OMAHA, Neb — The star of the show for Michigan this postseason has been its starting pitching.
Wolverine coach Erik Bakich knows that junior left-hander Tommy Henry, junior right-hander Karl Kauffmann and sophomore right-hander Jeff Criswell give him the best chance to win. But by using Criswell and Henry out of the bullpen, it’s put the rest of Michigan’s pitching staff out of work. When they play again on Friday, the last time any relievers pitched will have been 11 days ago when redshirt junior left-hander Ben Keizer threw two innings to send the Wolverines to Omaha.
There’s a reason that Bakich’s first choice out of the bullpen is one of their weekend starters. In the postseason, Michigan’s relievers have been anything but consistent.
The early season closer, freshman right-hander Willie Weiss, lost control of his fastball and slider, recording 32 walks in just 38 innings. Against Creighton in the NCAA Regional, the bullpen gave up a three-run lead in the ninth inning — eventually allowing seven runs in the ninth inning to force a deciding game the next day.
Besides the rise of Keizer, who took over the closer role, almost the rest of the bullpen have followed the same trend as Weiss — struggling against the better competition faced in the postseason and forcing Bakich to almost exclusively use his starting pitchers.
“It’s one of those things where the tournament kinda set up in a way that if we took care of our business on the mound, we would be able to have a pretty good run at this with how good our starting pitching has been lately,” said pitching coach Chris Fetter.
But the format won’t long support that strategy as the time between games shortens and pitchers get less rest.
So when Criswell or Henry or Kauffmann isn’t available to pitch out of the bullpen, will there be rust? Will they be unfazed against the best teams they’ve played all year, in front of 25,000 people?
“We know our number’s going to be called at some point,” Keizer said. “It’s just staying ready, staying focused, trying to do whatever we can to stay fresh every day and just hoping that our staff as a whole can put up zeroes.”
Added Fetter: “It’s not a problem in my eyes that maybe the bullpen has not been getting work this week, it’s that our guys have been taking care of business. So we’re well rested and ready to go, it’s a great problem to have.”
Bakich also believes his bullpen will be ready when called upon.
“They’ll be ready when their number is called,” Bakich said. “Mentally they’ll stay sharp. They’ll do a lot of visualization and different mental game exercises to keep their focus, even though they’re not having time out on the mound.”
For the relatively young bullpen — three of the six usual suspects are freshmen — it’ll be a test in patience and focus. But if junior left-fielder Christan Bullock and freshman second baseman Riley Bertram’s substitutions into the lineup the last three weeks have shown anything, it’s that they are always prepared to make a difference, no matter how long they’ve been off the diamond.