Michigan seeks to win a national championship this season, and it flashes the potential to do so almost weekly.
During their opening weekend, the Wolverines immediately looked like a College World Series contender. Redshirt senior infielder Matthew Schmidt delivered the sort of timely hitting characteristic of championship teams with his game-winning two-run home run against then No. 1 Vanderbilt, and Michigan’s pitching staff looked both strong and deep as it benefited from impressive starts from junior right-handers Jeff Criswell and Blake Beers and redshirt freshman Steven Hajjar.
Since then, though, the Wolverines have struggled to perform consistently as they have given up big innings and failed to string productive at-bats together on a regular basis.
In the following weekend’s series against UConn, Michigan’s execution disappointed, but the Wolverines reminded everyone why they were ranked No. 1 at the time with a 14-2 drubbing of the Huskies in the series’s second game. In that game, Michigan hitters put together two innings — a four-run first and seven-run fourth — that conveyed Michigan’s high offensive potential.
These flashes of promise have continued ever since the UConn series, but the Wolverines’ have yet to play to the caliber they did during their opening weekend.
Both of these trends showed themselves in Michigan’s 2-1 series loss to No. 24 Pepperdine this past weekend. The Wolverines lost the first and third games by a combined score of 18-3. They did shine in the second game once again, though.
“We go in and lose 14-2 that will fire anyone up,” Hajjar said. “Coach (Erik) Bakich gave us a good pregame speech that we need to earn this team’s respect and I think that fired me up personally, but as a team that was just a game that we needed to win for moral standpoint and I was glad we were able to do that.”
The star of that second game was Steven Hajjar. Hajjar earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors for his 10 strikeouts accumulated over six innings of two-run baseball.
The freshman left-hander has been quite impressive thus far in his Michigan career, earning a 2.70 ERA en route to a 3-0 record in four starts.
Hajjar has been consistent on a team that, as Bakich acknowledges, has been struggling with exactly this.
The pattern of potential flashes is emblematic of the Wolverines’ struggles at the plate as well.
“I think the problem is that we didn’t use that to gain momentum, and we struggled the rest of the game to string quality at bats together,” junior outfielder Jordan Nwogu said after hitting a lead-off homerun in game three. “I think sporadically we put together some good at-bats but not enough to plate runs and that was the problem.”
Stringing together good at-bats has been a problem for Michigan in many games this season, and Bakich wants to eliminate this problem. It's possible that he will receive help in this department sooner rather than later.
Junior outfielder Jesse Franklin, a power-hitting center fielder, was expected to feature prominently in the middle of the Wolverines’ lineup this season, but he is yet to play this season due to an injury sustained in a skiing incident in the weeks leading up to opening weekend.
“We are hoping that on an aggressive timeline he’ll be back in less than a month,” Bakich said.
A single hitter can’t fix a broken lineup, but Michigan’s lineup isn’t broken. Plenty of runners are getting on base. They are just being left stranded too often, and a dynamic, former All-American clean-up hitter can certainly help fix that.
The weekly flashes of potential hint that the Wolverines aren’t far from looking like a team with the championship sights that they have, and fixing their inability to string together good at-bats would likely turn those flashes into a much more consistent flame.