The longest game in Big Ten Tournament history — a 13-inning epic between Michigan and Indiana — had just concluded. The triumphant team entered the post-game press conference to revisit the previous four hours and 28 minutes.
“We’re almost better with our backs against the wall,” said the player who had delivered the game-winning hit in the final frame. “We don’t give up.”
Added the winning coach: “They’re used to playing a little bit better when there’s pressure. And it’s been like that all season long.”
If one saw those quotes without attribution, they might immediately assign them to Michigan. But neither statement was uttered by a Wolverine.
Instead, it was Hoosier left-fielder Alex Krupa, and his coach, Chris Lemonis, recounting their team’s 5-4 elimination-game victory, which knocked Michigan (42-15) out of the tournament after just two games.
It’s not only that the second-seeded Wolverines suffered two straight upset losses. Superior teams are sometimes defeated. That’s the nature of sports, and especially postseason play.
But Michigan was eliminated in a fashion few could have predicted.
The Wolverines never forgot their collapse at the end of last season which knocked them out of NCAA Tournament contention. In the offseason they went to work, steeling their resolve and using the painful memories of 2016 to forge the “fighter mentality” that coach Erik Bakich has extolled all season.
Before the season, Michigan believed it would have a potent offense and a deep pitching staff. Both of those assumptions turned out to be true, as the Wolverines scored more and allowed fewer runs than anyone else in the Big Ten. In terms of talent, this was the most complete team in the conference.
But maybe just as importantly, Michigan had an identity.
Mentality is, of course, impossible to quantify. Not even the most dedicated observer can say that the Wolverines’ success in the face of adversity has come solely because they are tougher or more motivated than their opponents.
But for 55 games, Michigan’s results under pressure backed up this idea of resiliency. Coming into the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines had won six games in the ninth inning or later, as opposed to just two such games a year ago.
With an emphasis on quality at-bats (Michigan led the Big Ten in on-base percentage) and two relievers in Mac Lozer and Jackson Lamb who had not given up a run in 51.1 innings, this is a team used to dominating in clutch scenarios — the same ones it faced against Northwestern and Indiana.
Wednesday’s Big Ten Tournament opener was the exact type of game the Wolverines pride themselves on their ability to win. In unpleasant, rainy conditions, Michigan had come back from an early two-run deficit to shut down the Wildcats and claw its way ahead, 4-3.
It wasn’t pretty. But this is postseason baseball. An ugly win is still a win. And it looked like the Wolverines were going to get one, with Lamb taking the mound in the ninth inning.
But to the surprise of everyone except for Northwestern and its fans, Lamb surrendered a leadoff single. Then a wild pitch. Then a single and a walk to load the bases with no outs. Sophomore left-hander William Tribucher couldn’t stop the bleeding, and he allowed all three inherited runners to score.
And down 6-4 with three outs left, Michigan — maybe for the first time all season — was without an answer.
“50-some games where we’ve been pretty consistent (in the ninth inning) so I just look at this as a fluke, just a speed bump,” Bakich said. “Our guys have responded every time they’ve been knocked down all season and they’ll respond tomorrow.”
But they didn’t.
Leading the Hoosiers 3-2 in the eighth inning, Lozer — who had given up just six hits in 23 innings — gave up a leadoff double. He settled down to record two quick outs, but three straight base hits delivered Indiana the lead.
The Wolverines staged their own two-out rally to send the game to extras in the ninth inning. But it was clear they had met their match in late-inning resiliency. The two most important games of their season contradicted the entire three months that came before.
Maybe we didn’t take all the variables of postseason play into account. Maybe we overlooked the fact that Michigan, despite a 16-8 Big Ten record, was just 2-4 against the conference’s top six teams. Maybe fatigue had caught up to the Wolverines — Bakich explained that Lamb was dealing with some shoulder soreness Wednesday.
“He didn’t look as sharp as he normally is and sometimes when you’re a closer that’s what happens,” Bakich said. “If you’re a closer, some days you’re going to have that happen.”
That’s what happens.
Maybe you could apply that to the entire team.
It may not be the clearest answer. But the question of “what happened?” doesn’t call for clarity.
Shames can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.