With the score tied, 5-5, with two runners on and two outs in the sixth inning, Michigan senior right-hander Mac Lozer took the mound to face Florida Gulf Coast first baseman Nick Rivera.
In this potential game-changing moment, it was strength vs. strength — Lozer with his miniscule 0.70 earned-run average and .134 opponent batting average, against Rivera, who had hit his 18th home run of the season in the previous inning.
But Rivera showed why he was named the ASUN Player of the Year, launching Lozer’s third pitch off the scoreboard in left field for a three-run home run.
Rivera’s blast gave the Eagles (43-18 overall, 1-0 postseason) a lead they would not relinquish on their way to a 10-6 win over the Wolverines (42-16, 0-1) in the first game of the NCAA Tournament’s Chapel Hill Regional.
After its disappointing run in the Big Ten Tournament last week, Michigan got off to a nearly perfect start. On a hot, muggy afternoon, Florida Gulf Coast right-hander Kutter Crawford was forced to throw 38 pitches just to get out of the first inning, due in large part to crucial defensive errors. The Wolverines collected only one hit in the frame — an RBI single by redshirt sophomore left-fielder Miles Lewis — but two walks, a catcher’s interference and a botched rundown play allowed them to take an early 2-0 lead.
Michigan left-hander Oliver Jaskie’s first inning was the polar opposite of Crawford’s, however — He threw just 12 pitches and struck out two to send the Eagles back to the field.
The Wolverines scored in a more conventional manner the next inning. With two outs, senior center-fielder Johnny Slater sat on a 3-1 pitch and drilled it to deep centerfield, his fifth home run of the season putting Michigan up by three.
Florida Gulf Coast responded quickly to begin to chip away at the early deficit, however. Second baseman Jake Smith poked a two-out RBI single into left field, and in the fourth inning, three consecutive two-out singles brought home another run.
The game became a back-and-forth contest starting with the Eagles’ half of the fourth inning. Michigan chased Crawford from the game with an RBI single from third baseman Drew Lugbauer, but Rivera crushed a home run on a full count to keep the margin at one run.
After senior shortstop Michael Brdar pushed Michigan’s lead back to two runs with a double to right field, Florida Gulf Coast fought back against Jaskie. After two straight groundouts, Smith laced a triple down the right-field line, and scored when Lugbauer was unable to corral catcher Spencer Levine’s hard-hit grounder.
Shortstop Julio Gonzalez then scratched out an infield base hit, and centerfielder Gage Morey tied the game with a bouncing ball into centerfield. This last base hit ended Jaskie’s outing, and set the table for Rivera — who proceeded to do what he does best with his deep drive to left.
The Wolverines bounced back in the seventh inning. Three straight two-out singles by the bottom of the order made it a two-run contest. But Eagles closer Kenton Hering entered the game to induce a groundout and end the threat.
Junior Alec Rennard took the mound in the eighth inning with Michigan still very much in striking distance. But again with two outs, Florida Gulf Coast wouldn’t go away. With two runners on, Rennard decided not to give Rivera an opportunity to put the game out of reach. But the intentional walk to the Eagle slugger came back to cost the Wolverines as third baseman Richie Garcia singled to right field to drive in two more runs.
Hering would go the distance for Florida Gulf Coast. Despite putting two runners aboard in the ninth, he retired Thomas for the second time on a game-ending groundout to third base.
The contest was marked by two-out RBIs — in fact, both teams’ scoring plays in the fifth inning were the only runs scored with less than two outs in the entire game. The Wolverines were 8-for-17 with five RBIs when batting with two outs.
However, the Eagles were even better — hitting 11-18 and driving in nine runs in such situations. And they would use this to blow the game open in the sixth inning.
The loss marked the first losing streak of longer than two games for Michigan this season, and also put it in a major hole. The Wolverines will now have to win four straight games in three days to advance to the Super Regional Round, starting with an elimination game Saturday at 1 p.m. against either North Carolina or Davidson.