With one out and a runner on second in the 10th inning Sunday afternoon, junior center fielder Jonathan Engelmann gathered a flyball on one hop off the wall and fired a perfect throw into relay man Jack Blomgren who then delivered a strike to cut down the potential go-ahead run at the plate.
Blomgren exhibited elite range at shortstop on the next ball in play, sliding to his right to keep a ball in the infield and prevent the runner scoring from second.
An inning later, Michigan had yet another defense-fueled win.
Defense, as much as anything, has been the driving factor in the Wolverines' miraculous turnaround that has seen them go 28-5 since a 4-11 start. In its 16 losses, Michigan has committed 2.3 errors per game, compared to 1.1 in wins.
“We’ve always talked about building a program off pitching and defense,” said Wolverines coach Erik Bakich. “That’s always been our calling card.”
This weekend, the gap between winning and losing defense was clearer than ever. On Friday, four errors — all in the Michigan infield — led to seven unearned runs and a lopsided 10-3 defeat.
“With (sophomore left-hander) Tommy (Henry)’s five-spot in the second, we had a double play ball and we didn’t even get an out,” Bakich said. “We dropped it and if we turn a double play there, maybe Tommy’s whole entire outing is different.
“I think it was a simple lack of execution and we just need to be better tomorrow.”
They were— but only slightly, with three errors including two committed by the starting pitcher, freshman left-hander Ben Dragani, as they fell 10-4.
Sunday was an entirely different story, however, as web gem defense throughout the game helped the Wolverines jump out to a 4-2 lead.
Sophomore right fielder Christian Bullock saved extra bases in the second with a leaping grab and made a sliding catch on a sinking liner in the sixth. In the seventh, junior second baseman Ako Thomas made a spinning play to his left and fielded an awkward chopper to make two tough outs. Blomgren started the ninth with a highlight reel bare-handed throw across the diamond.
“Pitching and defense were the critical factors today,” Bakich said. “Defense especially.”
But for all of the Wolverines’ defensive excellence through eight innings, their flaws shone through in a nearly catastrophic ninth, in which Illinois plated two runs to send the game to extra innings. The game-tying play came via a trio of defensive mistakes, continuing an all-too-familiar commonality in Michigan’s runs allowed.
A wild pitch with runners on first and second moved the tying run into scoring position. Later during that at-bat, junior left-hander William Tribucher looked to have induced a game-ending groundout to first but failed to cover the base, allowing a run to score from third. The damage could have ended there, but freshman first baseman Jesse Franklin did not see left fielder Doran Turchin charging home from second until the scoreboard at Ray Fisher Stadium read 4-4.
“After playing defense so well the entire game, we had some miscues there in the ninth,” Bakich said. “Not covering first, mental mistake, allowing a guy to score from second on an infield hit.
“You can’t expect to beat very good teams and make those mistakes, especially late, so it cost us.”
The Wolverines have gone just 2-4 in their two biggest series of Big Ten play— series losses to Illinois and Iowa. In those four losses they have committed 10 errors, leading to the multiple, avoidable losses.
Next weekend’s matchup against Purdue in West Lafayette, though, provides Michigan an opportunity for redemption. The third-place Boilermakers pose a formidable test, one the Wolverines likely need to ace to have a chance at their first Big Ten title in a decade.
“There’s no two ways around it. The defense we played today is the defense we’re gonna need to play if we’re gonna be a championship or a postseason team,” Bakich said.
“Because the defense we played the first two days is not gonna be conducive to playing deep into June.”