With an inning left in Sunday’s series finale, the Michigan baseball team was locked in a 3-3 tie with Northwestern.
Four batters later, the Wolverines extended their win streak to 15 with a 7-3 victory.
As it has been throughout the streak, Michigan’s pitching was the difference over the weekend in Evanston. After a postponement Friday, it opened the series with back-to-back shutouts of the Wildcats (1-8 Big Ten, 8-17 overall), 6-0 and 3-0, in Saturday’s double header — the first consecutive shutouts in Big Ten play since 2006 for the Wolverines (6-0, 19-11).
Sophomore left-hander Tommy Henry kicked off the weekend with six, two-hit innings Saturday afternoon, striking out nine in the process.
An hour later, freshman left-hander Ben Dragani took the mound for game two and proceeded to one-up his teammate, allowing just one hit over his seven innings — a single to lead off the second inning.
“They did a great job of executing the game plan,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “They both pounded the strike zone. Very aggressive, very consistent with all their pitches. It was just fun to watch those guys in action.”
After starting the season as a reliever, Bakich moved Dragani into the rotation three weeks ago against Bowling Green. Since then, he has worked 26.2 innings with 19 strikeouts and just a single earned run against him.
“It became very clear through the first couple of weeks that we would need to expand his role,” Bakich said. “And he’s earned a starting role in the rotation.
“It’s one thing to have multiple pitches you can throw for strikes, what makes him very good is the competitiveness that he pitches with and the poise that he has on the mound.”
While the Michigan rotation was the story of the weekend, its bullpen and defense both played major roles in the sweep. The bullpen, which struggled early in the season, has not given up a run since April 28 against Central Michigan — a 15.2-inning streak.
“Everybody’s feeding off of each other,” Bakich said. “The guys go in and see what the previous guy did before him … and the confidence is extremely high right now.
“Everyone in the bullpen has the confidence of the entire team that he’s going to get the job done.”
The defense meanwhile — one of the points of pride for Bakich’s program — has returned to being a staple after a rough start to the season.
They committed 26 errors in their 4-11 start, but the Wolverines have just 17 during their win streak — only further emphasized by an error-free weekend.
“Guys are starting to settle into their roles,” Bakich said, “so that breeds confidence and they can start to express themselves more freely and play more loosely.”
Offensively, Michigan relied on a balanced approach with at least seven players recording a hit in each game. Freshman first baseman Jesse Franklin hit the only home run of the series in the opener but he and five other Wolverines combined for seven doubles in the sweep.
“(It was) good execution (on) offense,” Bakich said. “Guys had a lot of timely hits, we had two-out RBIs in every game, we were good at getting guys home from third base, good at taking extra 90 (feet).”
Next weekend, Michigan will face Maryland (3-2, 15-6), its toughest challenge in weeks. The Wolverines, though, are thinking about neither the Terrapins, nor the win streak.
“We’re really more focused on the training that we’re going to have this week before we even get to Maryland,” Bakich said. “. . . We don’t talk about the streak.”