A mid-March Wednesday afternoon baseball game in southwest Ohio is not typically a key moment in many players’ collegiate careers. But Michigan’s win over Xavier provided for some memorable at-bats in the development of three key underclassmen.
Freshman center fielder Jonathan Kim, sophomore designated hitter Joe Longo and freshman third baseman Mitch Voit all launched their first career home runs, propelling the Wolverines to a 7-3 win over the Musketeers.
Entering Wednesday’s matchup looking for continued production from its bats, Michigan couldn’t have achieved that goal in a more convincing — and unique — fashion.
“The first trifecta, so that was good,” Michigan coach Tracy Smith said. “Kim’s got us going a little bit, got the guys excited in the dugout. Hopefully that’s the first of many to come, so we’re going to treat it like that’s what they’re supposed to do.”
The Wolverines’ confidence about how their home runs could be the ‘first of many to come’ marks a 180-degree spin from a week ago, when they managed to score just one run against Oakland. After the loss, Smith questioned his squad’s commitment and passion at the plate.
“We’re just trying to get a spark going, make something happen because it was ‘strike out, casually walk back to the dugout, strikeout,’ ” Smith said postgame March 8. “I don’t know if it bothers us. That’s the part that bothers me.”
But in response to that debacle, the coaching staff’s emphasis on a new approach at the plate helped Michigan’s hitting improve on Wednesday, especially Kim’s.
“We put an emphasis on two-strike hitting, and I think that helped a lot,” Kim said. “Keeping our approach opposite field and that kept us in the game today and we’ve been hitting a lot better recently.”
And while Kim’s home run didn’t go to the opposite field, it came with two strikes and two outs. That mentality shift by the coaching staff — to be more aggressive in a pitcher’s count — directly contributed to valuable runs for the Wolverines that put the Musketeers in a deep hole early and gave them little chance of coming back even as their bats heated up late.
Longo and Voit’s home runs, both solo shots in the third and fourth innings respectively, served a different purpose for Michigan. They shrouded one of the team’s biggest deficiencies in their hitting slump: leaving runners on base.
This issue manifested itself during their six-game losing streak, frequently failing to get runners past first base, and even when doing so, struggling with runners in scoring position. The solo shots by Longo and Voit, in addition to graduate first baseman Jack Van Remortel, who hit his second career home run with a sixth-inning solo shot, allowed Michigan to stretch its lead to 7-0 while sidestepping one of its foils.
“We cannot continue to limit our opportunities to score by just simply not putting balls in play,” Smith said. “So that was a big focus with the guys to … just move the baseball, make them make plays, it’s going to increase our chance of winning.”
As the Wolverines’ underclassmen continue to launch the baseball over the wall to increase their chances of winning, Smith is looking for them to continue to grow, recognizing inevitable learning curves.
“You’re always going to live with some growing pains with younger guys as they find the speed of the game at college is a little different than what they’re used to,” Smith said. “… You’re going to have to be patient sometimes and live with some inconsistencies. … So that (experience is) going to help not only I think in the remainder of this year but certainly moving forward in the future.”
Expectations are not through the roof for Michigan despite their resilience in finding their swing over the past four games. As they build for the future, the three first career home runs for Kim, Voit and Longo can serve as pivotal moments in time for their long-term development in a Wolverine uniform.
And against Xavier, it helped lead Michigan to victory.