Baseball clears the bases on both sides of the ball

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By Ben Fidelman, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 30, 2014

The scouting report was clear for the Michigan baseball team’s series against Iowa: The Hawkeyes can hit and run as well as anyone in the conference. If you can stop them, you have a shot at winning.

The Hawkeyes came into the weekend with the second-best team batting average in the Big Ten at .306, leading the conference with 36 stolen bases.

But the Wolverines put a stop to that.

Michigan answered the call, holding Iowa to a .215 batting average and just two stolen bases as it took two of three games in the weekend series.

In a schedule that has seen Michigan play 20 games decided by two runs or fewer, the outcome is often decided by whoever wins the battle on the base paths. It’s inevitable that runners will reach base, but winning teams stop the bleeding quickly and minimize the damage of those runners — two things that the Wolverines have done well all year.

This weekend followed suit, with all three games coming down to one or two runs.

“We’re comfortable in the pressure game,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “For us, it’s no big deal — we’re used to it. What we saw in the beginning, where we weren’t used to those situations and dropped some of those close games, is now we’re playing and executing better in these tough games.”

Led by the defense of senior catcher Cole Martin and strong pick-off moves from Michigan pitchers, the Wolverines have been able to stall multiple teams that are known for their aggression with runners.

“Martin has a strong arm, blocks and receives well,” Bakich said. “You don’t see them with long, slow leg times to the plate. Cole gets rid of the ball quickly and accurately, and when we need to disrupt the rhythm of the baserunners, we do.”

Saturday’s starter, sophomore left hander Evan Hill, is among the conference leaders in pickoffs. That proved effective, as none of the seven runners who reached base during Hill’s 5.2 innings of work came around to score.

“We have looks and specific long-holds to try and mix up when we’re going to pitch and when we’re going to pick,” Hill said. “(Pitching coach Sean Kenny) is very good at knowing the counts that a specific hitter is likely to run in.”

Two of the three Wolverine starting pitchers are left-handers — a luxury many teams can’t afford. That, along with their defensive traits, combined for a perfect storm that muted the potent machine that is Iowa’s offense.

“I think it’s a huge help (having two left handers in the rotation),” Martin said. “We’ve had three or four guys that have left first early and we just picked over and got them out without the other team even having to touch the ball, which is great. A lot of guys don’t run on lefties as it is, so having their presence on the mound keeps people on first base.”

The scouting report is out on Michigan, and pitchers are noticing a decrease in the number of runners trying to take the extra base. That gives the defense an easier time focusing on what’s going on at the plate and not having to worry about runners taking off.

And on the other side of the ball, Michigan tore up the basepaths itself. The Wolverines took over the conference lead in stolen bases, bringing their season total to 39. On top of that, Michigan scored multiple momentum-swinging runs by sending runners home from second on singles to the outfield.

“We’re a good base-stealing team,” Bakich said. “Our pitchers, catchers and defense see a good base-stealing team starting in the fall. When you’re good at something offensively, then you also have to be good at defending that.”

The result on both ends of the base paths was one of Michigan’s best weekends of the season.