It was the bottom of the 11th inning. The Michigan baseball team (10-0 Big Ten, 23-11 overall) was desperately looking for a big play in order to secure the win and keep its 18-game win streak alive.
Sophomore Dominic Clementi stepped up to the plate and knocked a base hit to shallow left field. The ball sneakily crept past the infielder while Clementi charged toward first base.
Looking to feed off his teammate’s heroic play, senior catcher Brock Keener belted another hit to left field. Clementi exhibited his speed, flying around the bases before landing safely at third.
With runners on first and third, freshman shortstop Jack Blomgren stepped to the plate striving for glory. The initial call was for Blomgren to try to get a piece of a fastball and put the game away with his hitting. After Blomgren saw a fastball whiz by, he decided not to swing, and the call changed, as the coaches were looking for a more creative way to score the winning run.
Playing off the team's past success with the bunt squeeze, Michigan coach Erik Bakich knew what had to be done.
The pitcher then wound up and tossed a curveball. Unfazed, Blomgren held the bat sideways and bounced the ball hard into the ground where it then soared off the infield. Blomgren took off for first while Clementi darted for home plate. Penn State’s catcher collected the ball and desperately tried to tag the sprinting Clementi. The crowd at Ray Fisher Stadium held its breath, as Clementi barely escaped the catcher’s outstretched arm and was called safe at home. The Wolverines had beaten the Nittany Lions (1-13, 8-24) 8-7.
The stadium erupted, and the team cleared the dugout to mob its teammates and celebrate their valiant efforts.
“I got a first pitch fastball, and coach told me to swing away if I wanted to, but I didn’t,” Blomgren said. “I trusted that the next pitch was going to come, and he was going to call a squeeze, so I’m just glad I got it down. I trust myself to take the next pitch and just get it down ultimately.”
Michigan ultimately would escape the Nittany Lions (1-13, 8-24) 8-7.
Dramatics aside, the most astonishing aspect of the contest was how the game was even that close in the first place. The Wolverines were fresh off the heels of a 19-5 smackdown of Penn State and were looking to continue the offensive onslaught. Instead, for the first time in a long time, Michigan looked human.
“This was a real scare,” Bakich said. “It’s been since Western Michigan that we were staring at a potential loss. Sometimes you need that to get your focus back.”
The win against the Broncos also came at the hands off a walkoff play, but did not venture into extra innings. That game marked the only other time the Wolverines were truly in danger of losing their esteemed win streak.
Unlike the past 18 games, certain elements of Michigan’s style of play were simply off on Saturday.
Before the contest, freshman left-hander Ben Dragani led the Big Ten in ERA and was embarrassing his foes in the batter’s box. Today — in part to some unlucky plays — Dragani relented five runs in 4.1 innings of work.
“I didn’t think he necessarily pitched poorly,” Bakich said. “He had some bad luck, some infield chopper hits and some leadoff guys get on base, but it wasn’t like they were drilling him and hitting him hard. It’s just kinda some tough luck stuff.”
Dragani’s performance — and the performance of the entire pitching staff — was largely indicative of the team’s performance as a whole. The pitching to begin the game was relatively sluggish but returned to its dominant form late in the game.
Buttressing Dragani’s performance was an active bullpen, highlighted by junior left-hander William Tribucher’s performance. Coming in during the eight inning, Tribucher pitched 3.2 dominant innings of relief and allowed the Wolverines to escape the jaws of defeat.
“It was a great team win,” Tribucher said. “Obviously when you score eight runs you expect to win all the games. But we decided to make it interesting and if wasn’t for the dugout and guys out of the bunker I think everyone contributed in some aspect. A lot of good hitting, a lot of good hitting with two outs. Solid pitching out of the bullpen today.”
The only blip on Tribucher’s record for the day happened in the ninth inning. After triumphantly taking back the lead in the eight, Tribucher relented a solo home run to Braxton Giavedoni to tie the game. But Michigan responded in kind. Rather than keel over to the momentum swing, the Wolverines remained resilient.
“They got the right mindset and that’s all we ever talk about,” Bakich said. “We don’t talk about the scoreboard. We don’t talk about the results. We don’t talk about the outcome. We just talk about the right mindset, playing for Michigan and that’s all it is and I think that’s a big part of the positive things that are happening in our program right now.”