The Michigan baseball team had just defeated Central Michigan, 4-2, but Erik Bakich wasn’t exactly thrilled.
“I thought we were a little defensive on offense,” the Wolverines’ coach lamented. “You want to be on the attack offensively, and I thought we maybe didn’t have our best offensive day from a mentality and approach standpoint.”
Michigan got a solid start from junior right-hander Ryan Nutof and clutch performances from its bullpen. And while Bakich was pleased to have won a game in which his team was not firing on all cylinders offensively, he made sure to note that this could not continue.
“There’s been times in the past where this game would have ended up on the wrong side of the scoreboard for us,” he said.
Wednesday at Central Michigan, it did.
The Wolverines scratched out just two hits and two runs in the first eight innings against the Chippewas, but the pitching staff did its job, and the game was tied at two entering the ninth inning. After sophomore designated hitter Nick Poirier hit an RBI double, it looked like Michigan would escape for the second straight evening when it did not play its best.
But Central Michigan, down to its last strike, walked off with a two-run double, and sent the Wolverines back from Mount Pleasant with the same questions they faced Tuesday.
And Michigan (11-7 Big Ten, 36-12 overall) won’t have much time to answer them either, as it begins its last Big Ten road series against Purdue Friday, sitting just 1.5 games behind conference-leading Nebraska.
The Boilermakers (10-8, 26-21) have executed one of the biggest turnarounds in all of college baseball this season. A year ago, Purdue was the cellar-dweller of the Big Ten, going 2-22 in conference play and winning just 10 games overall. But in his first season, coach Mark Wasikowski has built the Boilermakers into a solid, middle-of-the-pack team that scored a series win over Indiana — a team that took two of three from the Wolverines in Ann Arbor three weeks ago.
“(Wasikowski)’s got them playing a lot better. They’re playing a lot more fundamentally sound baseball,” Bakich said Tuesday on WTKA. “They’ve picked up some good series wins this year, and they’ve done a nice job. They’ll be nobody that we will take lightly. We will absolutely have to go down there and play well.”
Purdue ranks just 10th in the Big Ten in batting average, at .260 and eighth in runs scored. But the Boilermakers lead the conference in sacrifice bunts, meaning that Michigan’s infielders will have to stay on their toes all weekend. The Boilermakers display more of the “fundamentally sound” baseball that Bakich cited with sacrifice flies, another area where they lead the conference, and in their hit-by-pitch totals. Purdue batters have been hit 70 times by pitches this season, exemplifying a scrappy approach at the plate.
Individually, the Wolverines will have to look out for utility player Skyler Hunter and outfielder Nick Dalesandro, both of whom are currently hitting above .320. And 5-foot-9 shortstop Harry Shipley, who holds a .417 on-base percentage and has stolen 20 bases, is a diminutive, dynamic playmaker in the same mold as Michigan’s sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas.
Purdue as a team ranks eighth in earned-run average and sixth in opposing batting average. Left-hander Gareth Stroh (4-3, 4.11 ERA) and right-hander Tanner Andrews (7-3, 4.58 ERA) are both solid weekend starters, but the Boilermakers’ real standout performer is left-hander Ross Learnard — in 36.1 innings this season out of the bullpen, he has allowed just one run.
On paper, Purdue is a team that Michigan should be able to defeat in solid fashion. But at this point in the season, that means very little. The Wolverines have scored just 18 runs and hit an anemic .205 in their last six contests.
Some of that can surely be chalked up to the absence of Thomas and his .371 average. But Michigan’s replacements have already proven themselves — sophomore second baseman Jimmy Kerr has been perhaps the team’s most consistent performer since Thomas’s injury against Indiana.
The Indiana series showed the Wolverines’ fatigue after playing 17 games in 27 days, coupled with grueling final exams. Against Rutgers, Michigan appeared to have bounced back with two consecutive wins, and looked refreshed after it dropped the opening game to the Scarlet Knights. But now, the bigger issue becomes this: Are the Wolverines’ offensive struggles merely a one-week fluke, or a grim foreshadowing of a similar collapse as the one they suffered last season?
It’s too soon to say for sure, and it may still be on Sunday, even if Michigan does what it is expected to do against the Boilermakers. But this much is clear: The stakes are as high as they’ve been all season.