Michigan returns home to face NIU in frigid temperatures

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - 6:02pm

Sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas has played a key role on the basepaths so far for the Wolverines.

Sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas has played a key role on the basepaths so far for the Wolverines. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

 

Last Wednesday, when asked about Michigan baseball’s first series of the year at Ray Fisher Stadium, a jubilant smile filled the face of second baseman Ako Thomas. Yet, on a day when Michigan experienced record-high winds, the standout sophomore pleaded one simple wish for the upcoming series against Northern Illinois:

“Hopefully the weather isn’t too crazy.” 

Unfortunately for Thomas, his request did not become reality. The No. 21 Wolverines (12-3) will host the Huskies (3-12) amid frigid temperatures and potential snowfall. Current forecasts predict the high temperature for the weekend series to be 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the low to be 17 degrees.

In fact, the teams were initially scheduled to commence their series on Friday. However, one of the doubleheaders slated for Saturday has been moved to Thursday as a result of the expected inclement weather.

Heading into the winter showdown, Michigan has been on a blaze – winning nine of their last 10 games. During the first 15 games of the season the Wolverines have consistently outperformed their competition, outscoring their opposition 95 to 49.

In addition to the stable offense and pitching, Coach Erik Bakich points out that Michigan’s defense has played an integral role in the team’s early season success.

“I really like our defense,” Bakich said. “That’s an area we take a lot of pride in, playing good fundamental defense.”

While coach Bakich explains that “surprised is (not) the right word” when discussing the team’s high level of play on defense – the team currently ranks eighth in the NCAA with a .984 fielding percentage – it is an area that seems to have caught his eye, and perhaps even exceeded his expectations.

“From a coaching standpoint, our guys not only making the routine play, but making the web gem play has generated a lot of momentum for our team,” Bakich said.

In addition to their superb defense, one area that has also sparked the Wolverines this season is their success on the base path – Michigan ranks fourth in the country with 2.33 stolen bases per nine innings and sixth overall with 35 total steals.

Bakich explains how this is a byproduct of the speedy personnel they have on the roster. He points out that while stealing bases is a great weapon to have, it is not necessarily something they hunt for.

“We don’t go into any game with a set number of stolen bases in mind,” Bakich said. “Really, who cares if we lead the nation in stolen bases or not, it really doesn’t matter.”

The duo that leads the Wolverines in stolen bases, Thomas and senior shortstop Michael Brdar, have nine and eight stolen bases respectively on the season. The duo feels the team has not only been more aggressive on the base path, but in all areas of the game.

This sort of intensity is something coach Bakich expects from his players:

“The players understand what the expectation level is, which is 100 percent all the time,” Bakich said. “They’ve done a really nice job with it.”

Michigan will have to channel this intensity while playing in below freezing temperatures this weekend.

While Northern Illinois has found little success this season, winning just three games and boasting a subpar .232 batting average, they are coming off of a win and will undoubtedly look to steal a few games from the ranked Wolverines. The Huskies will turn to left-hander Donovin Smith – who last week was awarded the Mid-American Conference pitcher of the week – to try and defeat Michigan.

While on paper the Wolverines should be able to handle Northern Illinois, the inclement weather could prove to be an unpredictable element.