Graduate transfer catcher Griffin Mazur swung and skied a pop-up to center field, where it was caught and stranded a runner in the eighth inning. The out summed up the evening for Michigan, as the offense sputtered and never got going against the Connecticut Huskies.
The Michigan baseball team (27-18 Big Ten) fell to the Huskies (34-17 overall, 13-4 Big East) 6-1 in the opening game of the NCAA tournament.
Redshirt sophomore left-hander Steve Hajjar was on the hill for the Wolverines and had a solid outing, dominating early in the game before getting touched up late. Hajjar went six innings, allowing four runs while picking up nine strikeouts. Hajjar used his changeup very well, picking up a lot of swings and misses during his outing.
“Steve has been really good lately and he gave us a chance to win, which was a good game through five innings,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “Then they scored two runs on a little squibber. … And that’s baseball, but if we were doing a better job offensively that might not have made such a big difference.”
Bakich made two big lineup decisions in centerfield and at designated hitter. He elected for the experience and defense of fifth-year outfielder Christian Bullock and junior infielder Riley Bertram, who slotted in at second base and moved sophomore infielder Ted Burton to designated hitter.
“We decided to play the two guys who have played in regionals before,” Bakich said. “They bring the best defense and they also can handle the bat.”
Bertram proved Bakich right in his decision to roll with experience, coming up with a double to the gap in the third inning for Michigan’s first hit of the game. After a walk by sophomore outfielder Clark Elliott, sophomore outfielder Tito Flores came up with two on and two out. He pulled a line drive into the left field corner, but a leaping catch by the Husky outfielder prevented Bertram and Eliott from scoring to keep the game deadlocked at 0.
Bullock, too, delivered fantastic defense, including a spectacular diving catch in the eighth inning to rob an extra-base hit. Bullock also registered a walk in the game.
Hajjar ran into a bit of trouble in the fourth, where UConn opened the scoring. With a runner on third and two outs, Flores dove for a line drive in an attempt to save a run. But he was unable to make the diving catch, allowing a run to score and giving the Huskies a 1-0 lead.
Michigan responded in the next inning, as the red-hot Burton ripped a solo shot to left to even the score at 1-1.
“We drew a lot of walks and had some hit by pitches tonight but we just didn’t hit,” Bakich said. “It was not a good offensive day for us and that was the difference. … We just didn’t have anything going.”
UConn finally did real damage to Hajjar in the sixth. A single and a perfectly executed hit-and-run, where the runner on first stole second, forcing Bertram to cover second while the batter slapped the ball through the vacated area between first and second, and where Bertram was put the Huskies in position to score. An RBI single from the next batter gave UConn a 2-1 lead.
But the damage was not done. After catcher’s indifference set up second and third for UConn, an infield single allowed both runs to score, pushing the Husky lead to 4-1.
Hajjar exited after the sixth, making way for graduate transfer right-hander Will Proctor. But Proctor did not fare better than Hajjar. A leadoff double and a bunt single set the table for Husky Erik Stock— who was already 3-for-3 on the day. Stock improved his line further, launching a double into left field and plating both runners, forcing Proctor out of the game before he got any outs with the score 6-1.
“That’s a good lineup, they came into the game hot, winning the conference tournament in the Big East,” Hajjar said. “We knew it was a challenge for our pitching staff going into it and it just wasn’t enough to get the job done today.”
Redshirt junior Isaiah Paige came in and induced a double play before leaving in favor of junior left-hander Jack White, who retired the side in the seventh. White then worked a clean eighth, but the offense never got going.
The Wolverines recorded just two hits and one run in the game and fell into the loser’s bracket of the South Bend regional, where a response tomorrow will be crucial.
“(The players have) done it this year, they’ve responded before,” Bakich said. “It’s been a part of our identity as a program, our guys will get up off the mat, we’re not going to stay down and that doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed to win the game but they’re going to come out fighting tomorrow I can promise you that.”
“If there’s one team in college baseball that can (make it through the loser’s bracket), it’d be this team. I’ve seen us comeback to win games, get a little ninth-inning magic before. We’ll see what we can do, but I like our chances.”