After disappointing weekend, Michigan looks to beat Irish again

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By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 8, 2014

Nearly halfway through the Big Ten season, the Michigan baseball team is still searching for its identity.

During the first eight games of their homestand, the Wolverines showed glimpses of greatness on the mound, at the plate and in the field. But after dropping two of three to Minnesota, Michigan is still looking to consistently put all the pieces together.

Before going back on the road, the Wolverines (4-5 Big Ten, 14-17-1 overall) will play once more in Ann Arbor, this time in a rematch against Notre Dame. And though the game has no impact on either team’s conference title aspirations, Michigan coach Erik Bakich isn’t taking any breaks.

“Conference game or non-conference game, it’s still a game,” Bakich said. “It doesn’t matter to me — we still want to win. I don’t care if it’s Notre Dame, Illinois or the New York Yankees, we still have to compete and play our game.”

The desire to win is showcased in Bakich’s decision to list senior right-hander and season-long ace Ben Ballantine as the starter.

After struggling in Friday’s 7-6 loss to Minnesota, Ballantine is looking to accomplish exactly what he did against Notre Dame on March 1, in which he pitched 5.2 shutout innings, striking out six while allowing just five baserunners in Michigan’s 4-2 extra-inning victory.

Offensively, the Wolverines have improved from their slow start to the season. Quality at-bats — ones that result in hitting the ball hard or getting on base via a walk — have been increasing steadily, culminating in a season-high 53 percent of plate appearances against Minnesota. Michigan went 1-2 against the Golden Gophers, but was in contention the entire weekend against a talented Big Ten team.

“We were two hits away from going 4-0 this past week, but things didn’t go our way and we ended up 2-2,” Bakich said. “It was our best quality at-bat weekend of the season, we did a nice job of putting the ball in play, and that was reflected in the runs we scored and hard contact we made. More often than not, that will result in success for us.”

Success against the Irish (1-14 ACC, 10-20) will require more than just luck. After facing No. 1 Florida State, Notre Dame will seek revenge in Ann Arbor with more hunger and experience.

“We both had the same struggles early on,” Bakich said. “We were both getting new fields during the offseason, and didn’t get the same amount of reps that either of us would’ve liked. The game was early in the year, but it went into extra innings and was a pretty evenly matched back-and-forth game.

“Playing in the ACC, they don’t have the record they want to have. But they’re certainly going to be battle-tested, and we expect it to be a good opportunity to compete.”

Before returning to the Big Ten slate, the Wolverines will look to put it all together to end their homestand on a strong note — and perhaps finally find their identity. According to Bakich, the formula is simple.

“We know what we do when we win," Bakich said. “We force a lot of contact on the mound, play good defense, and we get timely hits and have a lot of quality at-bats. When we do that, we’re undefeated.”