EVANSTON – By the bottom of the sixth inning, everyone in the lineup had a hit besides senior left fielder Danny Zimmerman. Zimmerman finally joined the party, smashing a two-run home run that extended the Michigan baseball team’s lead to double digits and put the game even further out of Illinois’ reach.
In the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader, the Wolverines (21-11) not only beat the Illini (15-16) to secure a 2-2 series tie — they posted one of their most complete performances of the year and dominated Illinois, 19-4, in a seven-inning, run-ruled game.
Michigan coach Erik Bakich made drastic changes to the starting lineup from the first game. With fifth-year catcher Griffin Mazur serving the second game of his suspension, fifth-year Christian Molfetta, who usually plays third base, took his place. Junior right-hander Willie Weiss, usually the closer, made the first start of his Michigan career.
“Willie’s been so good,” Bakich said. “We wanted to try to keep them off the scoreboard for a couple of innings so we could try to score, but it didn’t work out that way.”
Instead, the Illini got off to a hot start in the top of the first against Weiss, who struggled to throw strikes. Weiss walked two of the first three hitters he faced, both of whom scored on a pair of singles later in the inning. Illinois’ momentum would soon disappear.
Michigan began to take advantage of poor pitching by the Illini in the bottom of the first, loading the bases on two walks and a single. Sophomore first baseman Tito Flores’ infield single scored one run and reloaded the bases for sophomore third baseman Ted Burton, who cleared the table with a grand slam. Fifth-year center fielder Christian Bullock’s opposite-field home run gave the Wolverines a commanding 7-2 lead after just one inning.
Weiss settled in at the top of the second, striking out two, although he consistently got behind in the count. Redshirt sophomore left-hander Ben Dragani relieved him in the third and threw four innings of two-run ball.
“He does what he does: comes in, gets the job done,” Bullock said. “Good control of his change-up on both sides of the plate, and he was really huge for us.”
Dragani got hitters to chase his offspeed pitches in the dirt, and the defense handled everything put in play, most of which was weakly hit. In the third, fifth-year shortstop Benjamin Sems fielded a ground ball in the shallow outfield and threw to first, just in time to make the out. In the fourth, sophomore third baseman Ted Burton, redshirt sophomore second baseman Jordon Rogers and Flores turned an inning-ending double play.
“(Sems is) as good of a shortstop as there is in college baseball,” Bakich said. “We’re glad he’s on our team.”
Illinois went to its bullpen after Michigan’s eruption in the first inning, but no matter who was pitching, the Wolverines found a way to score. Michigan scored in every inning but the third, usually in bunches, due to quality at-bats and smart, aggressive baserunning.
In the second inning, the heart of the order loaded the bases, and two runs scored via a sacrifice groundout and a balk. Bullock led off the fifth by narrowly beating out an infield hit, and Molfetta’s triple brought him home, kicking off a three-run inning.
After scoring one in the fourth and three in the fifth, the lead had ballooned to 10. The Wolverines then exploded for six more runs and batted around in the sixth. The bottom of the order started the rally, and after Zimmerman’s home run emptied the bases, Bullock set the table again with a single.
“I don’t really look at the number I’m hitting as long as I’m hitting,” Bullock said. “You’re going to get up there three to four times with this lineup, so it doesn’t really matter.”
The top of the order continued the rally with singles and walks, and Sems’ three-run triple capped it off. By the time the dust settled, Michigan led 19-4.
Senior left-hander Angelo Smith protected the lead in the seventh, aided by a game-ending double play.
The offense more than bounced back from the series loss against Rutgers to put up one of its most productive weekends of the season, finishing with 52 hits and 12 homers. But Michigan will need to keep it’s foot on the gase to win the Big Ten championship. As impressive as the two lopsided wins were, the Wolverines could only come away with a series tie. They’ll need to win more series down the stretch.
“The Big Ten title race is wide open,” Bakich said. “If we’re going to be competitive in that, then we need to be more consistent in how we play.”