Starting pitching powers Michigan to series win

Sunday, February 18, 2018 - 11:20pm

Sophomore right-hander Karl Kauffman pitched six innings in Sunday's win over Army.

Sophomore right-hander Karl Kauffman pitched six innings in Sunday's win over Army. Buy this photo
Aaron Baker/Daily

With two outs in the top of the sixth inning, sophomore right fielder Christian Bullock secured a fly ball, sending sophomore right-hander Karl Kauffman to the dugout for the sixth and final time of the afternoon. Ten minutes later, Michigan coach Eric Bakich called to the bullpen, officially signaling the end of his starting pitchers’ role in the weekend’s series against Army.

With that, Michigan’s starting pitching finished a series in which it gave up zero earned runs across 16 innings pitched, a dominant performance from a staff that lost three of its four starters from a season ago. Thanks to their performances, the Wolverines were able to sandwich 12-6 and 7-2 wins around a 4-3 Saturday defeat against the Black Knights.

“Only one unearned run by the three of them,” Bakich said. “That’s hard to do, so that was very encouraging and a great sign. Really glad that those guys got off to a good start and can continue to build off of that going forward.”

Combined, the trio of Kauffman, senior Alec Rennard and sophomore Tommy Henry struck out 12 batters while walking just two. Kauffman’s performance followed scoreless outings from Rennard and Henry, neither of whom allowed a walk in five innings each.

“I thought they did a great job of being aggressive and consistently attacking the strike zone,” Bakich said. “They executed their plan very well, all three of them.

“Rennard, Tommy and Karl will most definitely all start next week, we’ll just have to determine the order and who the fourth starter will be between (junior William) Tribucher and (senior Jayce) Vancena.”

Michigan’s two victories came in blowout fashion, as each was essentially decided by the time Bakich pulled his starter. Saturday’s contest was a different story, as the Wolverines dropped a 4-3 heartbreaker.

Henry left the mound after five innings with a 2-0 lead before handing the ball over to a bullpen that struggled throughout the series.

Tribucher was able to strand runners on second and third with nobody out in the sixth. The southpaw’s fortune did not carry over to the next inning, though, as he gave up two unearned runs thanks to a throwing error and passed ball.

“We need to be better defensively, securing the baseball, be a little more consistent defensively,” Bakich said. “The errors we made this weekend are uncharacteristic for our team. So we didn’t take care of the baseball as best we could. We need to clean that up.”

Runs in each of the following innings put Michigan in a 4-2 hole going into the bottom of the ninth. The Wolverines were able to get a run across on an infield single before freshman shortstop Jack Blomgren struck out with the bases loaded to end the game.

“We were 0-for-the day in driving runners in from (scoring position) with less than two outs,” Bakich said. “We had a few two-out RBIs, but we left fifteen runners on base on Saturday. That’s a small village in most places. … So that was disappointing because we had plenty of opportunities in most innings to score runs and just came up short.”

As for the bullpen, Bakich admitted uncertainty over future roles, but was unconcerned with their struggles.

“We got a lot of guys that are either making their debut out there or it’s the first game of the year, so their heartbeats are going a little bit fast,” Bakich said. “I think as the season progresses, the pulse for the game will slow down a little bit to where guys aren’t as nervous or are certainly a little more comfortable out there.

“Guys like Jack Weisenburger, Jeff Criswell, Angelo Smith in addition to Jayce Vencena (were out with the flu) so we’ll see the way everything unfolds, I think the roles in the bullpen are a little bit more up for grabs than identifying those five starting pitchers.”

While much of the weekend’s praise went to his starting pitchers, Bakich was equally pleased with his offense that put up 22 runs across the three games, including an opening day grand slam from fifth-year senior first baseman Hector Gutierrez.

“We got up there on Friday and (Sunday),” Bakich said, “and I thought we executed very well and guys were very aggressive in hitters’ counts and were tough in the box with two strikes and strung a lot of quality at-bats together.”

A large part of Sunday’s offensive output came from the bat of sophomore catcher Harrison Salter, who went 3-for-4 with a double and two runs batted-in. Sunday was Salter’s first start of the season after redshirt freshman Marcus Chavez got the nod behind the plate on Friday and Saturday.

Despite getting the starts over the weekend, the two remain mired in a positional battle with freshman Joe Donovan and senior Brock Keener, who are both currently fighting illnesses.

“Instead of having competition where we just pick one,” Bakich said, “we’re going to ask all four of them to contribute and add value every time their number is called. They’re just going to have to contribute as best they can to help our team. Having four catchers that play and contribute is not the norm, it’s usually one or two, but all four guys are deserving of playing time.”

Playing four catchers certainly is not the norm, as Bakich asserts. But for a team expected to deal with some growing pains, ironing out the kinks in Michigan’s lineup should be expected at this point in the season.