With one out in the bottom of the ninth inning in its second round matchup with Purdue, the Michigan baseball team (15-8 Big Ten, 33-20 overall) looked as if it would be playing extra innings deep into the Omaha night.
Then, junior left-hander William Tribucher unleashed a 3-1 fastball into the dirt in front of sophomore catcher Harrison Salter. The ball skipped off Salter’s shinguard and by the time he located it, Milo Beam had already slid safely into second.
But with senior third baseman Brock Keener charging in to help Salter locate the ball, nobody was covering third. After a long pause at second, Beam spotted his third base coach frantically waving him toward third base and a few seconds later, the Boilermakers were 90 feet from victory.
“I played third base, and I could see myself doing the same thing,” said Wolverines coach Erik Bakich. “… You’re running forward pointing and yelling, ‘It’s over there!’ and before you know it, the guy goes backside and takes the base. It’s a heads up play. That’s a great play.”
Added Beam: “I thought there’d be a play so I slid and then I hear (Purdue coach Mark Wasikowski) yelling at me, and I see no one at third and took off to third. It all happened so fast.”
After the wild pitch, Bakich called for back-to-back intentional walks to set up the forceout at home. Tribucher promptly induced the groundball that Bakich’s strategy had called for.
The ball was perfectly placed for a double play to second base. Unfortunately for Michigan, Bakich had his infield playing in for the forceout at home and the ball snuck past the diving glove of junior second baseman Blake Nelson to give Purdue a 5-4 walk-off win.
“We could have also walked one guy and tried to play for two up the middle, but a lot of their runners have good speed, so we didn’t want to lose the game trying to turn two,” Bakich said.
“If I had to do it over again, we have a nickel defense we call it, we have five infielders. Just going back-and-forth if I wanted to do it, and I decided not to. That fifth infielder goes and plays up the middle. That would’ve been a smart decision, but those are the kinds of decisions (you have to make) in these games.”
For the Wolverines, the loss came after two spirited comebacks put them in a position to force extra innings.
Down 3-0 in the top of the sixth, they benefitted from a Boilermakers' dropped strike three to plate a run before Keener singled home two runs with the bases loaded.
“We gave Michigan quite a bit of stuff,” said Purdue coach Mike Wasikowski. “We gave them opportunities, and they capitalized like a good baseball team will. That’s pretty much how they got the three run inning.”
After a quick response from the Boilermakers, Michigan used a wild pitch, bunt and groundout to tie the game in the eighth.
“Our hitters were just dialed in (against their bullpen). We had a lot more quality at-bats in the middle back half of the game than we did earlier,” Bakich said.
“Once we put that three-spot up and tied the game… the guys could smell it, feel it, and they were really competitive in the batter’s box.”
After the loss, the Wolverines drop to the double elimination tournament’s losers’ bracket and will need to beat Ohio State to keep their season alive and get a shot against top-seeded Minnesota in the semi-finals.
“Coach Bakich’s group is a very talented young group that’s gonna have a good future in front of them and be a real tough club here in the days and years to come,” Wasikowski said.
After Thursday’s ninth inning, Michigan needs that future to arrive now.