Michigan to face Illinois in elite Big Ten showdown

Thursday, May 10, 2018 - 5:17pm

Michigan coach Erik Bakich gears up for a monster series against Big Ten foe Illinois

Michigan coach Erik Bakich gears up for a monster series against Big Ten foe Illinois Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

There is not a single bat more intimidating in the entire Big Ten than Illinois’ Bren Spillane.

Merely looking at the slugger’s eye-popping stats is enough to make any opposing pitcher pray for the well-being of his earned run average. In 141 at-bats, Spillane is hitting a dizzying .418 — good for first in the Big Ten and fourth in the entire NCAA. The first baseman also owns a terrifying .950 slugging percentage, placing him at the top of the Big Ten and NCAA and well beyond the rankings of his peers.

Spillane has also clobbered 18 home runs so far this season—an astounding statistic that posits him at the top of the Big Ten, third nationally and fourth in school history. Earlier this season, Spillane also racked up three consecutive Big Ten Player of the Week awards.

To quote Michigan coach Erik Bakich, “He’s a dude.”

However, the Illini’s offense doesn’t stop at Bren Spillane. Supporting the junior’s efforts in the lineup are Michael Massey and Ben Troike who are batting .324 and .318, respectively.

Needless to say, if the Wolverines hope to take this series, pitching and defense are going to have to be on point.

When pressed on how to approach this elite lineup and its bruising bats, Bakich delivered a steady answer and projected a collected confidence expected from a head coach.

“(We prepare) Just one game, one inning, one pitch at a time like we always do,” Bakich said. “They’ve got good players, they’ve got a good program. They’re one of the better teams in the Big Ten, so it will be a challenge. We’re excited for it, but we’re not gonna put anything extra on it.”

Luckily for Michigan, Illinois has seen some recent struggles during the other half of the game— fielding.

In its most recent series against Ohio State, Illinois committed an uncharacteristic five defensive errors — four in Sunday’s rubber match. The errors are only part of the reason why the Illini have fallen from grace and the NCAA rankings. After spending the majority of the season as a nationally-ranked team, Illinois has lost seven of its last 11 games and is on a crash course to mediocrity.

While the Illini's bats remain a consistent threat, the Wolverines’ offense has been impeccable as of late. Notching nine and 12 runs in its last two respective midweek games, Michigan is rounding into postseason form and looks ready to combat the Big Ten’s fiercest combatants.

The key element to the Wolverines’ efficient offense starts with one simple concept: stringing quality at-bats together. Michigan’s offensive unit thrives off creative play calling and does not solely rely on the extra-base hits that one can find plenty of with Illinois.

For instance, in Wednesday’s rivalry game against Michigan State, the Wolverines were able to plate three runs in the seventh inning to effectively seal the game.

After a walk and a hit-by-pitch put runners on first and second base, sophomore right fielder Christian Bullock and junior third baseman Blake Nelson executed a double steal. In one move, two Michigan runners were now in scoring position and threatened to take the game.

Then a left field double from freshman shortstop Jack Blomgren and a sac fly from junior second baseman Ako Thomas brought the runs in. The Wolverines fed off each other’s plays at the plate and scored momentus runs.

“It’s a game of confidence,” Bakich said. “When you have a lot of it, it feels sometimes like magic — like you can do anything, and when you don’t have it, there aren’t a whole lot of cures out there. You just need some success to get it again, but the guys are very confident right now. It’s good to see that confidence translate into a lot runs and a lot of hits and a lot of good performances on the field, up-and-down the lineup, and they know that even if they don’t get the job done in one AB, someone else will pick them up.

“It’s good team baseball right now and it’s good team baseball at the right time.”

If Michigan is able to maintain this level of offensive output, this series will be one for the ages.