Four games. Three losses. Two weekends. One opponent.
Through the last 14 days, the Michigan baseball team has grown familiar with UConn. The Huskies weren’t the toughest opponent it faced in that time. It wasn’t even the best team the Wolverines played — that title is reserved for the likes of Vanderbilt and Arizona State. But there’s something special about UConn, the only one to find success against Michigan, with a win on Feb. 16, followed by a 2-1 series win last weekend.
UConn, having made the regional tournament three of the last four years, acts as somewhat of a measuring stick for Michigan. Wolverines’ coach Erik Bakich preaches that if you want to be the best, you have to play the best.
But in a weekend series that could have solidified Michigan’s early-season prowess against a successful northern program that the Wolverines have aimed to emulate in the past few seasons, they fell flat.
It’s not that the Huskies’ strengths exploited all of the Wolverines’ weaknesses. It’s the simple fact that everything Michigan did wrong over the weekend, UConn did right.
Whether it was the production from the bullpen or stringing consistent quality at-bats together or gaining momentum at the right time, whenever Michigan faltered, the Huskies made exactly the right moves to exploit its mistakes.
“They just are solid in all phases,” Bakich said. “They have good starting pitching. They have bullpen matchup guys that can come in and throw multiple pitches from the right and left side. They have speed and power in their lineup.”
Michigan utilized a total of eight bullpen pitchers in the series. Freshman left-hander Jacob Denner — the only Wolverine to earn a win — pitched four innings, amassing just two strikeouts as he closed out a blowout win on Saturday.
“Definitely the first and third day weren’t what we wanted,” Denner said. “But I really think we showed what we could do on day two from a hitting standpoint and from a pitching standpoint as well.”
In Friday’s game, freshman right-hander Cam Weston and senior left-hander Ben Keizer combined for four innings, six hits and two earned runs out of the bullpen. While this would normally be a solid outing, the Wolverines did not perform well enough to cling to the lead that starter Jeff Criswell left behind. Each pitcher performed in a similar capacity in a relief effort on Sunday, earning comparable stat lines and the same result — a loss.
UConn’s bullpen, meanwhile, was able to sustain leads and allow its offense time to climb out of deficits.
“We let some innings get away from us,” Bakich said. “That was uncharacteristic — we usually have a very reliable and capable bullpen.”
Inconsistent bullpen pitching coupled with a lack of consistent offensive production spelled doom for the Wolverines. Over the course of the series, out of a total of 100 at-bats, Michigan hitters struck out 36 times. In the two losses, the Wolverines racked up 17 and 13 strikeouts, respectively.
“We need to do a better job hitting good pitches with less than two strikes and battling with two strikes,” Bakich said.
UConn’s strikeout count on the weekend? Twenty-four. That 12 strikeout difference between the two teams is four full innings of hitters, potential base runners and hopeful scorers.
These strikeout numbers — an average of 12 per game in the three-game series against the Huskies — are a slight increase from the numbers from the opening weekend, where the team averaged just under 10 per game.
UConn did not exploit this weakness, but rather capitalized on Michigan’s self-inflicted harm. The Huskies simply did everything right that Michigan did wrong.
“Even though UConn is a very good club and has historically been a good club, a consistent regional team,” Bakich said. “I thought the lack of success this weekend is us pointing the thumb at some of our lack of execution, and that is really it.”