Kent Schwartz: Big game woes
The Michigan baseball team is 24-11 overall and stands third in the Big Ten. The Wolverines have scored 100 more runs than their opponents, only one regular starter has an on-base percentage less than .300 and the team has 38 total home runs.
They’ve won five games by double digits, 16 by four or more runs and have a defense that shuts down opposing hitters. That is, if they’re playing lesser teams. Teams like Michigan State, Binghamton or West Michigan.
The Wolverines have a .800 winning percentage against opponents with a losing record and have committed just 15 errors in the 20 games, coolly putting teams away.
Michigan has rock solid leadership and a great communal effort, obvious even from a press box a hundred feet away.
“This is some of the best leadership and team chemistry that I’ve seen in the program in the six and a half years I’ve been here,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said at the beginning of the year.
Added senior infielder Blake Nelson after a home opener win: “It starts with our team. We’re all bought in for the win. Whether that’s warming up with the outfielders, doing the chart or playing in the game. It doesn’t really matter, we all know our roles and we’re all ready to come in when our number is called.”
But then they play good teams. They still have a winning record against those at or above .500, winning eight of 14, mostly thanks to a 5-0 record against teams with a dead even record.
Their impressively clean defense, though, falls apart — doubling its rate of errors from .75 errors per game to 1.5.
Michigan’s 100-run advantage over its opponents? It shrinks all the way to one.
“We were shaky at times defensively,” Bakich said after a deflating weekend against the Buckeyes. “We didn’t get the clutch hits when we needed to and a rivalry series is very emotional. It has all the characteristics, the look and feel, of big-time baseball whether your opponent is ranked or not.”
Big time baseball hasn’t been kind to the Wolverines. Like they did in Columbus when they went 1-2, Michigan folded in Los Angeles and Lubbock. It was unable to compete with the spotlight on them.
Bakich, though, has always been big on growth.
“What I’d like us to do better is continue to trend upwards when we have setbacks like this, to use it as growth and fuel to better our performance in the future,” Bakich said after Ohio State. “If we’re going to be the team that I think we’re going to be, then we’re going to have to play well when it means the most and a rivalry series is one of those weekends when it means the most.”
When will that growth come? The losses to Ohio State came a month after losing four out of five in California and two weeks after being swept by Texas Tech. At what point, if ever, will the Wolverines’ experience settle their nerves in big series’?
In time, we’ll learn. Four of Michigan’s final five series are against teams with a .500 record or better, with its final two series against the teams ahead of the Wolverines in the Big Ten standings.
As they enter the final month of the regular season, Michigan needs to limit its mistakes in the face of tough competition — its pitchers can’t miss, its defenders can’t make costly mistakes and its offense needs to be consistent. That is, if they want to reach their lofty aspirations in the playoffs.