After scoring 43 runs in a 5-0 start to begin its West Coast swing, the Michigan baseball team found less luck at the plate in the Dodgertown Classic in Los Angeles. Despite managing just seven runs combined against UCLA, Southern California and San Diego, the Wolverines (9-3) took two out of three games in the tournament due to dominant starting pitching, timely hitting and clutch performances from their bullpen.
Rebounding from a 1-0 loss in the opening game against UCLA (5-5), the Wolverines won the next two in solid fashion, beating USC, 4-1, on Saturday and defeating San Diego on Sunday, 3-1. Michigan’s pitchers recorded 28 strikeouts in the three games and allowed only one earned run on a solo home run.
Friday night’s contest against UCLA was billed as a pitcher’s duel, with the Wolverines sending their standout left-hander, junior Oliver Jaskie, to the mound against the Bruins’ ace Griffin Canning. The matchup lived up to the hype. Jaskie didn’t give up a hit until the fourth inning and compiled a final line of six innings, six strikeouts and three hits allowed.
However, Canning was even sharper than Jaskie. Coming into the game, Canning had recorded 20 strikeouts and gone 13 innings without allowing a run. Against the Wolverines’ normally potent lineup, he hurled eight more scoreless innings and struck out 12, giving up just three hits. He grew sharper as the game went along, retiring the last eight batters he faced.
The tide seemed to turn in the top of the ninth inning, however. With Canning having thrown 114 pitches, UCLA turned to its relief pitching. Michigan was able to put two runners on base via walks, but the Bruins bullpen escaped a jam by forcing a groundout with runners on the corner.
At this point, it appeared the Wolverines had gained most of the momentum, their bats liberated from Canning’s dominating spell. But as soon as they had gained that momentum, it slipped away. UCLA second baseman Chase Strumpf drove a double into deep left field off of freshman left-hander Tommy Henry's first pitch of the ninth inning. The following at-bat, left fielder Brett Stephens laid down a bunt back to Henry, who decided to take the high-risk, high-reward route and tried to get the out at third base. But the risk proved fatal, as Henry’s throw sailed past Lugbauer and pinch-runner Jake Hirabayashi came home with the game’s only run to give the Bruins the walk-off win.
“It was a great game that came down to the wire,” said senior catcher Harrison Wenson. “We couldn’t make a play at third base, but we have a really gritty team and we’re going win a lot of games in extra and late innings.”
It appeared that Michigan’s bats would have a good chance of rebounding against USC (7-4), which entered the contest with an earned-run average of 6.50, and they wasted little time in doing so. Senior centerfielder Johnny Slater brought home sophomore right fielder Jonathan Engelmann in the second inning with a double. The next inning, Wenson doubled in a run and later crossed the plate himself on a USC throwing error.
Meanwhile, junior right-hander Ryan Nutof was in control from the beginning, striking out the side in the first inning and retiring the first nine batters he faced. Making effective use of multiple pitches and attacking all areas of the strike zone, he went 6.1 innings, striking out eight while giving up just three hits and one run.
“He did a really good job with the level of his fastball being down, being in, being out, and throwing his curveball and his changeup,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “I liked his body language, his demeanor – everything he’s bringing to the table mentally and physically.”
USC tacked on its only run in the fifth inning with third baseman Adalberto Carrillo’s solo shot off of Nutof. But Michigan responded right back an inning later when sophomore designated hitter Nick Poirier ripped a liner into right-center field. Not content with simply a double, Poirier sprinted all the way to third base, displaying the aggressive baserunning that has become one of the Wolverines’ hallmarks this season. With two outs and Poirier still at third, sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas flicked a single to right field to drive in Poirier and push the Wolverines’ lead back to three runs.
“We have an offense that can score at any time and make stuff happen on the bases,” Wenson said. “We have a really aggressive offense with a lot of fast guys, and we can just make things happen.”
The Trojans refused to go down easily, but Michigan’s bullpen was up to the task. With two outs in the seventh inning and the bases loaded for USC, senior right-hander Keith Lehmann battled back from a 3-0 count to record an inning-ending strikeout of pinch-hitter John Thomas. An inning later, senior right-hander Jackson Lamb took the mound against the dangerous Carrillo with two outs and two men on base for the Trojans. Lamb came through with a strikeout to extinguish the threat and then retired the side in the ninth inning, sealing the victory and earning his second save of the season in the process.
“(Lamb) pitches with a lot of passion and conviction,” Bakich said. “His mindset is a good fit for the closer role, and he likes being in those situations. He can pitch extended if we need him to, or he can go into an adrenaline situation and get one out if we need him to. That’s just being an older guy, having experience, toughness and grit.”
At first, it looked like Sunday’s tournament finale against San Diego (6-3) in Dodger Stadium would follow a different trend from the previous two matchups. Michigan struck in the bottom of the first inning on a Wenson single for an early 1-0 lead, and the Toreros got multiple hits off of junior left-hander Michael Hendrickson in each of the first two innings, though they were unable to score.
After the second inning, however, Hendrickson began to dominate, retiring 12 straight batters at one point. But with the bases empty and two outs in the sixth, the Toreros began a rally, putting two runners aboard with a single and a walk and plating the tying run due to a throwing error by senior shortstop Michael Brdar.
Just as they had against USC, though, the Wolverines showed their resilience in the bottom half of the inning, spearheaded again by Poirier, who drew a one-out walk to set up the bottom of the order. Engelmann and Slater hit back-to-back singles to drive Poirier home, and a wild pitch allowed Engelmann to cross the plate, giving Michigan all the insurance it would need.
“Our guys are fighters,” Bakich said. “We want to win every inning – if they score one, we want to score two, and if they score two, we want to score three. There’s no question we can take a punch.”
Junior right-hander Alec Rennard entered the game in the sixth inning in relief of Hendrickson. After walking his first batter, Rennard recorded a strikeout to end the frame, and wouldn’t let another hitter reach base until the ninth inning. By then, it was too late for the Toreros, as Rennard finished off the win and picked up his first save of the season.
With Sunday’s result, Michigan finished its prolific Spring Break trip with a 7-1 record, having defeated several quality programs while continuing to mesh together as a team.
“It’s great to just spend time with your teammates and build those relationships even further,” Wenson said. “We’re extremely happy we had this break, we won a lot of games and we’re going to keep winning. That experience, those close games, West Coast competition – it’s good to have all that under your belt.”