Nate Clark: Michigan struggling, but more than capable of turning around
On May 10, the Michigan baseball team was riding a five-game winning streak, scoring 63 runs while surrendering just 11 in that span. The Wolverines, in spite of a combined 1-4 record against Minnesota and Michigan State, were just one-half game away from the top spot in the Big Ten and were off to their best start since 1987.
Today, Michigan is on a five-game skid, its longest since 2013, in which it has been outscored 31-19. The Wolverines are now fifth place in the conference standings with three contests left.
“The last week has been an emotional roller coaster,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “Losing is not something that we are accustomed to or will ever get accustomed to.”
To add insult to injury, three of Michigan’s losses came from a sweep by its arch-rival, Ohio State. The Wolverines’ 3-2 loss May 13 was especially painful as the game ended when the Buckeyes’ centerfielder robbed senior designated hitter Domenic Jamett of a game-tying base hit with a diving catch.
But the most frustrating contests for the Wolverines during their recent struggles were undoubtedly their two non-conference matchups.
Against Central Michigan on May 10, Michigan found itself in an 8-0 hole after four frames. The Wolverines nearly erased the entire deficit thanks in part to four runs batted in by freshman left fielder Jimmy Kerr. But they came up one run short, dropping an 8-7 game to a Chippewas team that has won just 18 games this season.
It was a similar story for Michigan against Oakland on May 17. Trailing 5-2 going into the bottom of the ninth, senior center fielder Cody Bruder broke through with a three-RBI double to both tie the game and put the winning run in scoring position. Junior left fielder Carmen Benedetti was intentionally walked on the next at-bat in order to set up a potential double play.
That brought junior catcher Harrison Wenson to the plate, hoping to strike back against the Golden Grizzlies, but he was unable to be the hero when he grounded into an inning-ending double play. Oakland put up an RBI single in the next frame for the win.
“I thought it was the right play,” Bakich said referring to the intentional walk. “The winning run was at second, so you have to set up the double play.”
Wenson has been in an uncharacteristic slump as of late, recording just two hits in his last 20 at-bats. The Wolverines will certainly need him to recreate his earlier-season success if they are to snap out of their current funk.
Michigan also has been forced to carry on without the contributions of senior outfielder Matt Ramsay, who is currently out with an injury. He was a fixture at the second spot in the Wolverines’ lineup, posting a .298 batting average, four home runs and 28 RBI.
“I feel really bad for (Ramsay),” Bruder said. “It’s his senior year. To end like that is pretty awful.”
But according to the team, a big part of its struggles has been players feeling under pressure, as Bruder said after the Oakland loss.
“It seems like everyone feels like every pitch is magnified at this point of the season,” Bruder said. “If you take a strike, you feel a little worse than at the beginning of the season. And that’s just a mental state that we have to get rid of and just get back to being us and having fun.”
Added Bakich: “You can sense the frustration in everybody. Some guys maybe are pressing or trying too hard to change that outcome.”
To be sure, the Wolverines have more than enough ability to turn things around. Michigan is currently hitting .310 as a team, the second highest mark in the Big Ten, and are tied for first in the conference with 310 runs scored. The pitching staff leads the Big Ten with 440 strikeouts.
The Wolverines also have a three-game series at Illinois to fine tune themselves before the Big Ten Tournament.
While the Fighting Illini’s record does not appear imposing when compared to Michigan’s, the Wolverines have played significantly better at home than on the road —16-4 and 13-13, respectively. Illinois, meanwhile is 11-4 at home this season.
Michigan is No. 36 in the NCAA rating percentage index standings, the highest ranking of any Big Ten team. While that puts the Wolverines in solid position for making the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season, losses at Illinois could jeopardize Michigan’s chances if it does repeat as the Big Ten Tournament champion.
“We know we’re a good team,” said sophomore infielder Jake Bivens. “I think we’ll be alright, but good teams have rough patches.”
Bivens is right that the Wolverines are a good team, but they’ll need to right the ship quickly if they want to achieve their goals.