the end of the game like that — we get a lot of momentum from that.”
After dramatic endings in the last two games — a walk-off win against Illinois-Chicago on Sunday and stranding the bases loaded in the eighth on Tuesday against Central Michigan — Slater thinks the team will carry that energy into this weekend, when it faces Northwestern (7-18) for a three-game set in Evanston.
Momentum has been on the Wolverines’ side lately, as they ride a six-game win streak into their first conference games of the year.
Maintaining momentum can depend on a solid relief staff. And Michigan seems to be getting better as the season goes.
Junior right-handed pitcher Jackson Lamb hadn’t pitched in almost 12 months due to an injury, but he made his season debut last weekend. He closed out the ninth inning in two of the last three games for the Wolverines.
Junior left-hander Keith Lehmann is also coming off an offseason injury, and he showed that his arm is ready to join an already-deep Michigan bullpen. Lehmann threw four innings on Tuesday and allowed two earned runs on three hits.
Lamb and Lehmann’s recoveries aid a staff that is also boosted by junior first baseman Carmen Benedetti’s ability to help the Wolverines on the mound in addition to hitting in the 3-hole.
“Whenever (Benedetti) is in there, it’s going to be in a situation that is an important part of the game,” Bakich said.
Benedetti’s 92-plus miles-per-hour fastball and improved off-speed pitches have come in handy for Michigan. Sunday, he held a one-run lead over UIC, pitching 2.1 innings and striking out four without allowing a hit.
The Wolverines’ schedule ramps up starting Friday, with a stretch that includes 12 Big Ten games over the next three weeks.
The bullpen — comprising newcomers like Tribucher, situational pitchers like Benedetti as well as now-healthy pieces Lamb and Lehmann — will hope to continue its successful support of the dominant Michigan starting pitching.
As the Big Ten favorite, Michigan will want to show right away that it doesn’t have weak spots on the mound, whether it is the beginning of the game or the ninth inning.
And if they continue to get strong showings, the Wolverines have a good chance to start conference play in dominant fashion.