Connor Brennan: Pitching has become the backbone of a hot team

Sunday, April 8, 2018 - 9:23pm

Freshman left-hander Ben Dragini has been integral in Michigan's rotation's turnaround.

Freshman left-hander Ben Dragini has been integral in Michigan's rotation's turnaround. Buy this photo
Ruchita Iyer/Daily

Much like the team as a whole, the Michigan baseball pitching staff struggled through the first 15 games of the season, posting an earned-run average of 4.66.

Since then, the Wolverines have recovered in dramatic fashion, both from a team and pitching perspective. That ERA has decreased to 2.20 — the byproduct of younger pitchers stepping up and bettering the performances of returning starters from last year.

Coming into the season, senior right-handers Alec Rennard and Jayce Vancena were expected to anchor the rotation. Alongside veteran, outfielder Myles Lewis and shortstop Ako Thomas, Rennard and Vancena were the only players seated for preseason Media Day.

Following three outings earlier in the season, over which he had posted a 3.38 ERA, Rennard was shut down while recovering from a prior injury. For a struggling pitching staff, the loss of their supposed ace was an unwelcome blow.

Vancena, on the other hand, has struggled mightily thus far and has been demoted from a starting role to being used intermittently as a reliever.

The unexpected turn of events provided the perfect opportunity for the young guys to step up. And they have certainly done so.

If you need an example, look no further than the staff’s weekend performance against Big Ten foe, Northwestern.

In game one of Saturday’s doubleheader, sophomore left-hander Tommy Henry posted a career-high nine strikeouts in six shutout innings of work. His dominant performance paved the way for junior reliever Troy Miller to finish the shutout with four strikeouts of his own.

The second game saw freshman Ben Dragani claim his third win of the season in similar fashion. The understated left-hander, who has posted a stellar 1.13 ERA thus far this season, allowing only one hit in seven innings. Fellow freshman Jeff Criswell kept the Wildcats off the scoreboard too before junior left-hander Will Tribucher struck out two of the final three batters to close it out.

“Ben’s very talented,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “He was the Gatorade Pitcher of the Year in Wisconsin as a high school senior. So he came in very skilled to begin with. It’s one thing to have multiple pitches that you can throw for strikes, but what makes him very good is the competitiveness with which he pitches and the poise he has on the mound as well.”

Thanks to the Wolverines’ pitching staff, Northwestern suffered two shutouts in one afternoon.

The youthful contingent of Henry, Dragani, Criswell, Tribucher and sophomore right-hander Karl Kauffman have become the backbone of the team. More specifically, a streaking team which has won its last 15 games and currently sits atop the Big Ten.

“It’s all contagious,” Bakich said. “Everybody’s feeding off of each other. The bullpen guys go in and see what the previous guy did before him that had success and follows that blueprint. The confidence among the whole pitching staff is obviously extremely high right now.”