Wolverines open Big Ten tournament with Iowa rematch
Three and a half weeks ago, the Michigan baseball team left Iowa City kicking itself over a squandered series-deciding game in which it blew an early 5-0 lead.
“Everybody’s pissed right now,” said Wolverines coach Erik Bakich after the loss. “They saw an opportunity that we didn’t cash in on. We had the opportunity to win the series on the road against a good team and we didn’t do it.
Tomorrow morning at the Big Ten tournament opener in Omaha, Neb., Michigan gets another crack at the Hawkeyes, this time with its season hanging in the balance.
After the Wolverines’ at-large hopes were virtually extinguished in a series sweep at the hands of Purdue, they head to Omaha with two paths to the NCAA Tournament — a perfect 4-0 week or win the five games necessary to overcome a loss and escape the loser’s bracket.
Three years ago, Bakich and Michigan headed to Minneapolis for that season’s tournament in the same predicament, and they stormed through the field with four successive wins.
Even with just five holdovers on the roster, the Wolverines are focused on channeling those memories into another tournament success.
“The way we won it in 2015 was we said, ‘We are going to treat each game like it’s the only game we’re playing all week,’ Bakich said.
"We’re just gonna do whatever we have to do and pitch whoever we have to pitch just to take care of that game, and we’ll worry about the next game when the next game comes.”
This mentality means that Bakich does not have plans for Thursday's game — or at least not publicly.
What is known is that when the tournament begins Wednesday morning, sophomore left-hander Tommy Henry will lead off like he has every weekend since March 9 against Lipscomb.
Henry struggled to a 4.2 inning performance against Iowa last month in which he gave up three earned runs on seven hits. Since then, he has struggled to a 5.21 earned run average (ERA) in four starts, with his season ERA rising by nearly a full run over that span.
On the other side, the Hawkeyes will start star left-hander Nick Allgeyer who comes in sporting a 2.50 ERA, including a dominant 7 inning, 1 run outing against Michigan.
“It’ll be a very good challenge, no question about it,” Bakich said. “So we will have that experience of having faced (Allgeyer) already.
"Maybe we could’ve won the (previous) series if we were playing at Ray Fisher Stadium, so I think tomorrow the team that plays the best is the team that’s gonna win because there’s not a whole lot of statistical differentiation between the two clubs.”
After Henry, Bakich is willing to pull out all the stops. Freshman left-hander Ben Dragani and sophomore right-hander Karl Kauffmann have been the Wolverines’ weekend starters since March but both are available out of the bullpen if needed.
“What you don’t want to do is get in the loser’s bracket because you’re trying to save a guy,” Bakich said. “So we’re not saving anybody. If we’ve got to throw somebody in relief who normally isn’t a reliever, we’ll do it.”
Beyond his two relief aces in freshman right-hander Jeff Criswell and junior left-hander William Tribucher, Bakich will be relying on left-handed freshman Angelo Smith and right-handers senior Jayce Vancena, senior Alec Rennard, junior Troy Miller and sophomore Jack Weisenburger.
“We’ll be aggressive with our situational pitching, and you may just see more matchups in a tournament setting like this,” Bakich said. “In 2015, Jacob Cronenworth had to close out all four games. You may see a reliever pitch in every game this week. It’s just the nature of the beast with tournament baseball.”
Unfortunately, the last two seasons have not gone as smoothly for Michigan, with just one total tournament win since the 2015 triumph.
“Going into it last year, it was certainly a different feeling than it is this year,” Bakich said. “This feels a lot like 2015.”
For Bakich and the Wolverines, the goal is to be repeating that phrase on Sunday afternoon.