After Team USA call, O’Neill continues uphill against Chanticleers

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Sophomore outfielder Michael O'Neill has given Michigan a boost in the offense after his return. Buy this photo

By Liz Nagle, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 9, 2012

Michael O’Neill looks fresh.

The time off threw a wrench to the Michigan baseball team’s offense, but it may have done him some good.

The sophomore right fielder’s strong comeback seems well-timed and well-deserved. Team USA took notice and called O’Neill before Wednesday’s game with the opportunity of a lifetime.

“It would be a dream come true to represent my country,” O’Neill said. “I’ve dreamt about it since I was a little kid. You look at some of the names that have gone through Team USA — it would be humbling company.”

Though his skill set put him on Team USA’s radar, O’Neill will have to continue swinging a hot bat to achieve that goal. He opened up the season on fire, notching 10 multi-hit games in the first 13 outings, but he fell into a minor slump.

Though his average stayed above .300, in a 17-game midseason stint, he was batting a meager .188 before diving for a fair ball against Central Michigan. His glove got caught underneath him and put enough pressure on his ring finger to fracture his fourth metacarpal, keeping him off the field.

“It couldn’t have been better timing,” O’Neill said. “I could digest … really soak it in and come back stronger when I was healthy.”

O’Neill idled on the disabled list and recovered over a 15-game period in the heat of Big Ten play. But when he returned last weekend against Iowa, he gave the Michigan baseball team the lift it needed.

While the Wolverines sat last in the conference, O’Neill went 7-for-15 against the Hawkeyes, tacking on a triplet of runs to Michigan’s series win that bumped them from the bottom.

Expectations ran high.

Before the game on Monday, Michigan coach Rich Maloney held up three fingers to show the number of factors that O’Neill brings to the table — top-tier hitting, flawless defense and stolen-base leverage.

“It makes a big difference having O’Neill back,” Maloney said. “He’s a great player. … That tells you what kind of talent he has.”

He immediately ignited the rest of the team in Iowa and continued that elevation through back-to-back midweek contests against Coastal Carolina.

Though he knocked in Michigan’s only run in the first contest against the Chanticleers, O’Neill suffered a hitless performance in his first three at-bats on Tuesday.

But O’Neill bounced back and singled to right field in the eighth inning, advancing junior center fielder Patrick Biondi to second base. With two outs, sophomore first baseman Brett Winger failed to capitalize and left the duo stranded.

Recording mediocre results, O’Neill came into Wednesday’s game seeking a bit of redemption.

He ripped a pitch off Chanticleer right-hander Devin Bradley in the first inning, doubling down the left-field line and advancing freshman Kevin White to third. O’Neill scored off a senior catcher Coley Crank single to take an early 2-0 lead.

In his next at-bat, O’Neill struck out swinging. But in his fourth plate appearance, he took advantage of right-hander Woody Nesbit’s unimpressive pitching.

In the bottom of the seventh, he bailed out of the batter’s box on Nesbit’s pitch that nearly skimmed his helmet before walking and stealing second. O’Neill advanced to third on a passed ball and scored on Crank’s double to the left-field wall.

He may be the core of the offense, but O'Neill's defensive athleticism cannot be overlooked. Though his injury was caused by a diving catch against the Chippewas, he didn’t hesitate to lay himself out and make the necessary plays.

“My mom wasn’t too happy with me,” O’Neill said. “They don’t really want me diving for a couple weeks because the bone isn’t fused back together, but it’s stable enough that I can play.”

On Tuesday, fans donned maize T-shirts branded with the recently inducted Major League Hall of Famer Barry Larkin’s name and No. 16 on the back.

One day, the blue silk screen may read differently — O’Neill — No. 10.