Redshirt sophomore left-hander Steven Hajjar and sophomore right-hander Cameron Weston have provided Michigan with a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of its rotation. Hajjar sports a 4-0 record with an impressive 3.02 ERA while Weston, the number two starter, has posted a 5-3 record and has an excellent 2.85 ERA. After those two, however, the Wolverines continue to search for consistency.
On Sunday, sophomore left-hander Jacob Denner showcased himself as a pitching option.
Denner has had a good 2021 campaign as the team’s third starting pitcher. He has shown flashes of brilliance, but there is still room for improvement. As the schedule winds down, each game increases in importance and in perhaps the biggest game of the year, Denner was lights out.
On Sunday afternoon, Michigan met No. 21 Indiana in the rubber match of its three-game series. Considering their proximity atop the Big Ten standings, it had the feeling of a postseason tilt. In one of the most important games of the season, Michigan coach Erik Bakich needed a big outing from his third starting pitcher.
“Coach Bakich does a great job of shrinking the moment,” Denner said. “Just taking it one game at a time, one inning at a time, one pitch at a time. That’s really the mindset he’s put into us, win every pitch and good things will happen.”
The New Jersey product had arguably his best, and most clutch, game of the season versus the Hoosiers. He went six and one-third innings, gave up four hits, one walk, and six strikeouts. From the get-go, he was in control of the strike zone. He overpowered Indiana with his fastball and his changeup had good movement. He dictated the pace of the afternoon and allowed the offense to operate on their own terms.
Denner’s lone mistake came in the top of the fifth. Hoosiers’ outfielder Morgan Colopy lined a ball into right field that carried over the wall. Despite the slip up, Denner remained poised. He went through the rest of the inning with ease and propelled the Wolverines into the seventh with a two-run lead. With the win, Denner improves to 4-3 on the year and his ERA is nearing the 4.00 mark.
“He attacked with three pitches,” Bakich said. “That’s a tough lineup to navigate, they’re very good players. To only give up a solo home run and get us into the seventh inning was huge.”
During game two on Saturday, the Wolverines’ bullpen was decimated by Indiana. They allowed nine runs during the seventh and eighth innings. More importantly, however, was that Michigan had an opportunity to pull off the comeback before the bullpen collapsed. Sunday afternoon, they redeemed themselves.
In the top of the eighth, junior right-hander Will Proctor came on with two men on and only one out. The first batter he faced grounded out to third and advanced the runners to second and third. Leading by two but down 3-0 in the count, Proctor forced a groundout to fifth-year shortstop Benjamin Sems. The energy was present at Ray Fisher Stadium, giving the game a playoff atmosphere. Proctor seized the opportunity and capitalized on the home-field advantage.
“Will Proctor’s been through the ringer of the SEC,” Bakich said. “That guy’s been pitching in front of the best atmospheres in all of college baseball. He was cool. He was calm. He was collected. That’s what we needed, especially in the eighth when they had (runners on) second and third.”
Pitching success has been key for the Wolverines before. During their run to the College World Series Championship in 2019, they heavily relied on top arms such as Tommy Henry, Karl Kauffmann, and Jeff Criswell. If they are to make a similar run this postseason, the top two arms won’t be enough on their own. That’s where players like Denner will become vital.