Baseball to open season in Lone Star State

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By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 13, 2014

On Friday, the Michigan baseball team will take the field to open the season in San Marcos, Texas. During the trip, the Wolverines will play Texas State twice and a game apiece against Washington and Air Force.

Michigan returns a wealth of experience, welcomes plenty of freshmen and appears poised to contend for the program’s 36th Big Ten title.

Taking the reins from Rich Maloney following the 2012 season, Michigan coach Erik Bakich embarked on a new era full of what he calls “relentless energy.” After the Wolverines suffered the worst two-year stretch in school history, the youngest coach of a major Division I program immediately improved the team’s win total by seven games to finish 29-27 last year. With his first recruiting class now on campus, Bakich continues to strive for more.

“All we ever talk about is just getting better and continuous improvement,” Bakich said. “Everyone wants to win every game they play, but what we’re focused on is how you go about doing that, which is where all of our training and leadership comes into play.”

When catcher Cole Martin takes the field Friday, he will be the only Michigan senior to do so. Senior pitcher Ben Ballantine will start the third game of the weekend, but the rest of the lineup amounts to one of the youngest teams in the nation. With seven starters returning and the No. 20 recruiting class working its way into the lineup, Bakich believes his team will eventually thrive on its youth.

“There’s going to be some of a learning curve for the new guys,” Bakich said. “There’ll be some ups and downs, which is expected, so we just have to focus on how to deal with that.”

Playing in Ann Arbor makes outdoor practices nearly impossible for much of the season, which, in turn, makes the transition to college ball hard for Michigan freshmen. But this year, Bakich has increased the amount of scrimmages to help get his young team ready for action.

“There’s no substitute to playing live games,” he said. “But we do a good job trying to prepare them for situations. Every scrimmage we do, we’re simulating close games, late-innings to create that type of situation where the game might speed up on the guys.

“That experience will help them transition into a live college game where maybe it won’t move as fast for them as it would for freshmen on other teams or players who aren’t working as hard or as fast as we do.”

Despite the youth movement, Michigan returns every single starting pitcher from last season. The junior righty-lefty combo of James Bourque and Evan Szkutnik, sophomore southpaw Evan Hill and the return of Ballantine from injury look to give the developing team stability from the opening pitch of each game.

“That’s a positive for any team,” Bakich said. “They’re going to be a big strength for us this year, and they’ll be able to give us some stability during nonconference play.”

But with the bullpen still being decided, and preseason NCBWA “Stopper of the Year” candidate and sophomore closer Jacob Cronenworth still recovering from injury along with the typical early season pitch limits, Bakich is looking for efficiency more than anything else from his starters in the first weekend of the season.

“What we need out of our starting pitching is just for guys to pound the strike zone and force contact,” Bakich said. “It’s counterproductive for anyone (to walk batters), but since we’re early on and limiting their pitches, and we want to bring our bullpen along slowly, it’s especially important to be efficient.”

Upon arriving in Ann Arbor, Bakich implemented a step-by-step turnaround system. Faster practices, recruitment and a new turf field all have allowed the Wolverines to make strides toward becoming a big-time team again.

Those changes will be put to the test in Michigan’s first four games. With little knowledge of the other teams or even of themselves, Bakich has preached that no matter what, this weekend is merely a part of the process.

“We can’t win a Big Ten Championship this weekend. I wish we could, but it’s a long season and (there's) plenty of room for improvement.”