With two outs in the top of the second, junior left-hander Jacob Denner found himself in the first pickle of the day. With Dayton designated hitter Alexis Castillo standing on second and Michigan holding onto an early one-run lead, even a single could be a momentum changer.
Three pitches into the at-bat, Flyer outfielder Jake Silverstein cracked one toward the gap in right field. It seemed like Dayton had found the hit it was looking for — until it suddenly wasn’t.
Graduate center fielder Joe Stewart charged at the fly ball like a man possessed, his hat ripped off by the burst of speed. With mere inches to spare, Stewart speared the ball in his glove, ending the inning and keeping the Flyers off the scoreboard.
It was just the first web-gem catch for Stewart in Sunday’s outing, a defensive masterclass from the entire team that led Michigan to a 4-2 victory over Dayton and a series sweep of the first home series this year.
“It was one of those tweener balls that started slicing,” Stewart said. “It would’ve been a tough play for (junior right fielder Clark Elliott) the way it was flying. I didn’t know if I was gonna have to dive or not, but I was able to stay on my feet.”
Fielding proved to be a game changer for the Wolverines from the first pitch to the final out. In the first inning, graduate third baseman Matt Frey notched the final out running down a lazy foul fly, crashing into the left foul line fence but keeping the ball secure by hooking his arm against the top of the pads.
Stewart followed up his masterful performance in the fourth inning, evoking shades of Willie Mays with a trailing basket catch over his head for the first out. Junior second baseman Ted Burton capped off the dazzling display in the eighth inning by spearing a ground ball and flipping it to first sprawled on the ground.
While there were plenty of catches that looked to belong on SportsCenter, the larger story was the lack of errors on routine plays. After averaging an error a game on its extended road trip to start the season, Michigan committed no errors all weekend against the Flyers.
“It’s hard to get an exact read on things when there are so many inconsistencies to start the year,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “The travel, the formats of the tournaments, night games right to morning games and all that.
“We got exposed in some areas early on, but we’re really pleased with the adjustments we’ve made. We’ve cut down on the free passes, and the pitchers are letting the defense engage more. The guys in the field are staying on their toes instead of being on their heels.”
With the beginning of the Big Ten season just one week away, keeping consistency, both on the mound and in the field, is an absolute must for the Wolverines. There will be far more pop flies and soft grounders than slicing liners.
However, for Michigan’s fielders, any opportunity to flash their gloves is warmly welcomed.
“When the guys on the mound are pitching like they did today, it makes it a lot easier to play behind them,” Stewart said. “We get to have some fun and make some plays for them.”