As Steven Hajjar boarded the bus for the half hour drive between Salt River Fields and the Phoenix Municipal Stadium, his adrenaline was pumping and his nerves were racing.
The left-handed redshirt freshman had waited a year for his first start after a knee injury sidelined him last season, but on Saturday he was given only 30 minutes to prepare.
Because the Michigan baseball team made an already challenging week even harder by adding a game against then-No. 3 Arizona State, the Wolverines were forced to expedite their pregame routine and skip their scouting report.
“I was waiting a long time to go out there and play with the guys,” Hajjar said. “(I) got to watch all last year all the success. It was great to finally be a part of it and be out there with the guys. Obviously Arizona State is a really good team.”
The odds were stacked against Hajjar. He was facing a team with some of the top hitters in the country in his first collegiate start while the defense behind him was about to play in the second game of a double header.
Hajjar was nervous — and rightfully so.
But the lefty delivered a performance that put all of his prior nerves at ease.
In his first opportunity to prove his worth and show his potential to earn a spot in the rotation, Hajjar pitched six innings and did not allow a single run.
After the Sun Devils got three quick outs in the top of the first, Hajjar struck out the first two batters he faced — two up, two down.
Even more impressive given who the second batter was — Arizona State’s junior Spencer Torkelson. He is also known as the No. 1 college prospect in the 2020 MLB draft, according to Baseball America, and a two-time unanimous All-American.
The Pac 12 home run leader from a year ago struck out swinging. Arizona State’s biggest threat was neutralized. All said and done, Torkelson would go 0-for-3 on the day with a walk.
With the help of what Hajjar described as an “absolute brick wall” of a defense behind him, the first inning was over. The nerves were lessened and Hajjar began to grow more and more comfortable with each inning.
Despite growing more relaxed throughout his outing, his game plan remained steady and simple.
“I just try and go out there and throw strikes as best I can and compete,” Hajjar said.
A simple game plan, but one that he followed with great accuracy. Over the course of six innings, Hajjar faced 23 batters and only threw 87 pitches. That’s good for an average of 3.78 pitches per batter.
After losing starting pitchers Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffmann last year — putting a major hold in the pitching rotation — Hajjar proved that he has the ability to get outs against some of the best hitters in the country in a high-pressure environment. The biggest question coming in to the season is replacing the second spot. Hajjar isn’t expected to become Michigan’s ace, a spot most likely saved for junior right-hander Jeff Criswell, but he showed on Saturday that he has the abilities to be a solid weekend starter and possibly become the No. 2 guy.
The first inning went as well as anyone could have expected. But the true impact of Hajjar’s debut came when he faced adversity in the later innings. In the second inning, allowing a walk and a hit with two outs, Hajjar earned his third K of the day, stranding two runners on base.
In the fifth inning, with the Wolverines leading 2-0, Hajjar allowed two singles and a sacrifice bunt to advance both runners into scoring position with only one out. However, the Sun Devils were unable to make strong contact with the ball. The next two batters flew out to end the inning.
Hajjar’s seven strikeouts and three hits propelled him to win his first Big Ten Freshman of the Week and Big Ten Pitcher of the Week awards. His four pitch repertoire of low 90 MPH fastballs, slider, circle changes and curveballs proved to be nearly unhittable for some of the best batters in the country.
With only 30 minutes to prepare, Hajjar couldn’t have asked for a better start. There’s no telling what his ceiling might be given more time to prepare.