OMAHA, Neb. – On Saturday, in Michigan’s biggest game of the season, four of its five runs came with two outs, continuing a pattern that has played a crucial role ever since its walk-off win over No. 20 Illinois.
Since that season-changing game, the Wolverines have scored 91 runs, 47% of which have been scored with two outs. These runs weren’t scored in blowout games or garbage time either; if not for two-out hits, Michigan would have lost at least five of these games. The Super Regional would’ve been over on Saturday and the Wolverines might not have made it to the College World Series.
“(I) just tried to make the moment really smaller than what it was, stayed short, stay in tempo and try to put a barrel on the ball,” said senior third baseman Blake Nelson after his two-out RBI against No. 8 Texas Tech.
While the Wolverines have been able to produce runs with two outs all season, they struggled early in the season to be effective while facing two strikes. It all came to a head in a disappointing series loss to a struggling Ohio State.
“We had a bunch of backwards K's, and that was an opportunity, a teaching moment with our team to really dial in our two-strike approach, and our guys just got a whole lot grittier, a whole lot tougher with two strikes,” said coach Erik Bakich. “They committed to choking up and just really doing a good job of expanding the zone with two strikes, and it wasn't about taking their Twitter swing, it was about being ugly productive. Sometimes you've got to stick your butt out and foul one off just to get to the next pitch.”
For some batters, it was an easier lesson to learn — sophomore designated hitter Jordan Nwogu would see his Big Ten on-base-percentage skyrocket to .485 in a stretch of games where he seemed unstoppable.
“I just try to put the ball in play, get on base,” Nwogu said after a leadoff home run on Apr. 26 against Rutgers. “That’s my job, I’m batting leadoff and that’s kind of been what I’ve been trying to do. I got down two strikes early, I was just trying to foul it off and get back in the at-bat. I just got a ball in the air on a windy day.”
Soon, the prowess spread throughout the entire team, creating a lineup that has started to prolong its at-bats while making two-strike and two-out hits an offensive staple.
Nwogu’s walk-off double? A two-strike hit. Nwogu’s game-winning run in the first Super Regional game against UCLA? A two-strike hit. Senior first baseman Jimmy Kerr’s two-run triple on Saturday? Yet another two-strike hit.
“Guys did a great job setting the tone, getting on base,” Kerr said. “Our two-strike approach as a team (is to) choke up on the barrel, put it in play and make something happen.”
And when the Wolverines put a clutch ball in play, more often than not, good things have happened.