When the No. 23 Michigan baseball team (9-4) hopped off their plane at LAX on Feb. 27, there were a lot of questions to answer. The Wolverines were undefeated. Their bats were hot. Their pitchers were dominant. But the only competition the Wolverines had faced were virtual pushovers in Binghamton and the Citadel.
Michigan’s eight-game, ten-day California swing, in which it faced face California State-Northridge, California State-Long Beach, No. 25 University of California-Irvine, No. 3 UCLA, Southern California, and No. 19 Oklahoma State, presented its first tough competition of the season.
The California trip now behind them, there are just as many question marks swirling around the Wolverines. They defeated Northridge handily in the first three games of the series, but dropped the fourth, suffering their first loss of the season. Michigan defeated No. 2 UCLA, which Michigan coach Erik Bakich called “maybe one of the best teams in the country,” but ended the trip on a two-game losing streak, falling to Southern California and Oklahoma State.
“We showed a little bit of everything on this trip, but as a position player group we had opportunities to execute on this trip that we didn’t get done, whether it was getting bunts down or moving runners over,” Bakich said. “Those are the things that just need repetition. Those are the things that we haven’t been able to do in training, and the areas we need to work on the most.”
Going forward, the key to the Wolverines’ consistency will be their pitching. The pitching staff has shown flashes of brilliance this season, from a complete game one-hitter by junior left-hander Tommy Henry to a 10-strikeout gem from junior right-hander Karl Kauffman against Binghamton. When their pitchers are firing, Michigan has proven difficult to beat.
But when their pitchers struggle, as they did in California, so does Michigan. Long Beach scored six runs in the bottom of the third inning off sophomore right-hander Blake Beers. In the game against Oklahoma State, freshman right-hander Willie Weiss, who has stepped into a closing role this season, loaded the bases on a walk and two singles before walking in the winning run.
“A couple of hits, not getting a couple calls, and ending up with a couple of walks – sometimes that happens,” Bakich said. “It was magnified because it was the 10th inning, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story here. (Weiss) made some gutsy pitches in some huge spots.”
The Wolverines’ bats were hot for most of the trip, continuing the tear they went on in their first two series of the season. They beat up Long Beach for seven runs and scored four runs off UCLA starter Zach Pettway – one of college baseball’s top pitchers – in the top of the first inning alone, going on to win the game 7-5. Senior third baseman Jimmy Kerr had two home runs over the course of the trip, one of which was a two-run homer to move the Wolverines with in one run of Long Beach in a late-game rally that eventually fell short, leaving the tying and go-ahead runs on base.
The offense struggled to find consistency over the trip, however. Michigan’s offense was only able to put two runs on the board in their first loss of the season at Northridge. In the Long Beach game, the Wolverines’ ninth-inning comeback rally fell just short. They only put up one run against USC and fell one run too short once more against Oklahoma State in extra innings.
“All the games were close because of our pitching and our defense,” Bakich said. “We’re not even close to firing all cylinders offensively. That’s our biggest area for improvement right now. But I am one hundred percent confident that our offense is going to start surging very soon.”
Michigan’s upcoming home opener, a four-game series against Manhattan, will be something of a return to easier matchups, but with contests against No. 3 Texas Tech and in-state rivals Michigan State not too far down the road, the Wolverines will need to find consistency – especially offensively – to remain in contention this season.