Two weeks, seven games and one-tenth of a championship-length season have already transpired. But only some of those games are guaranteed, and based on the tinkering Michigan coach Erik Bakich is performing with his pitching staff, it would appear he’s gunning for game 70.
“On paper,” Bakich said, “we have some key pieces that we know that have a resume that have had success in the past, and then we have a bunch of unknowns.”
Whether an entity is known or unknown, the priority is winning games. Bakich hasn’t shied away from giving pitchers role-defying work to that end. No pitcher’s ego or desire for a calcified position has proven to be more important than winning.
“I’m not worried about where I fit right now in the rotation,” junior right-hander Blake Beers said after his first appearance of the season. “Our biggest goal right now as a staff is to continue getting better this week. Whatever spot I’m pitching in, and whatever spot the rest of my teammates are pitching in doesn’t really matter as long as we’re contributing to our team and contributing to wins.”
The team strategy when dealing with hitters and the lineup, on the other hand, is often incongruous with that of the pitching staff.
One might argue in favor of the status quo on offense, pointing to four of seven games in which Michigan has scored five or more runs. Look closer.
Seven runs were accrued on only four hits in game one of the series against the Huskies, including five off just one in the first. Eight runs against Cal Poly were scraped together without a single extra-base hit.
The problems at the plate start with junior shortstop Jack Blomgren, who hit into three fielder’s choices in the opening weekend alone and who has hit just .250 on the season, a far cry from his .314 clip last season — two qualities undesirable for a table-setter. They continue with junior catcher Joe Donovan, whose average and slugging percentage are sitting at the Mendoza line and sophomore second baseman Riley Bertram and his .176/.267/.176 slash line.
On the other hand, players in the back half of the lineup — freshman outfielder Clark Elliott, freshman third baseman Ted Burton and redshirt senior first baseman Matthew Schmidt to name a few — have been powering the offense, combining for 11 RBI. Senior outfielder Dominic Clementi started at the cleanup spot in the first game, but has since hit the cover off the ball largely in the bottom third. All are either freshmen or new to seeing consistent game action.
Bakich stashed the freshmen at the bottom of the lineup in the opening series, away from the spotlight.
“I made the mistake of shoving (junior center fielder) Jesse Franklin up in the four-hole his freshman year,” Bakich said. “Probably not smart on my part to put those kinds of expectations on a young kid. We did that again to (freshman catcher) Jimmy Obertop against Vanderbilt in the fall game, put him in the four-hole — that was a nice four strikeout game.”
But with the end of the season constantly staring Bakich and the team in the face, how many games will it take for him to prioritize a higher quality lineup in front of dimming the spotlight on his newbies? When will the freshmen invade the top half of the lineup, providing increased protection to the hitters around them than the veterans currently installed in those spots? Just like Burton and company benefited from beginning the year at the bottom of the order, so too could the struggling veterans.
Redshirt sophomore outfielder Danny Zimmermann’s usage is certainly a bright spot. He started the season coming off the bench, but Bakich has since begun to allow him and his team-leading 1.059 OPS to do maximum damage in the cleanup spot. After redshirting the 2019 campaign, Zimmermann is an example of a relative unknown whose talents are being used to the fullest.
“There were so many different breakout candidates that could be on the horizon,” Bakich said after the MLB4 tournament on Feb. 16. “Just guys that had their moments in different games that could be positive contributors for the entire season.”
The breakout candidates have revealed themselves. It’s time to use them in ways that maximize win possibility: benefiting from and providing lineup protection, with more chances to hit with runners on base.
In other words, it’s time to treat them like the pitchers.
Whitten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JackWhitten6.