LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Entering the NCAA Tournament, the Michigan baseball team’s duo of junior right fielder Clark Elliott and graduate center fielder Joe Stewart seemed poised for continued dominance.
However, the “table setters” — as Michigan coach Erik Bakich described the pair in a press conference Friday — suddenly went quiet against Oregon to open the Louisville Regional, going a combined 1-for-11.
On Saturday, the Wolverines’ dynamic duo proved that quiet performance was an outlier and not a trend, leading the offense to a convincing victory over Louisville.
“They’re too good not to bounce back,” Bakich said. “We define mental toughness as being able to get back to the middle — not get too high, not get too low. If Clark and Joe had an 0-for-4 or 1-for-5 day, they’re able to get back to the middle and know that yesterday has nothing to do with today.”
That mental fortitude was needed, as Michigan faced an uphill battle entering Saturday’s game. Playing the 12th-seeded Cardinals — on their home turf — would be hard enough. It could not afford another quiet day from its top two bats.
To add to the Wolverines’ tension, the first trip through their lineup went smoothly for Louisville ace Jared Poland. After the Cardinals took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning, Michigan needed its most prolific bats to make a play more than ever before.
And make a play they did.
With junior first baseman Jake Marti standing on first base, Elliott yanked the second pitch of his second at-bat just over the right field corner, finally breaking through Poland’s stalwart performance and taking the lead just a half inning after Louisville had opened the game’s scoring.
Before Poland or his Cardinal teammates could react to the first home run, Stewart added a second, sending a solo shot over the center field wall to swing the momentum firmly in the Wolverines’ favor.
“It looked like it was going to be very tough there with those first eight hitters,” Bakich said. “That’s an elite pitcher on the mound, he’s got nasty stuff, but Marti opens it up with a two-out rally base hit, and then what Clark and Joe did give our guys a ton of energy and we were able to string the quality at-bats together.”
The back-to-back home runs proved a powder keg for the Michigan lineup, as it scored all seven of its runs in three straight innings. Stewart added another run to his total in the bottom of the fifth inning, getting to home plate off a sacrifice fly by junior catcher Jimmy Obertop.
“It’s been a really fun year,” Stewart said. “Part of the thing I needed to get a lot better at was that kind of mental toughness piece and (Bakich) and these guys have really, really helped me with that.
“This is something that I’ve wanted to do for a lot of years and I’m just enjoying every second of it. This is the group that I want to do it with and it’s been so much fun doing it with these guys.”
With just one game standing between them and a Regional Championship, the Wolverines appear to have all the momentum heading into Sunday. Though it didn’t start as they had hoped, Elliott and Stewart look to be right back on track, just as Michigan needs them to be.