Pitching and defense.
Those were the themes for both teams throughout the series as the Michigan baseball team (27-17 Big Ten) went 1-2 to close the regular season at Nebraska (31-12).
In game one, redshirt sophomore left-hander Steven Hajjar took the hill for the Wolverines. Hajjar tossed a complete game, giving up just one run on four hits. Hajjar picked up five strikeouts in the contest, dominating for much of the game.
“Steve was really good. He was throwing hard, he had all of his pitches working, he was using his change-up a lot,” Sophomore right-hander Cameron Weston said. He was using his changeup to get a lot of early outs and used our defense. He usually is a high strikeout guy but he was able to get early outs on Friday, which made him go deep into the game.”
But the Michigan offense did not fare much better than Nebraska’s. The Wolverines picked up four hits as well but were unable to push across a run and fell, 1-0. Sophomore outfielder Tito Flores led the way with two hits, but was thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple, rendering graduate transfer catcher Griffin Mazur’s ensuing single useless. Sophomore outfielder Clark Elliott also reached twice in the game.
In game two, the Wolverines picked up a win in another close-fought, low scoring affair. Weston was electric, allowing just four hits over seven scoreless innings.
“(Hajjar and Weston) came to play,” Flores said. “You can see it in their eyes, they kept their composure. They just full-out played Michigan baseball, all the way, just competed all the way through and played for the eight letters across their chest.”
The defense was on full display as well. Graduate transfer infielder Benjamin Sems made a spectacular spinning play in the first to record an out, while graduate transfer infielder Christian Molfetta also made several nice plays. Meanwhile, the Huskers made several diving catches in the outfield and the third baseman made several diving stops to rob the Wolverines of multiple hits in each of the three games.
“I was just getting a lot of strikes,” Weston said. “Getting a lot of ground balls and just letting my defense work for me.”
Michigan scratched a run across in the fourth, as two walks and a wild pitch put runners at second and third. Mazur then recorded an RBI groundout to open the scoring, 1-0. In the fifth, Flores singled home Elliott, who had also singled, to push the score to 2-0. Flores reached three times in the contest.
Junior right-hander Willie Weiss took over for Weston in the eighth and tossed two scoreless innings to seal the game for the Wolverines, 2-0.
In game three, it was more of the same. The Wolverine offense struggled while the defense and pitching kept it close. Michigan failed to record a hit for the first five innings, but loaded the bases in the seventh with a hit by pitch and two singles for the Wolverine’s first real chance to score, but a strikeout by redshirt junior outfielder Danny Zimmerman shut the door.
Redshirt junior left-hander Ben Dragani started for the Wolverines, pitching a solid first two innings. In the third, he gave up a solo homer before Nebraska jumped on him in the fourth. He allowed two walks and a single before giving way to graduate transfer right-hander Will Proctor.
But a bunt hit, a single and a sacrifice fly meant the Huskers pushed three more across before Proctor could retire the side with the score 4-0, a lead which the Wolverines never really threatened.
Having used just three pitchers in the first two games, the Wolverines had plenty of arms to get through the next several innings. The bullpen worked through the Nebraska order before graduate transfer right-hander Joe Pace allowed a solo home run in the eighth.
Michigan struck back in the ninth but fell short in the end. Molfetta singled home Mazur, who had reached on a single of his own. Sophomore infielder Jimmy Obertop then launched a two-run home run to creep closer at 5-3. But that was it for the powerful Michigan offense, as they lost 5-3.
“It was two good teams going out,” Weston said. “We battled. Even when we got out, we’d line out and were hitting balls hard so I don’t have any concern moving forward.”
The Wolverines scored just five runs on the weekend, dropping two of three even though they allowed just six runs over the three games. But the Wolverines had a positive outlook even as they head towards the postseason off of a low-scoring offensive performance.
“What doesn’t show is the amount of barrels that we hit, the balls that we did put in play that were just right at guys,” Flores said. “Guys still competed during their at-bats. We understand that this is baseball, we understand that failure is going to come sometimes.
“We as a team are focused on what’s next and how we can keep controlling what we can control.”