It was a heavyweight pitching battle Friday.
In one corner was Michigan ace junior left-hander Tommy Henry, coming in with a dominant 0.76 earned-run average and a 6-1 record, totaling 57 strikeouts on and just seven walks.
In the other was Minnesota’s Max Meyer, sporting a 1.46 ERA, just six earned runs total and holding opposing batters to just a .169 batting average. Oh, and he’s their designated hitter with the team’s second highest on-base percentage at .369.
Henry and the Wolverines lost the bout, succumbing to the Gophers, 6-4. For Henry, it proved his worst start of the season so far — his six earned runs doubled his ERA.
Despite Henry’s four-pitch first inning, the two stars of the day struggled early. In the bottom of the first, sophomore designated hitter Jordan Nwogu hit a short, looping ball into left-center field for a double, forcing the audience to suck in a collective breath as he barely beat the throw. Sophomore centerfielder Jesse Franklin came into the batter’s box, launching a tall two-run home run over the raised left field fence to gift the Wolverines a 2-0 lead.
“I was just excited because the whole team was excited to come out strong first inning against a good pitcher,” Franklin said. “I was glad that Jordan (Nwogu) knocked a double, it gave me some confidence so I just put the bat to the ball.”
For the second half-inning in a row, the pitcher seemed to have a hiccup. This time, it was Henry who allowed a powerful lead-off home run that left the outfielders with planted feet as they watched it over the wall. The next three batters, though, all succumbed to Henry’s fastball, striking each of them out.
Henry’s control seemed to disappear in the fourth inning — walking the first batter on five pitches, clipping the second, walking the third on five pitches, his fastballs were continuously rising higher and higher. Finally, with the bases loaded Zack Raabe hit a chopped ground ball pulled senior first-baseman Jimmy Kerr away from the base, scoring a run. A sacrifice fly later, and Michigan had its first deficit of the game, down 3-2.
The next inning was more of the same from the Wolverines and Henry. After getting the first two outs, Henry threw eight straight balls before going up 0-and-2 on Jordan Kozicky, only to let up a monstrous three-run home run onto the softball field to put Minnesota up, 6-2.
“They took advantage of some walks,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “Credit to them they hit a couple of homeruns and made the innings have crooked numbers and separated the game.”
Still, Bakich had confidence in the upperclassman, sending him out for 1.1 more innings. In six innings he had eight strikeouts, but gave free passes to five batters — all in key positions. Four of Minnesota’s runs were scored by players walked or hit by a pitch, if not for those free passes the game would have looked completely different.
“(Tommy’s) really good,” Bakich said. “Two fluke innings that we’ve never really seen out of him are just that. They’re just a fluke, he’s still our best guy and we’d rather have him out there getting us to the seventh like he always does. It’s just total trust in him and faith that he’s going to put zeros up, like he usually does.”
Michigan, though, had one inning of offense left up its sleeve. After manufacturing a run in the sixth inning, they went into the bottom of the ninth down, 6-3. Junior Dominic Clementi came into the game as a pinch-hitter, getting a clutch single with one out. Nwogu followed with a walk and Franklin stuck out. Now, with two runners on the bases and the team home run leader junior outfielder Jordan Brewer came up to the plate.
“We had great fight,” Bakich said. “The ninth inning rally, to have the winning run up at the plate, to just come with that type of mentality of competing and effort.”
He hit a single to score Clementi, it was 6-4. Senior outfielder Miles Lewis was up, and he struck out.
Walks knocked out the Wolverines on Friday, gifting the Gophers a win in the first of a three game series.