When the Michigan baseball team took the field eight weeks ago in Port St. Lucie, Florida, for its opening day matchup against Army, junior shortstop Ako Thomas was the only remaining starter from the star-studded infield that led the Wolverines to an NCAA tournament berth a year ago.
At the time, the team and its coaching staff expected to experience growing pains. But the extent of those pains was not clear until a few weeks into this season, when the Wolverines opened their home season with an 8-3 loss to Lawrence Tech.
“We’d like to think that coming into this season that we’ve put ourselves into a position to reload and not rebuild,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich after an earlier loss to Lipscomb. “But clearly we’re rebuilding right now. We’ll see how we progress from here, but so far this has been nothing but disappointment.”
Now, the Wolverines are riding a 15-game win streak into this weekend’s series against Maryland. While Thomas remains entrenched atop the lineup, the rest of the infield consists of players who were not in Ann Arbor a year ago.
Even Thomas, the unit’s mainstay, had to work through early-season defensive struggles to establish himself as the leader he was expected to be. He has just one error over his last 13 games, while hitting .310 with 12 stolen bases during the win streak.
To his left, freshman Jack Blomgren has started all but one game at shortstop. But the defensive-minded Blomgren started the season as a black hole in the lineup, batting just .154 with no extra-base hits in Michigan’s 4-11 start. Since then, he has hit .341 with four doubles and his first collegiate home run, while providing excellent defense.
“You just want him to be able to be consistent,” Bakich said “… He’s a consistent worker, he’s got a great attitude, he’s a tough kid. He brings all the intangibles to the table.”
In the corners, Bakich has inserted two newcomers in recent weeks after losing Jake Bivens and Drew Lugbauer to last year’s MLB Draft.
Despite a rocky start, freshman first baseman Jesse Franklin has emerged as the starter out of an early-season platoon, hitting .354 with a team-leading four home runs since winning the full-time starting job.
“Besides having really good upperclassmen role models, I think the biggest thing is just that all of the coaches really believe in us,” Franklin said after a 3-for-5 performance against Central Michigan. “Even if we do poorly in the field, they still encourage us, and I think deep down they really think we can do it. You can really see and feel that when you talk to them.”
Perhaps the most striking example of that faith has come across the diamond in junior third baseman Blake Nelson. The college transfer had one at-bat in 13 games before starting the finale at Lipscomb. Since then, he has started every game and been moved into the clean-up spot.
“He’s a tough gritty kid. He’s a (Junior College) bandit. He’s a high baseball IQ guy,” Bakich said. “I think he’s gonna be a great coach some day.
“He’s not your prototypical four-hole hitter, because we’re not asking him to hit (extra-base hits), but he moves runners along and gets on base and knocks runs in when the opportunity presents itself. … He’s a tough out, he can hit and run, he can bunt, he can steal, he can handle the bat.”
Nelson’s greatest contribution, though, has been completing the Wolverines’ infield. After seemingly playing a different combination every game early in the season, Bakich has run out the same infield in 11 of Michigan’s last 12 games — all wins.
“Guys are starting to settle into their roles so that breeds confidence, and they can start to express themselves more freely and play more loosely,” Bakich said. “We were bouncing Ako between short and second and rotating third basemen, first basemen, second basemen. We had a lot of moving parts, and I think that (caused) the inconsistency.”