It’s been over a month since the No. 17 Michigan baseball team went on the road. The Wolverines’ 17-game home stretch, which came to a close after Sunday’s win over Indiana, is almost unheard of in college baseball.
But there’s no question that they made the most of it. Michigan won 14 of those 17 games, including a three-game sweep of then-No. 18 Oklahoma, while outscoring its opponents 149-62.
Playing at home for a whole month allowed the Wolverines to gain momentum, feed off the energy of their home fans and stay on top of schoolwork as papers and final exams built up. But despite these advantages, the last few weeks posed their own set of obstacles, the effects of which were noticeable as Michigan dropped the first two games of the Indiana series.
“These last three weeks have been pretty challenging for our team,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich on Sunday. “I’ve seen a lot of guys have a lot of late nights writing a lot of papers and preparing for a lot of exams here in crunch-time, the last couple weeks of the semester.”
Fortunately, the Big Ten does not allow its teams to play any midweek games during the week of finals, giving the Wolverines much-needed study time and rest before they head back on the road to face Rutgers this weekend. On Sunday, the excitement for this opportunity to recharge and refocus was almost tangible.
“We’re going to get in the weight room and get rest,” said senior shortstop Michael Brdar. “It’ll be a good week for us to get better.”
Added junior left-hander Michael Hendrickson: “With finals piling up and everything it’s a good time to get back to center, and we’ll be ready to go Friday.”
Michigan (7-5 Big Ten, 31-9 overall) will take the field against the Scarlet Knights (4-5, 15-23) rejuvenated but also shorthanded, after sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas broke a bone in his hand last Friday against Indiana. According to Bakich, Thomas is now projected to miss “a few weeks.”
The loss of Thomas cannot be overstated. He has made a strong case for being the Wolverines’ most valuable player this season, hitting .371 with a .483 on-base percentage and 20 stolen bases out of the leadoff spot in the order. Thomas has reached base in every game he has played this season, and has made only one error in the field.
“He was a huge, huge, huge piece of what we’re doing and the success we’ve had,” Bakich said on WTKA radio Tuesday. “But we’ve got a group of guys that understand that they all have to be just a little bit better. We don’t need anyone to be superhuman.”
One of those guys is sophomore Jimmy Kerr, who replaces Thomas at second base. Another is junior first baseman Jake Bivens, who will assume Thomas’s duties as the leadoff hitter.
Bivens has what it takes to make sure Michigan’s offense stays potent. While his batting average ranks just eighth on the team at .271, he is third in on-base percentage at .424 and second in stolen bases with 18. Bivens also led off for most of last season, and was one of the Big Ten’s best in that spot as he recorded a .356 average, .441 OBP and 13 stolen bases.
Rutgers’s primary area of strength is at the plate, where it is currently hitting .279 as a team — good for fifth in the Big Ten. Infielder Mike Carter leads the way for the Scarlet Knights, and tops the conference with a .391 batting average and 30 runs batted-in. Outfielder Jawuan Harris has been impactful as well, hitting .295 with seven home runs and a Big Ten-leading 23 stolen bases.
However, Rutgers’s pitching staff lags far behind with a 6.24 earned-run average — dead last in the Big Ten. None of the Scarlet Knights’ projected starting pitchers this weekend have an ERA below 4.78, while all of Michigan’s hurlers do.
Rutgers has been hot lately, winning four out of their last five games including a road series win over Iowa. And at this point in the season, the last thing the Wolverines will want to do is come out flat in a road environment against a conference foe.
“We just need to be consistent,” Bakich said. “At this point in the year it’s kind of getting into that time of the season where everyone’s getting into the thick of the Big Ten. It doesn’t matter what your records are up to that point. The team that plays the best is going to come out on top.”