OMAHA, Neb. — After a round one drubbing at the hands of Iowa, the Michigan baseball team found itself with its back against the wall against a familiar foe. Facing Illinois, which the Wolverines took two games out of three against earlier in the season, they did just enough on Wednesday to extend their stay in Omaha.
In the win-or-go-home game, looking to avoid being the first team eliminated in the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan (27-27 overall, 14-12 Big Ten) jumped on the Fighting Illini (25-27, 12-14) with an offensive explosion in the third inning to move on by a score of 6-3.
Despite ultimately gaining the upper hand, the Wolverines had to be patient to break their spell of cold hitting. Leaving a combined five runners on base in the first two innings — including bases loaded and only one out in the first inning — they struck at last in the third.
“You could sense a little of the guys being a little deflated,” Michigan coach Tracy Smith said. “We hit into a double play in the first and we didn’t execute; in the second, we had multiple on.”
Senior left fielder Tito Flores, who moved up for Wednesday’s game from late in the order to second, got the offense moving with a leadoff single. The lineup adjustment paid off, as senior second baseman Ted Burton pushed Flores home with an RBI triple directly after to put the Wolverines on the board.
Later in the inning, senior first baseman Jack Van Remortel blasted a three-run shot to expand the lead further. Michigan wasn’t done, though, as freshman third baseman Mitch Voit got in on the action with a two-out triple, and he was brought home just two batters later by graduate shortstop Cody Jefferis to end the scoring at five runs.
With their bats ablaze after the crucial third inning, the pressure shifted to the Wolverines’ pitchers and defense to hold down Illinois and send them packing.
“I felt like if we could jump on them and let (senior right-hander Noah Rennard) continue to pound the strike zone we put ourselves in position to win the baseball game,” Smith said. “Proud of the guys to come through, wasn’t the prettiest but we got it done.”
Rennard, once a reliever who was thrust into a starting role after an injury to junior right-hander Chase Allen, has flourished in the spot so far. With the season on the line, he continued that success. Rennard threw five scoreless innings before slowing in the top of the sixth inning, where he allowed RBI on a groundout and a single before exiting the game with six total strikeouts and just the two earned runs.
From there, Rennard handed off to senior left-hander Jacob Denner to continue Michigan’s important defensive innings. Denner has thrown significant innings as a starter recently, but with the season on the line, the Wolverines had to turn to whoever would put them in the best spot to win.
Denner quickly ceded a run after inheriting runners on the corners, as a perfectly placed bunt to the right of the mound brought home Illinois’ third run of the inning.
Allowing the quick run kept pressure on Denner still with two runners on, but shortly after he locked in and stifled the remaining threat.
“I think it all goes back to (pitching) coach (Brock) Huntzinger and (junior catcher Gabe Sotres) calling a great game,” Denner said. “All the trust in the defense. They make their plays, easy or hard.”
Denner’s quick blemish didn’t repeat in the later innings either, as he struck out four batters throughout 2.2 innings — holding onto the lead while the Michigan offense fell dormant.
As rain began to pour on Charles Schwab Field in the late innings, the Wolverines’ offense proved to be anything but doused as Jefferis smashed a well-needed insurance solo shot to lead off the bottom of the eighth. The momentous blast moved the needle and proved Michigan had more than just one big inning in it, extending its lead with just three outs left for the Illini offense.
To keep the season alive, the Wolverines turned again to Denner to close out the game. Adding to his strikeout total of six, he fanned the first two batters before closing the game on a groundout to first — keeping Michigan’s Cinderella hopes alive for another few days.