Clutch performances propel Michigan to series win over Rutgers

Sunday, May 6, 2018 - 10:25pm

Junior second baseman Ako Thomas was injured last week allowing other players to step up in the series win over Rutgers

Junior second baseman Ako Thomas was injured last week allowing other players to step up in the series win over Rutgers Buy this photo
Natsume Ono/Daily

When junior infielder Jimmy Kerr stepped up to the plate in the top of the fourth, there were two outs, nobody on, and Rutgers (7-11 Big Ten, 24-19 overall) had just cut the Michigan (14-3 Big Ten, 29-14 overall) lead in half the previous inning. The momentum clearly favored the Scarlet Knights.

Kerr—though he has only played sparingly this season—was unphased. He crushed the fifth pitch of his at-bat over the wall in right centerfield to restore a two-run cushion to the Wolverines and swing the momentum back in their favor.

When junior second baseman Ako Thomas received a shoulder to the head during last Tuesday’s win over Eastern Michigan, many were left wondering how long he would be out and whether Michigan would struggle in his absence. Kerr was called upon and delivered.

What was only his second career home-run capped off a great weekend for the junior.

“He’s the ultimate team guy,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “It means a lot to him to wear Michigan across his chest and wear the Block-M on his hat. He’s a third generation Michigan baseball player so it means more to him than most. His opportunities have been sporadic, but when he’s got them, he’s always taken advantage of them. It was this series last year, at Rutgers, when Ako was out, that he became Big Ten Player of the Week. This year, Ako’s injury is different and he’ll be back sooner rather than later, but Jimmy’s had four hits here in the last two days and just done a really solid job.”

Michigan never looked back following Kerr’s homer. They tacked on three more runs and were able to keep the Rutgers bats quiet to secure a 6-1, series-clinching win over the Scarlet Knights.

The Wolverines needed to come from behind in the series though, since they had lost Friday’s high-scoring affair 9-15.

Pitching and defense let Michigan down in that game, as sophomore lefthander Tommy Henry, the team’s ace, gave up five runs early on and was pulled after three innings. The combination of sophomore Jack Weisenburger, freshman Jeff Criswell and junior William Tribucher didn’t fare much better, surrendering a combined nine runs over the course of the next four innings.

The Wolverines’ 14 hits on the night, which included three home runs, were not enough to keep up with Rutgers’ offensive performance.

“We just gave too much away,” Bakich said. “Too many free passes: eleven. Too many extra 90s. We gave away 16 extra 90s between them taking bases on us throwing the ball around, passed balls, stolen bases, them taking extra bases on base hits, and errors. We just gave away too much. We gave away 27 bases that we didn’t need to give away. It was just a very sloppy game. And it was disappointing in a lot of ways because we thought we’d come out and set a better tone than that.”

On Saturday, Michigan was able to bounce back. The Wolverine batters accounted for 13 hits, including a two-RBI triple by freshman first baseman Jesse Franklin to tie the game in the third, a solo homer for redshirt junior Miles Lewis and a two-RBI single in the sixth for Franklin which extended the Wolverine lead to four.

This time, Michigan's offensive output wasn’t squandered by poor pitching and defensive mishaps like it was on Friday. The Wolverines' starter, freshman lefthander Ben Dragani, struck out seven Scarlet Knights batters in a little over six innings of work. Michigan rode righthander Alec Rennard the rest of the way. The senior didn’t allow a hit and gave up only one walk to secure a 9-4 victory.

On Sunday, Kerr might have been the catalyst offensively, but sophomore outfielder Dom Clementi and freshman slugger Jordan Nwogu also had big days. Clementi had three hits, including two triples. Nwogu reached base three times and his speed and baserunning acumen enabled him to steal a base and cross home twice for the Wolverines.

Sophomore righthander Karl Kauffmann also played a major role in the win as well. He only allowed a total of two hits in seven innings even though Michigan’s defense was stout behind him and did bail him out a few times.

“Everybody’s settled in now it seems,” Kauffman said. “We have Jesse over there at a new position at first base making plays. Play after play, Blake Nelson and Jack Blomgren were really consistent behind me today. Christian had an amazing catch in right that saved some bases for me, so just all over the field guys  are making plays. That’s really allowing me to attack hitters and put up zeros as a result.”

His demeanor on the mound may have been relaxed, but Kauffmann aggressively attacked the strike zone, registering eight strikeouts and three 1-2-3 innings.

“It was a quality start,” Bakich said. “I thought he executed the plan well. Thought he was consistent in the strike zone and had command of all his pitches. It’s tough for any offense to create some momentum when a guy is working ahead as opposed to working behind. That’s what we needed today. Rutgers is a good offensive team. They’re capable of scoring runs in bunches. So it was an important day to walk out of here with a series win on the road. We needed a quality start in order to do it so very glad we got that start from Karl today.”