String them together however you can – a grounder, a strikeout, a pop-up; a double play, a triple play, a runner caught stealing.
No matter how it happens, lately, that’s all that has stood between the Michigan baseball team and success: three outs.
The Wolverines have been allowing big innings in crucial matchups. Their usual lights-out pitching has shown flaws, and as they face increasingly tough competition, those flaws are being exploited, causing significant problems for Team 153.
Their series against No. 11 Texas Tech is the perfect example. In Thursday’s game, they gave up six runs in the fifth inning. On Friday, they gave up five runs in the sixth inning. And in Saturday’s contest, there was only one inning in which the Red Raiders did not score.
“They hit against us almost like they knew every pitch that was coming,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “They took advantage of our mistakes. They did to us what we’ve done to a lot of the teams we’ve played and opened up a big margin.”
Whether it’s been defensive errors, Jimmy Kerr and Blake Nelson already have six errors apiece on the season; pitching difficulties, third starter Jeff Criswell has racked up a 4.41 earned run average over 30.1 innings; or a combination of the two, Michigan has not been able to string together those three outs. And their opponents are making them pay.
Texas Tech swept the Wolverines in their three-game series. Michigan’s first loss of the season came in a game in which Cal State-Long Beach put runs on the board in three consecutive innings toward a final score of 8-7. And its 4-1 loss to Southern California came when they allowed the Trojans to put up two runs in two separate innings.
“(Our errors) were just very costly, because they came at the most inopportune times,” Bakich said. “You can’t do that against any team, but especially a really good team. Every time, they will make you pay for it. And this weekend, they made us pay for it.”
At times this season, Michigan’s offense has also proven its ability to notch big innings. A three-run seventh inning against UCLA. An eight-run third inning and a six-run sixth inning against Manhattan. A five-run sixth inning against Western Michigan.
All of those games were wins – 7-5 over the Bruins, 23-2 over the Jaspers and 12-5 over the Broncos.
When the Wolverines can piece together several consecutive quality at-bats, they’ve proven difficult to stop.
“When we can put big innings together, and score three or more runs in an inning, it certainly helps us win the game,” Bakich said. “That’ll continue to be something that we leverage.”
Michigan is about to head into Big Ten play with a weekend series against nearby rival Michigan State. A home series against Minnesota – likely its toughest Big Ten competition – and an away weekend at Ohio State are not too far down the road. If the Wolverines can solidify their defense, and if their pitchers rediscover the dominance they showed in earlier stretches this season, they will look to be a serious Big Ten contender.
All that stands in the way are three outs.