The Michigan baseball team earned the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Baseball Tournament, which begins Wednesday in Bloomington, Indiana. The Wolverines will take on No. 7-seed Northwestern at 1:30 Wednesday in their opening round matchup. As Michigan prepares for the tournament to begin, the Daily previews the contenders, predicts a champion and a potential sleeper and offers three things to watch this week for the Wolverines.
Nebraska may have finished with a better record in conference play, but make no mistake: The Wolverines are the most complete team in the Big Ten. While they aren’t going to bash teams into oblivion — they rank just eighth in home runs (with 33) — Michigan scores a conference-leading 6.7 runs per game, and excel at doing so in a multitude of ways: The Wolverines have stolen 118 bases and been caught just 26 times, and seven starters possess an on-base percentage of at least .378, paced by sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas’s conference-leading .475 clip. On the other side of the ball, Michigan pitchers have combined for a 3.22 earned-run average while averaging more than a strikeout per inning. And when opponents do put the ball in play against the Wolverines, they aren’t usually successful: Michigan’s fielding percentage of .983 ranks fifth in the entire nation.
No. 1-seed Nebraska is a very similar team to Michigan: The Cornhuskers have hit the fewest home runs in the conference, but still rank fifth in runs scored. Seven regulars bat above .278, led by outfielder Scott Schreiber’s .335 figure. Nebraska’s team ERA is second to only Michigan, and between Derek Burkamper (3.05), Jake Meyers (3.09) and Jake Hohensee (4.01), the Huskers have a well-rounded rotation that can compete with anyone. No. 3-seed Minnesota leads the Big Ten in batting average at .293 — Luke Pettersen, Jordan Kozicky, Eli Wilson and Micah Coffey are all hitting above .330 — while left-hander Lucas Gilbreath (5-2, 2.37 ERA) has held opponents to a .176 batting average. Maryland isn’t playing its best baseball as of late — it snapped a four-game losing streak in its final game of the season — but the fourth-seeded Terrapins do have the Big Ten’s best hurler in right-hander Brian Shaffer (7-3, 1.67 ERA, .907 WHIP). The conference’s best hitter, meanwhile, plays for No. 5-seed Iowa — slugging first baseman Jake Adams, the Big Ten Player of the Year, ranks second in the nation with 24 home runs and a 1.277 OPS.
Sometimes all it takes in the Big Ten Tournament is for a good team to get red-hot at the right time — think Michigan in 2015 or Ohio State as a No. 4 seed last season. The sixth-seeded Hoosiers fit the bill. Since taking two out of three on the road against Michigan, they’ve won 13 of their last 18 games and have series victories over Minnesota and Maryland to their name, as well as a victory over Louisville, the No. 5 team in the country. Indiana possesses a powerful offense marked by three players with double-figure home runs, led by outfielder Craig Dedelow’s 15. And with their home crowd spurring them on at Bart Kaufman Stadium, the Hoosiers may just have the right ingredients for a Cinderella run.
Three Things to Watch For: Michigan
What will Ako Thomas’s role be?
Through the Wolverines’ first 38 games, the sophomore second baseman had made a strong case to be the team’s most valuable player. When he went down with a hand injury against Indiana, he was hitting .371 with a .483 on-base percentage, had stolen 20 bases and made only one error at second base. Since his injury, Thomas has appeared four times as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement, and returned to the starting lineup in the series opener last week against Michigan State, occupying his normal leadoff spot in the lineup. Michigan has so far attempted to bring Thomas back slowly, taking precautions not to aggravate his injury. But with the postseason set to begin, and Thomas’s recovery taking place as expected, it’s a good bet that those safety measures will be lifted. Either way, Thomas’s speed and fielding ability will allow him to make an impact no matter his role.
Which Oliver Jaskie will show up?
The word “average” doesn’t seem to be in the junior left-hander’s vocabulary. His 14 starts this season have mostly alternated between untouchable and quite shaky — granted, the former variety has been more common. Jaskie recorded a miniscule 1.65 earned-run average this season excluding his starts against Seton Hall, Maryland, Illinois, Rutgers and Michigan State, but in those aforementioned five outings, his ERA shot up to 8.85, and he averaged barely four innings per start. The Wolverine ace has the potential to be unhittable at any time — take his complete-game, 14-strikeout shutout of Ohio State earlier this month — but if his stuff isn’t as dominant as normal, it could spell trouble.
Where will the power come from?
Michigan isn’t a team that needs to rely on home runs — it gets on base, runs aggressively and executes small-ball very well. But a slightly more concerning issue is the fact that of their 33 homers, two players — junior third baseman Drew Lugbauer and senior catcher Harrison Wenson — have combined for 20 of them. Since April 23, just one player not named Lugbauer or Wenson has gone deep for the Wolverines — sophomore right fielder Jonathan Engelmann against Eastern Michigan on May 16. If someone such as senior centerfielder Johnny Slater (three home runs) or sophomore shortstop Michael Brdar (three) were to step up and knock one out of the park, it might take some of the pressure off of Lugbauer or Wenson to provide a crushing blow, and open things up for the entire offense.