The Rivalry Edition
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The No. 25 Michigan baseball team is riding a five-game winning streak, which includes a series win over archrival Ohio State and a sweep at Minnesota. But the Wolverines still feel there’s room for improvement.
“I still don’t think we’re playing our very best baseball yet,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “I still think there’s plenty of opportunity to get hot.”
Their best could still lie ahead, but by playing more assertively, Michigan has undisputedly heated up over the past five games.
Bakich saw a glaring weakness earlier in the season: complacency. Michigan often mirrored its opponents, trading scoreless innings and only scoring when trailing. It’s easy to overlook instances of this complacency because the result is usually a dramatic, late-inning victory. Consider the 10-inning win against Penn State on March 27 — in which the Wolverines came back from a five-run deficit — or the 6-5 win against Maryland on April 4, when the two teams traded runs and Michigan was simply the last to score.
But sometimes, the strategy backfires and the Wolverines’ opponent is last to score. Such was the case in an 8-3 loss to Iowa on March 7, when the Hawkeyes scored six unanswered runs in the final three innings, and a 10-inning, 3-2 defeat at Penn State on March 26.
Michigan has long been aware of these tendencies, but initially struggled to make a change.
“We can’t wait around to the ninth inning,” senior designated hitter Danny Zimmerman said on April 5.
The day before, the Wolverines trailed Northwestern 4-1 in the ninth but then loaded the bases for Zimmerman, who represented the winning run. He struck out. “We can’t always win in the ninth; we’ve got to do it earlier,” he said.
Added Bakich on March 22, after a comeback against Michigan State fell short: “You still have to have a sense of urgency each inning. You can’t just wait and expect that (a ninth-inning comeback) is always going to happen.”
Over the past five games, though, Michigan has played more assertively, scoring early, pitching well and keeping its opponent out of contention from the start. Its starters combined for a commanding 2.15 ERA during that stretch; the bullpen never let the opponent back into any game. On defense, the Wolverines committed just four errors and turned 10 double plays. They also scored early and often, whether it was through adding to a double-digit onslaught or sealing a win with a few insurance runs.
In the second game of last weekend’s series, when Michigan traded zeros with Minnesota for the first eight innings before breaking the scoreless tie with a four-run ninth, that complacency seemed to be back. But sophomore right-hander Cameron Weston contributed an assertive seven innings of shutout ball and junior right-hander Willie Weiss earned the win with 1.2 innings in relief, striking out every batter he faced.
“It’s not always based on hitting,” Bakich said. “What Cam Weston and Willie Weiss did yesterday from the pitching side of things was very loud as well.”
The Wolverines are becoming assertive at the right time; they’ll need to play that way in upcoming matchups against Indiana and Nebraska, their two toughest opponents of the season, to keep their Big Ten championship hopes alive.
“That’s what’s needed to be a successful team,” Bakich said.