With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning on Saturday, Michigan was on the cusp of an 8-5 victory over Cal Poly. The bases were loaded when the Mustangs’ Nick Marinconz fired a chopper down the left side off a pitch from freshman right-hander Cameron Weston. For a second, it seemed a tied game may have been in the cards.
But junior shortstop Jack Blomgren met the ball where it bounced and rocketed it toward fifth-year senior Matthew Schmidt at first base to end the game.
The team’s defensive sharpness, exhibited by Blomgren and Schmidt in that game-ending play, was a useful complement to Weston’s first career save on Saturday. It also demonstrated the likelihood that defense will be a crucial part of Michigan’s winning equation.
The Wolverines’ coaching staff has taken an approach that emphasizes the infield defense’s importance to giving pitchers a degree of comfortability and providing the offense with some cover.
“That was just the game plan that (pitching coach Chris) Fetter came to all the pitchers with,” junior right-hander Blake Beers said following his start against Cal Poly. “We have a lot of trust in our defense behind us and getting ahead was crucial to beating these hitters.”
Blomgren, now an upperclassman and elected as the team’s captain, anchors this season’s reinvigorated defense. Against Cal Poly, Vanderbilt and Arizona State, he managed to extinguish hit after hit with a swipe of his glove.
“I really like our infield defense, highlighted by Jack Blomgren,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “I think he’s a star … a tough dude, just a playmaker, and any coach would want to have him.”
On Sunday evening, his dominance was on full display against the Sun Devils — who are renowned nationwide for their power hitters, like Spencer Torkelson, who was ranked by Baseball America as 2020’s top college prospect.
After a leadoff single in the eighth inning, trailing by three runs, Arizona State had its most powerful batters, including Torkelson, on deck. Sophomore reliever Jack White had a daunting task ahead of him. In a play echoing the Wolverines' final out against Cal Poly, the Sun Devils’ Drew Swift knocked a fast-moving grounder toward a sprinting Blomgren. He then lobbed it straight to sophomore Riley Bertram at second base, who in turn connected to Schmidt at first to secure a double play and largely eliminate Arizona State’s threat.
“He’s as good as they come,” junior right-hander Jeff Criswell said. “He’s the heart of the infield and he's done a great job with (freshman third baseman) Teddy Burton and Riley Bertram to his right and left, both newer guys this year, and helped bring them along.
“As a pitcher, it’s definitely a great feeling to have those guys behind you.”
Schmidt, who before this weekend had seen only eight career starts at Michigan with just one last season, seemed right at home as the Wolverines’ new starter at first base. Riding high off his game-winning home run against Vanderbilt on Friday evening, he gelled effectively with his fellow infielders.
“Matt Schmidt had been patiently waiting to get his opportunity at first base,” Criswell said. “We saw new guys stepping up, and I think that was kind of the storyline throughout the entire weekend.”
Schmidt, for his part, has bought in to Michigan’s defensive emphasis.
“With (Nick) Schnabel, our infield coach, we take pride in that,” he said. “I think when one person makes a good play it feeds off to the rest of us … We don’t want our pitchers making any more extra pitches so we try and have their back.”
Among the “newer guys” pointed out by Criswell was Danny Zimmerman, who took on a new role at left field, where over the weekend Michigan’s outfield looked quite different than it did last season. Freshman Clark Elliot started in right field in all four of the weekend’s games, while senior Christian Bullock alternated with junior Jordan Nwogu in center field.
Nwogu, whose starts last year were mostly at DH, has spoken of his self-appointed goal to be a great defender. The depth and flexibility of the outfield, especially in light of junior centerfielder Jesse Franklin’s early absence after a skiing incident, will also be an important component of the team’s success.
“I like the depth of some of our position players, some of the interchangeable parts, especially in the outfield,” Bakich said.
As Michigan works to replace noticeable gaps in its lineup made by departing seniors since last season, the defense will prove necessary to reinforce its efforts. But the importance of defence is by no means a new mindset for the team. Criswell summed it up well.
“That’s what we really stress here — defense wins championships.”