Last Monday, things looked bleak for the Michigan baseball team.
Coming off an embarrassingly lopsided sweep at the hands of Maryland, the Wolverines found themselves in a sink-or-swim situation, both in the Big Ten and the overall landscape of college baseball.
With a dominant Rutgers team coming into town, it was possible — if not probable — that Michigan would find itself on the wrong side of the standings, missing the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in coach Erik Bakich’s tenure and ending any hopes of a postseason run.
The Wolverines needed something to change. On Friday, it appeared that change had come in the most surprising of places — their bullpen.
“The team you saw last week at Maryland is long gone,” Bakich said. “This team is different. It feels different watching them. It’s fun to watch.”
With the usual starters limited following their longer outings the previous night, the Wolverines found themselves needing a standout performance from a staff that has developed a reputation for failing to keep games close.
Despite a shaky start from junior left-hander Jacob Denner leading to 6 runs in the first three innings for Rutgers, freshman Jake Keaser, senior Walker Cleveland, senior Willie Weiss and junior Cameron Weston limited the damage to just one additional run in relief.
The success that the relievers displayed on Friday in 5.2 innings of relief carries more weight than the win itself — it shows that the bullpen still has life.
“We just all trust each other,” Weiss said. “We knew that everyone else was going to pick each other up. So we just trusted each other and went out there and competed.”
Weiss in particular stood out amongst the staff, recording three shutout innings to earn the win for the contest. After a rocky season for the senior, he has settled down as of late and things appear to be falling into place just as Michigan looks for another reliable arm.
“Weiss will have a significant role the rest of the season,” Bakich said. “Yeah, he’s a dude. A full-on dude.”
For Weston — who entered in the ninth — the save opportunity he was given was his second in as many games. He hasn’t been used in a closing role once since his freshman season, so the shift in role was an adjustment.
Instead of grumbling over the change, however, Weston appears to have taken it in stride.
“There’s a bottom of the ninth mentality,” Bakich said. “Every game we’re against the ropes and it takes what it takes to win from here on out. We have a very tactical plan and our players are doing an awesome job of executing it.”
Under Bakich, Michigan is no stranger to late season turnarounds. In 2015, it turned a third-place regular season finish in the Big Ten into a tournament championship. More notably, it turned a rough end of the regular season and an unceremonious conference tournament exit to the 2019 College World Series.
“You never know,” Weiss said. “Kind of like freshman year, we caught lightning in a bottle. You never know what could happen when you get hot at the end of the year.”
For this year’s Wolverines, in particular their pitching staff, they look to build upon their recent accomplishments and make the most dramatic turnaround yet.