Just four batters into the Big Ten tournament, Michigan encountered coach Erik Bakich’s worst nightmare. Iowa rightfielder Robert Neustrom ripped a line drive up the middle where it struck sophomore left-hander Tommy Henry in his pitching arm.
Henry fielded the ball to get the out, but after a long mound meeting and a five-pitch walk, it became apparent that he would be unable to continue.
As Henry tested his injured arm, senior right-hander Alec Rennard sprinted to the left field bullpen where he delivered a series of rapid-fire fastballs to freshman catcher Joe Donovan.
“Leading into the week, coach said, ‘All the rules go out the window,’ and, ‘Be prepared for anything, anytime,’ ” Rennard said.
“I think it was easier coming in in the second than it would be coming in in the fourth or fifth because I was actually still warm from playing catch pre-game.”
That may have been the most stressful part of Rennard’s outing. He gave up a quick bloop single, and a Jesse Franklin error allowed an inherited run to score.
After the error, Rennard faced the minimum over the next thirteen batters, allowing just one base-runner and no hits.
“Alec Rennard stepping in and giving us 5 2/3 inning of scoreless relief was huge,” Bakich said.
Added Iowa coach Rick Heller: “When Henry went out, Rennard comes in and just does a really nice job — it’s just a really tough situation to be in, and he handled it extremely well and really was key to the game.”
Rennard was in a free fall heading into the tournament. The senior relented five earned runs in less than an inning two weeks ago against Illinois.
Three days earlier at Michigan State, he gave up seven hits and two earned runs in just two and two-thirds innings.
All of that came after a harrowing season that he began as the Wolverines’ Friday starter. After missing seven weeks with an arm strain, the Michigan rotation’s dominant performances meant Rennard was resigned to bullpen duties.
“Today was just getting back to that, ‘One pitch at a time,’ approach,” Rennard said. “Sometimes the focus tries to broaden out and narrow focus on, ‘One pitch at a time, take care of this pitch’ and having short memory really helps.”
Before running into troubles down the stretch, Rennard initially handled his bullpen role admirably, giving up one run in his first 11 2/3 innings back from injury. Amid that stretch was a dominant performance against the Hawkeyes in which he pitched three and a third scoreless innings.
“When it’s game day, even if it’s not the specific situation that everyone expected, that I know I can give my team a chance to win.”
While the Wolverines lost that day in Iowa City, Rennard’s performance Wednesday morning provided just the boost they needed to start the Big Ten Tournament in the win column.
For weeks, freshman right-hander Jeff Criswell and junior left-hander William Tribucher have anchored the Michigan relief staff with inconsistent support from the rest of the bullpen.
Wednesday, those concerns were avoided as Rennard’s outing meant Bakich could bypass — and rest — his middle relievers and turn the ball over to Criswell in the eighth.
Two innings later, freshman first baseman Jesse Franklin walked off the Hawkeyes with a sacrifice fly to right field. While the ensuing celebrations paint Franklin as the Wolverines’ hero, Rennard’s lights out pitching was just as vital.