Baseball set to take on Princeton in a four-game series

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By Jason Rubinstein, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 6, 2014

The Michigan baseball team is proving to be a great enigma.

Once plagued by pitching woes, the team’s greatest strength may now be just that. And the Wolverines, who scored 22 runs in their first weekend, have found their offense to be anemic in recent games, scoring nine runs in the seven games before a six-run outing against Florida Gulf Coast.

But Michigan (4-8-1) has a great opportunity find consistency and add to its two-game win streak when it heads to Port St. Lucie, Fla. to take on Princeton in a four-game series.

“We’ve certainly taken some blows,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich to WTKA radio. “Our record sucks, but our team is good.”

Michigan’s cold bats could turn blazing hot against the Tigers (0-3), who have played just three games this season and already given up an astounding 38 runs. Princeton was swept by UC Santa Barbara, who shut out the Tigers in one game and held them to one run in another.

“We’re just going to focus on what our plan is and having quality at-bats, and making quality pitches,” Bakich said. “It was Princeton’s first time being outside all year. Much like our first time, it just takes a little while to get some kinks worked out. I’m sure they have been focusing on that all week and we will be ready to go against them.”

A healthy Jacob Cronenworth should help in preparation. The sophomore right-hander has appeared in two games since recovering from offseason labrum surgery and earned a save and a win. Cronenworth has provided a spark to what was arguably Michigan’s biggest weakness.

“(Cronenworth) pounds the zone with good stuff,” Bakich said. “He’s been a huge boost at the end of games for us. To have him and (junior right-hander) James Bourque to finish games off is something we were missing for a little while.

“We’ve been able to hold teams late in the game and too having those two guys to be able to finish a game off is exactly what we’ve been looking for.”

After the Texas State Tournament, it seemed as if the Wolverines had one of the most explosive lineups in the country. A mixture of youth and veteran talent provided run-support to compensate for the shaky pitching. But in nearly every game after, pitching has kept Michigan in the game.

The Wolverines have just two-consistent starters batting over .300 and have given the pitching staff nearly no run support. Aside from those players — junior center fielder Jackson Glines and junior designated hitter Kyle Jusick — the team is batting just .178 on the year.

Glines has been especially hot lately, batting .345 from both the leadoff and three spot in the lineup. The junior is riding a seven-game hitting streak and also leads the team in doubles.

“He’s very confident right now about the success he has had,” Bakich said. “He’s had the success because he’s had a very disciplined approach and been aggressive to the pitches he has wanted to hit.”

Michigan is also “very close” to fully welcoming back freshman outfielder Jackson Lamb back from a back injury. The freshman, who has appeared in six games, was batting .316 with six RBI while concurrently radiating a positive energy for his teammates to follow.

Princeton’s shaky pitching, too, will provide a great opportunity to get the bats rolling once again

If Michigan’s pitching remains solid as it has most of the season, the bats will play a key role in deciding the series.

Fifth-year senior right-hander Ben Ballantine boasts an impressive .95 earned-run average in his three starts and threw a career-high eight strikeouts, while allowing just two hits in 5.2 innings against Notre Dame. Bakich believes Ballantine’s success may be partly due to the veteran developing a slide to his arsenal.

“(Ballantine’s) been able to use the slider to his advantage to really keep batters off balance and generate weak contact or a swing-and-miss,” Bakich said. “We will continue to lean on him to put our team in a good position to win ball games.”

And hidden behind Ballantine’s remarkable comeback season is fifth-year senior left-hander Logan McAnallen’s Big Ten best 18 strikeouts. With Cronenworth not showing any signs of rust, the Wolverines have formed a formidable bullpen.

But the bats still remain the story. What was once considered a great strength has now becomes a great inconsistency. Perhaps there’s no greater team to help fix that than a team that allows over 12 runs a game — Princeton.