The No. 21 Michigan baseball team found itself in an unexpected position in its home opener against Northern Illinois. Despite entering Thursday’s contest with a record of 3-12, the Huskies jumped out to a quick start against junior left-hander Oliver Jaskie, taking a 2-0 lead in their half of the first inning.
But it didn’t take long for the Wolverines to hit their stride.
Michigan showed off its power during a seven-run third inning which was highlighted by back-to-back home runs from junior third baseman Drew Lugbauer and senior shortstop Michael Brdar. After the offensive explosion, the Wolverines (13-3) didn’t look back, racing away from the Huskies for a 7-4 win.
Michigan’s home opening series was originally slated to begin Friday, with a doubleheader on Saturday. However, wintry temperatures and possible snowfall in the weekend’s forecast prompted one of the doubleheaders to be shifted to Thursday. This proved to be a smart move, as temperatures in the high-30s combined with sunny skies created what the Wolverines thought were optimal conditions for baseball.
“When the sun’s out, it’s great,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “The guys were unfazed. Most of them were talking about how it felt like it was 70 degrees and sunny in their minds.”
Since giving up four runs in his first start of the season against Seton Hall, Jaskie had been dominant, winning two of his next three starts and at one point going more than 17 innings without allowing a run. But despite possessing a .231 team batting average, Northern Illinois was able to get to Jaskie immediately. Center fielder Roderick Bynum led off with a single to left field, followed with a walk and a wild pitch that put two runners into scoring position, both of whom would eventually score.
However, Jaskie lived up to his status as the Wolverines’ ace, and he had no problems finding a rhythm, going the next four innings without allowing a run.
“He’s an experienced veteran that knows how to settle himself down,” Bakich said. “On some days pitchers make good pitches that get hit, and that’s just how it goes. He didn’t maybe have his best command that first inning, but he battled back. That’s what he is — he’s a fighter.”
While Jaskie got into a groove after a shaky start, Huskies starter Nathan Thomas was strong right out of the gate. The right-hander made quick work of the Wolverines in the first two innings, recording four strikeouts while keeping them off balance with the movement of his pitches.
“We went in with a plan to attack the fastball,” Bakich said. “We took a lot of fastballs, got in a lot of two-strike counts the first couple innings, and weren’t very competitive with two strikes. That’s not a good way to set a tone offensively.”
But after a trip through the lineup, Michigan was able to adjust in the third inning. A one-out single by Jonathan Engelmann was followed by back-to-back walks by Johnny Slater and Ako Thomas, loading the bases for Jake Bivens. The junior first baseman hit a slow grounder to the left side of the infield that snuck past NIU third baseman Luke Yapp, allowing Slater and Thomas to score and tie the game.
“The second time through the lineup we fought a little bit more,” Bakich said. “You could see guys having a better approach in the box and fighting better.”
Added Lugbauer: “We’re trained to be resilient and come back when we’re down. We didn’t really press or anything, we just trusted our training and did what we had to do.”
The Wolverines weren’t finished, loading the bases again for Lugbauer. With two outs, he hit a high fly ball over the center field fence for his third home run and Michigan’s first grand slam of the season. Brdar then followed Lugbauer’s blast with a homer of his own to cap off the outburst, and the Wolverines were firmly in control from there.
“You always think about going back-to-back, but usually you’re just trying to have a quality at-bat after a home run,” Brdar said. “It’s cool to have a back-to-back, but you don’t try to have one.”
Despite the momentum that might have come with this eruption at the plate, Michigan didn’t score again, despite threatening to do so on multiple occasions. In the fifth inning, Bivens singled on a grounder up the middle, advanced to second on a wild pitch and then stole third, but the Wolverines were unable to bring him all the way around to score.
In the meantime, Northern Illinois did just enough to make things interesting. After surrendering a two-out RBI single to right fielder Alec Barger in the sixth inning, Jaskie exited for junior right-hander Jayce Vancena. Vancena retired the first four batters he faced, but gave up a run in the eighth inning when first baseman Tommy Hook scored as Vancena attempted a pickoff at first.
The Huskies’ run in the penultimate frame set up a save situation for senior closer Jackson Lamb. Coming into the game, Lamb had yet to allow a run in 7.2 innings pitched. Despite allowing two batters to reach base, Lamb bore down and finished off his fourth save of the season by striking out Husky catcher Jacob Dunham.
Michigan will return to Ray Fisher Stadium tomorrow and look to continue its hot streak in spite of the cold temperatures. Bakich, meanwhile, has one request:
“That yellow circle?” he said, pointing to the sky. “Just keep on shining.”