The Michigan baseball team’s offense has been performing inconsistently for the past few weeks, but a few big innings and late rallies have helped it retain an illusion of dominance. A humiliating series loss to Rutgers, in which the Wolverines managed just eight hits over their two losses, revealed what the offense actually is: weak and exploitable.
The Wolverines have struggled against good starting pitchers all season long, but because they’ve seen so few, the problem only came to light when they faced back-to-back quality starts by the Scarlet Knights. Michigan is 1-6 against quality starts on the season.
Conversely, the Wolverines crush relief pitching, and aim to knock the starter out and face the opponent’s bullpen.
“I think that’s what you always strive to do when a team’s got good starters,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said.
Michigan’s strong performance against relievers makes the offense appear magical and clutch, but many of these late-inning rallies have come against incredibly weak pitchers. While the Wolverines beat Penn State with a multi-inning comeback and won games against Maryland and Minnesota with ninth-inning home runs, the relief pitchers in those wins all have season ERAs of 5.00 or higher.
Personnel problems are also holding the offense back. The starting lineup has barely changed in the last month, but current production indicates it should. Fifth-year third baseman Christian Molfetta bats second in the order but hasn’t set the table or added any lineup protection over the past two series, hitting a dreadful 2-for-24 in that stretch.
On the other hand, sophomore infielder Ted Burton, riding a six-game hitting streak and batting .321 on the season, always hits in the lower third of the order. Burton could do more damage if he got to hit right behind the Wolverines’ greatest on-base threats, like redshirt sophomore center fielder Jordon Rogers and sophomore right fielder Clark Elliott.
An added bonus would be the return of a fully healthy sophomore first baseman Jimmy Obertop to the cleanup spot. Obertop is Michigan’s biggest slugger, leading all starters with eight home runs and a .580 slugging percentage. He injured his knee in the series against Ohio State, and although he can’t run faster than a jog, made a pinch-hitting appearance and a start in the 8-hole against Rutgers.
The weakness against strong starting pitchers, a slumping Molfetta, an injured Obertop and a misused Burton are far less concerning than Michigan’s undisciplined and overaggressive offensive approach, as seen in the rubber game against the Scarlet Knights. The Wolverines didn’t hold the strike zone, swinging at first pitches and chasing the high fastball with regularity. They couldn’t advance runners into scoring position and swung too big when the situation called for less.
“We had trouble lowering the fastball and seeing the curveball up, and got into a lot of negative counts,” Burton said. “When we had two strikes on us, it seemed like a lot of our hitters were on the hill.”
The undisciplined approach was a death sentence for an offense that scores by stringing quality at-bats together — not by isolated game-changing swings. If this approach becomes the norm in must-win games, Michigan’s postseason will be extremely short.
Simply put, the Wolverines need to get back to basics. They must refocus on drawing walks and making hard contact, and on identifying and exploiting starters’ weaknesses in their second and third at-bats. Moving Burton into the heart of the order, dropping Molfetta to the bottom and getting a healthy Obertop back would help, too.
“It’s going to be very important for us in our aspirations of playing to our potential that we get back on track in terms of how we play and how we compete,” Bakich said.
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