On baseball: Michigan still searching for a consistent weekend rotation

By Jeremy Summitt, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 25, 2013

After the Michigan baseball team topped Western Illinois in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, the classic pop-hit “Bye, Bye, Bye” from the boy band N*SYNC blared through the press box speakers.

Aside from the immediate flashback to late-elementary years, the song was reminiscent of the Wolverines’ struggle to operate, shall we say, in-sync all weekend.

The most prominent issue lingering for Michigan is that Evan Hill can’t pitch every game. In order to successfully compete against Big Ten competition, the Wolverines need to fill out a consistent rotation and the quicker that happens, the better, with conference play looming next week.

This weekend, the offense struggled, scoring only one run on 10 hits in the rubber match against Western Illinois. And pitching remained inconsistent besides freshman left-handed pitcher Evan Hill’s remarkable one-hitter he threw in game one.

“He just pounded the zone and did a nice job of attacking the strike zone and forcing contact,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich.

Bakich’s pitching philosophy focuses on quick tempo and forcing contact, two things Hill excelled at during Saturday’s outing. In seven innings of work, he induced six groundouts and six flyouts en route to his third win of the season.

“We have a really good defense behind me, and I take that for granted,” Hill said. “I get a lot of ground balls, a lot of fly balls and everyone is really athletic behind me, so they’re making plays.”

But Hill stands as the lone bright spot for Michigan’s pitching staff, and the Wolverines clearly have questions to answer heading into conference play next weekend. In fact, Hill is the only pitcher to start in every weekend series this season. Bakich hasn’t held back in giving players opportunities to step up as starters, either. Five other pitchers have started at least one game on the mound, but have not maintained enough consistency to earn a regular starting role.

Just two of those five — senior right-hander Ben Ballantine and sophomore left-hander Trent Szkutnik — are holding opposing batters to a sub-.300 batting average. But Ballantine has struggled to record quality starts this season, one reason the eldest of the candidates hasn’t stuck around in the rotation very long.

In his four starts this season, Ballantine has pitched less than five innings three times. In those three lackluster outings, he's pitched just 10.3 innings combined. His only quality start of the season came against Holy Cross, when he allowed two earned runs in six innings.

The remaining three — junior left-hander Logan McAnallen, sophomore right-hander Matt Ogden and sophomore right-hander James Bourque — are allowing a little too much contact, as opposing batters are batting .350 combined against them.

Bakich said the pitchers who are struggling need to work on mastering a quick pitching tempo and continuously force contact.

“When you do that, it means you’re pounding the zone and getting strike one and strike two on the hitters quickly,” Bakich said Saturday. “Hill did a nice job of that, and other guys need to do a better job following suit.”

Ballantine and McAnallen have joined Hill the past two weekends in the weekend rotation, but neither has proven he is there to stay.

In McAnallen’s last two starts, he has pitched 9.2 innings, allowing 15 hits and five earned runs. Ballantine has fared a bit better statistically, and despite his inability to pitch long outings he seems to be the leading candidate to remain in the weekend rotation.

When Bakich is fiddling with the rotation this week, Hill will be there. No doubt. But this weekend was the first time we’ve seen a weekend rotation that matched another from earlier in the year.

In order for the rotation to, well, not alternate every weekend, Ballantine and McAnallen will have to prove their worth in a jam-packed, four-game schedule this week. If they falter, the job will be open for auditions, as it has been all season.