It was the top of the first as redshirt sophomore left-hander Steven Hajjar stood on the mound. Hajjar, Michigan’s starting pitcher and its leader on defense, clutched the ball and eyed the first Rutgers batter as he gathered his stance.
The Scarlet Knights hit a single to right field, giving Rutgers momentum on offense from the start.
After this at bat, the Wolverines gave up a hit, two steals and a walk to allow Rutgers to load the bases. Despite Hajjar’s attempts to prevent any runs, a double to right field by the Scarlet Knights notched three runs and put Michigan behind early. However, it was these defensive blunders that motivated Hajjar and the Wolverine defense to shift the game’s momentum back into their favor and rejuvenate the offense, eventually leading to a 6-4 win.
“It impacts (the offense) 100% in a positive way,” sophomore infielder Tito Flores said. “If we have guys coming out of the pen throwing strikes, they understand that the defense can play behind them where they don’t need to strike everyone out. With that mindset, they’re able to throw their best stuff and that translates to our hitting.”
It’s no secret that Hajjar knows how to turn it on when his team needs him the most — and this game was no exception. Although he had a two error game and pitched just five innings, Hajjar still had nine strikeouts while giving up just one run after a sloppy first inning.
In comparison to Hajjar’s play earlier in the season, his performance can be considered a down game by his standards despite nearly matching his season-high for strikeouts.
“We have a ton of confidence in (Hajjar),” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “He has a ton of confidence in himself, typically your Friday night starter hands it right back to you. We know that’s what he’s capable of.”
At the moment, Hajjar ranks fourth in the Big Ten in strikeouts with 56 while maintaining a top-10 ERA of 2.78. By the numbers and the eye-test, Michigan’s confidence in its starting pitcher week-in and week-out has paid off regardless of the opponent.
“(Hajjar) has his best starts when he’s landing the breaking ball and the changeup,” Bakich said. “He’s a great pitcher and a high-level prospect, but I don’t even think we’ve seen the best version of him yet. I think his best outings are yet to come.”
But the Wolverines ran into the same problem that has plagued the team for the first half of the season — falling into early holes and praying for a spectacular performance in late-game situations.
“We train for those circumstances, we understand we won’t always have the lead,” Bakich said. “Part of our identity (as a team) is if we are tough and if we are resilient, we have to be able to take a punch.
Riding Hajjar’s hot hand has been fruitful for Michigan thus far, but in order to beat teams like Nebraska and Indiana (ranked first and third in the Big Ten respectively) later in the season, the team will need to maintain a competitive edge from the get-go.
“There’s going to be highs and lows,” Flores said. “When there are highs, not going too high, and not going too low, just staying even keel throughout the whole (season). It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so understanding that when we’re down in games we have the ability to come back.
“We’re never really fuzzled or anything like that. We stay even throughout the whole game and that is what is contributing to our winning.”