It’s a play the Michigan baseball team (15-8 Big Ten, 33-19 overall) is all too familiar with.
The Wolverines were batting in the bottom of the frame in extra innings with bases loaded and the game on the line. A player stepped up and delivered a sacrifice fly to deep right field allowing the runner at third to score the winning run. Michigan then mobbed the hitter who smacked the walk-off fly out.
It’s how the Wolverines downed Illinois, and it’s how they overcame Iowa (13-9, 33-19) in the first game of the Big Ten Tournament.
The inning began with some pitching trouble for the Hawkeyes. Iowa reliever Zach Daniels walked two consecutive batters on eight straight pitches prompting Iowa to make a much needed call to the bullpen. Right-hander Nick Nelsen entered the game and relented a quick infield single to junior center fielder Jonathan Engelmann.
Then early on a Wednesday morning, freshman slugger Jesse Franklin stepped to the plate with bases loaded and delivered the sacrifice fly, giving Michigan a hard-fought 2-1 win.
While the wild finish injected a healthy dose of drama into the contest, the game was a defensive battle, through and through.
Making diving catch after diving catch and web gem play after web gem play, the Wolverines were flashing the leather early and often to extinguish any life out of the Hawkeyes' lineup.
“For us it felt like Michigan had 15 fielders out there,” said Iowa coach Rick Heller. “You hit three balls off the pitcher and you don’t get a hit, and they’re making diving plays left and right, and it’s the same thing in the outfield. We made a nice play, and it went right at ‘em.”
And the tight defense began on the mound.
Both sides benefited from terrific outings on the mound with the Hawkeyes riding left-hander Nick Allgeyer through seven lights out innings. However, the Wolverines kicked things off with a fright from the bump.
After only pitching through one inning, sophomore left-hander Tommy Henry was nailed by a line drive. The ball rocketed off the bat of right fielder Robert Neustrom and punched Henry straight in his throwing arm. Ever the warrior, Henry collected the ball and got the forceout at first.
The injury put Michigan coach Erik Bakich in a difficult position. Try to keep Henry in or make a quick call to the bullpen and hope everything works out. Seeing a happy medium, Baich kept the lefty in the game while senior right-hander Alec Rennard frantically warmed up in the bullpen. After Henry walked the next batter on five pitches, Bakich made the switch.
“I think it was easier coming in in the second than it would be coming in in the fourth or fifth because I was actually still warm from playing catch pre-game as bad as that sounds,” Rennard said. “So I went down to the bullpen and tossed as many fastballs as I could.”
Luckily for Rennard, he was allotted extra time to warm up due to the unpredictable nature of the event. Just as luckily for Michigan, Rennard brought his A-game.
The righty would go on to pitch 5.2 innings of scoreless relief while giving up only one hit — a bloop to right field that snuck just inside the foul line.
“Today was just getting back to that, ‘One pitch at a time,’ approach,” Rennard said. “Sometimes the focus tries to broaden out and narrow focus on one pitch at a time, take care of this pitch and having short memory really helps.”
While both squads donned impressive defense and pitching throughout the game, offense was nowhere to be found. Attribute it to the size and scope of the park, the lights out pitching or big game nerves, neither team could buy a hit in the low-scoring affair.
The one shining light of offensive productivity and the Wolverines’ saving grace was Franklin. Aside from his heroic walk-off, the first-year crushed his 10th home run of the year to right-center field in the fourth inning and also secured a double to deep left field in the sixth.
However, Franklin will be the first to celebrate the role of his teammates and give credit where credit is due. After committing an error earlier in the contest, Franklin was picked up by his teammates and sought to make amends for his misstep.
“There were like a million other plays today that helped us win the game,” Franklin said. “A lot of guys picking each other up. Like, I made a poor error, and then the first thing that Alec Rennard said was, ‘It doesn’t matter. Flush it.’ And that means a lot. He could’ve just yelled at me for messing up the beginning of his outing, but he didn’t.”
It’s great to see team cohesion on any level, but if Michigan has any chance of winning the Big Ten Tournament, it must be out in full force and guide the Wolverines to solid pitching, defense and timely hitting.
And a walk-off every now and then doesn’t hurt either.