Baseball aims to control controllables against Buckeyes

By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 9, 2014

For Michigan baseball, the timing couldn’t be better.

With rival Ohio State coming to town for a three-game series this weekend that will decide the Wolverines’ Big Ten Tournament fate, Michigan is playing its best baseball of the year.

As a team, the Wolverines (11-10 Big Ten, 24-25-1 overall) are riding a season-high four-game win streak, outscoring opponents 37-14 and hitting .359 over the stretch.

While virtually everyone in Michigan’s lineup is hitting better, the additions of veteran hot bats in junior designated hitter Dominic Jamett and junior outfielder Kevin White have brought a more disciplined approach to the bottom of the lineup, keeping the pressure on opposing pitchers.

“I’ve seen a pretty good adjustment in the way these guys compete in the box and compete on the mound,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “We’re starting to string things together, and now we want to keep that momentum going.”

To do that, the Wolverines must contain the potent Ohio State roster. Like Michigan for much of the season, the Buckeyes (8-10, 27-22) have struggled with consistency after beginning the season 16-7. However, with a number of prospects likely to be picked early in June’s MLB draft, Bakich knows that Ohio State is a team that can get hot at any moment.

“They’re going to fight, they’re going to battle.” Bakich said. “We need to have a sense of urgency every pitch, every game, because if we don’t, we’ll get burned.”

On the mound, the Wolverines will use junior left-hander Trent Szkutnik and sophomore left-hander Evan Hill for Friday and Saturday, respectively. The pair have been consistent aces for Michigan through a season plagued by inconsistency. Both will look to continue that trend and begin the series on a strong note against an offense that is fourth in the Big Ten in hits and runs.

While Hill and Szkutnik bring a proven presence to the mound, the Sunday starter remains in question. After giving up six runs in just 1.3 innings in his last two starts, usual Sunday starter and senior left-hander Logan McAnallen is no longer an automatic choice. Without a clear-cut alternative, Bakich may rely on a number of relief pitchers to step up in the team’s final regular-season conference game.

Whatever route he chooses, Bakich is calling on all of his players to continue the recently increased aggression.

“We want to keep this positive momentum rolling as long as we can,” Bakich said. “These guys know that that comes from locking in and attacking each opportunity that they get and seizing every opportunity to compete and win.”

Off the field, the team is using long-awaited good weather, a suddenly hot team and the allure of hosting the Buckeyes for the first time in four years to bring excitement back to Ray Fisher Stadium. Using giveaways, a promotional hashtag #whynot2k, the first-ever “movie in the outfield” and other festivities, Michigan is eyeing the 2,000-fan mark for the first time in two seasons.

Despite the off-field energy, Bakich is looking for his team to continue business as usual. In arguably the biggest series of the year, Bakich knows that the only path to success for the Wolverines is the same one that got them there.

“It’s a heightened-awareness rivalry game,” Bakich said. “Hopefully the stadium’s packed, but lot of the uncontrollables are going to be in play. It’s obviously an incredible rivalry in all sports, so there’ll be some heightened emotions that come with it. The challenge is to control that and any other things we can control and just compete our butts off the entire weekend.”

With its biggest rival coming to town, the biggest crowds in years expected and seeding for the Big Ten Tournament on the line, the stage is set for the Wolverines.

Playing its best ball of the year, the timing couldn’t be better for Michigan baseball.