There’s no sugarcoating it. The Wolverines are rebuilding.
“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 Baikich, “but clearly we’re rebuilding right now.”
There was plenty of buzz surrounding the young Michigan baseball team heading into the season, but after a series 2-1 loss to Lipscomb, the team’s ability is beginning to be questioned.
All weekend, the Wolverines (4-10) struggled to find a groove offensively and committed a total of seven defensive errors over the three contests.
The defense this season is particularly troubling, as Michigan boasted one of the best defensive squads in the country a year ago. The dip in defensive prowess could be attributed to youth and the adjustment to the pace of college ball, or even to the challenges of consistently playing on the road. Nevertheless, it exists.
“There are no strengths when you’re four and 10,” Bakich said. “We need to get better at everything. It’s the little things that are turning into big things. You don’t collect outs on a bunt, you don’t communicate and throw to the wrong base. Things that don’t always show up in the scorebook.”
Heading into the series against the Bison, Michigan was looking to bounce back from a demoralizing spring break road trip. Winning only one of eight games in California, a big game was needed.
That’s exactly what it got on Friday, although not without some major hiccups. Junior Jonathan Engelmann led the offensive charge as the Wolverines’ bats were hot early. Securing three hits off six at-bats, Engelmann drove three batters in and did his part to secure the win.
The scoring climaxed in a five-run fifth inning, propelling the Wolverines to a commanding 13-1 lead. Then complacency kicked in with Michigan’s pitching and defense, allowing Lipscomb to score 10 runs in the last four innings.
The comeback surge wasn’t enough, as the Wolverines closed out just well enough to secure the victory.
“The best part of the weekend was the way we came out on Friday and scored in the first five innings and had a lot of quality at-bats,” Bakich said. “Then, after those first five innings, we just got sloppy and continued to progressively get sloppy throughout the rest of the time.”
After that monumental fifth inning Friday, Michigan could not catch a break. The Wolverines had gone 4-0 in all previous matchups against Lipscomb, yet dropped the next two games.
Saturday’s contest began optimistically for the Wolverines. After three scoreless innings, Michigan exploded onto the scoreboard, securing four runs off three hits. But this marked the last time the Wolverines would lead in the game.
Despite a strong start, sophomore right-hander Karl Kauffman gave up five runs to the Bison in the bottom of the fifth. Heading into this reckoning, Kauffman had tossed eight strikeouts and held Lipscomb to only one run.
Michigan then sent in freshman left-hander Ben Dragani in relief. A rare bright spot on the squad, Dragani pitched three scoreless innings after closing out the brutal fifth inning for Kauffman.
Dragani’s last two outings have been incredibly strong, labeling him as one of the team’s premier relievers.
“He’s had success because he’s been aggressive with all of his pitches in the strike zone,” Bakich said. “He’s been consistently a strike-thrower every time he’s been out there and he’s executed the pitch call and game plan. He’s done a nice job. He’ll continue to get more opportunities and he may have his role expanded.”
Despite Dragani’s valiant effort, the Wolverines’ fate had already been sealed. A sluggish offense held Michigan down all game. It failed to record a hit in the last four innings, ending their undefeated reign over the Bison.
Sunday’s matchup was much of the same. The Wolverines started hot, recording two runs in the top of the first, but ultimately succumbed to defensive errors and ineffective bats.
Lipscomb ostensibly ended things in the third by scoring three runs and holding onto its lead.
If nothing else, the latter two games in the series will teach the young team a lesson in what it takes to dig out of a deficit.
“Well, you just gotta string the positives together,” Bakich said. “On offense, it’s quality at bats and it’s passing the baton to the next guy and just everybody trying to get on base. Defensively, it’s just being consistent in making routine plays and communicating.”
This series marks the end of Michigan’s road tour. It will now enjoy the comfort of playing in its own stadium as the 24-game home schedule begins on Tuesday.
“There’s always an advantage to being at home,” Bakich said. “But, good teams play well on the road too and we haven’t played well on the road, and if we want to be a good team then we have to be better on the road.”
It remains to be seen whether the Wolverines can turn things around, but so far one sentiment is clear: prepare for a rebuild.