Before this weekend, Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich billed his team’s showdown against No. 18 Oklahoma as a “heavyweight fight”. The Wolverines showed they were more than prepared for this battle, sweeping the Sooners in commanding fashion to notch their first ranked win of the season.
Over the course of the sweep in which it outscored Oklahoma 25-8, No. 13 Michigan (6-3 Big Ten, 29-7 overall) allowed just 15 hits and a .161 average – the lowest totals the Wolverines have allowed in a three-game series this season.
While Oklahoma (5-4 Big 12, 27-12 overall) lacked No. 2 starter Jake Irvin (5-0, 1.30 earned run average) – a potential first-round pick in next season’s MLB Draft – Michigan was also shorthanded. The Wolverines were without junior left-hander Michael Hendrickson, a regular weekend starter, who was given an extra day of rest. However, with junior right-hander Alec Rennard’s dominant start on Saturday, that void was filled.
On Thursday, junior left-hander Oliver Jaskie recorded seven strikeouts in seven innings – his longest start of the season – while the next day, junior right-hander Ryan Nutof rebounded from a three-run first inning to put away the Sooners over five straight scoreless innings. In the series finale, it was Rennard’s turn. The transfer from Santa Rosa Community College has assumed a variety of roles for Michigan this season, including spot starter, long reliever and closer, and against Oklahoma, he made a weekend start for the second time this season.
Despite striking out the first two batters he faced, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Rennard on Saturday. He threw 43 pitches through the first two innings – needing 12 pitches to strike out Oklahoma leadoff hitter Ben Hollas – and allowed a run in the second inning on two bloop singles and a wild pitch.
“After that first batter, however many pitches it was, I was like ‘I gotta make the adjustment and find a way to improve,’” Rennard said. “You can’t let every hitter go 10 or 15 pitches deep. It was just making better pitches early on so I could get them to swing at it, get them to ground out, fly out, get them off balance.”
Added Bakich: “That’s kind of a storyline with our staff. We seem to find our groove and find our rhythm and settle in.”
Rennard certainly found his groove. Over the next four innings, he threw an efficient 45 pitches, not allowing a hit the rest of the way. Saturday saw Rennard at his best – a self-described “location guy” who lacks the velocity to blow hitters away, he instead relied on his ability to attack the strike zone and force outs by inducing soft contact.
“I don’t think I have a power fastball that’s going to blow by you,” Rennard said. “I’m going to beat you by pitching smarter than you, put (pitches) in and out on both sides of the plate, keep it low but try to outsmart you rather than overpower you.”
The weekend also saw an impressive performance from Michigan’s bullpen, which allowed just two runs in total. Perhaps the most important contribution came from senior right-hander Mac Lozer. Throughout the season, Lozer – who has allowed just two hits in 8.1 innings – has excelled at snuffing out rallies.
In both of his appearances against Oklahoma, Lozer entered with runners on base, and left them stranded both times. He finished off the Sooners on Friday with three strikeouts for his first save of the season, and relieved junior right-hander Jayce Vancena to strand a Sooner runner on second in the seventh inning of the series finale.
“Our starters do such a great job, and if they get into a little sticky situation, that’s what I’ve been doing for years,” Lozer said. “Alec had a great outing, and Jayce is one of our best pitchers. I’m glad I could help them out just like any other pitcher.”
Added Bakich: “For him, it’s his intangible skill set as much as his physical skill set. He’s obviously a very good pitcher – good fastball, good slider, good command of both. But I think it’s his mindset in there and the attack that he has. He knows he’s coming into a fight.”
Hendrickson is slated to pitch Tuesday against Michigan State, and is likely to return to the weekend rotation. But the depth of Michigan’s pitching staff, both in the rotation and in the bullpen, gives it the versatility that has proven invaluable so far, and it gave the Wolverines the boost they needed to secure their biggest series win of the season.