Whether it wanted to or not, the Michigan baseball team has faced its last non-conference opponent.
On Tuesday, the Wolverines (14-3 Big Ten, 30-14 overall) trounced Central Michigan (12-9 Mid-American, 20-26-1) 9-2 in the kind of play that one expects from a program gearing up for its conference tournament on the horizon.
While it eagerly awaits its shot at glory in the remainder of conference play, Michigan has had a love-hate relationship with its non-conference schedule, officially ending it with a non-conference game against Michigan State on Wednesday.
Perhaps legendary rock group Led Zeppelin best characterizes the testy relationship in its smash-hit, “Good Times Bad Times.”
Good times bad times you know I had my share
Throughout the long season, the Wolverines suffered crushing defeats, been on the wrong side of walk-off hits and were dealt blistering losing streaks while also surging to walk-off wins, glorious victories and uplifting win streaks all against non-conference opponents.
In the days of my youth, I was told what it means to be a man
And now I've reached that age, I've tried to do all those things the best I can
No matter how I try, I find my way into the same old jam
Starting the season with a demoralizing 4-11 record, Michigan was crushed by non-conference foes. No matter how incessantly Michigan coach Erik Bakich reminded his players of the fundamentals of Wolverine baseball, nothing seemed to be working. Michigan knew what it meant to be a man but couldn’t escape the pangs of rebuilding.
Then, after returning from a bruising west coast road trip, the Wolverines turned it around and began their famed 20-game win streak against yet another non-conference opponent: Bowling Green.
Then, sixteen, I fell in love with a girl as sweet as could be
Since then, it’s been nothing but blue skies against non-conference combatants, as Michigan failed to lose a game against them. The Wolverines fell in love with winning and couldn’t seem to quit it.
The driving factor behind their success can largely be attributed to mentality. In its successes this season, Michigan has consistently stayed on the offensive, letting the bats fly early and often while being buttressed by stout pitching and solid defense.
These positives were on full display against the Chippewas as three different Wolverines notched three-hit games and on seven separate occasions, Michigan put its leadoff hitter on base.
“That’s the most leadoff hitters that we’ve had reach base that I can certainly remember this season and in quite some time,” Bakich said. “It’s something you strive to do. We have a goal to always try to hit the leadoff hitter on most innings, but it was an advantage today. We were able to get guys in motion and keep pressure on ‘em and score in multiple innings, so just a good job by the offense of being locked-in and ready to go.”
In a separate demonstration of the team’s locked-in mental state, the Wolverines suffocated Central Michigan with a three run ninth inning while already being up 6-1.
“They understand how valuable those runs are and how fresh in everybody’s mind was the beginning we gave up at Rutgers on Friday,” Bakich said. “So a 6-1 lead is a good lead, but it’s not enough. Credit to the guys for wanting to expand that lead and put that pressure on ‘em and keep competing in the box and not throw any at-bats away.”
One player who surely did not squander any opportunity on Tuesday was junior second baseman Ako Thomas. Thomas went three-for-five from the plate after missing the previous weekend’s contests due to injury.
Thomas and his teammates completed the dominant win despite not playing at home — the final piece of Michigan’s non-conference success.
I sure do wish I was at home
Over the season, the Wolverines are an astounding 17-1 at home and undefeated against non-Big Ten foes at Ray Fisher stadium.
Therefore, it’s fitting that Led Zeppelin's ballad concludes with a touching sentiment that can also be applied to Michigan’s affinity for the turf field in Ann Arbor.
You can feel the beat within my heart
Realise, sweet babe, we ain’t ever gonna be apart.