Noah Rennard, a pitcher, is mid-pitch on the mound during a baseball game.
The Michigan baseball team's success is held back by its bullpen. Jenna Hickey/Daily. Buy this photo.

After a year of ups and downs, the Michigan baseball team had its best 10-game stretch of the season. Against Cal State Fullerton, Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State, it put up an 8-2 record including two sweeps. It looked like the Wolverines had finally turned it around and could be a legit threat in the Big Ten.

One problem: all the wins came against teams below .500.

The Purdue series was a true litmus test to see if Michigan could establish itself among the top of the Big Ten. After two blowout losses, it failed to prove it’s not an average team.

Just like it has all year, the lack of depth in the Wolverine’s pitching cost them games against real competition.

“In game one of the series, they blew the game open when they got into our bullpen,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “Connor (O’Halloran) was battling; he gave up a couple of back to back games where they had multiple runs on the board, but he wasn’t pitching bad, it’s just they were finding holes. Really the same thing can be said for Cam Weston’s outing.”

In the first two games of the series, both starters gave up six runs in five innings before they were pulled. Their outings were uncharacteristic for their standards, but what followed was not.

The Wolverines’ relief pitchers delivered some of the worst performances on the mound of the season, including two separate six-run innings in the 18-4 and 12-4 losses.

“We expect to win every single game,” Bakich said. “I think that goes without saying. That’s the mindset. So to have three lopsided games the way they were and for us to be on the wrong end of just a wide margin game is very disappointing … just inexcusable to allow that many runs to score.”

Michigan has some good pitching. It won the third game off a masterclass eight-inning outing from sophomore right-hander Chase Allen. 

That just reinforces that the starters are not the problem. 

Outside of the top four pitchers, not a single one has an ERA under 6.00. The total team ERA sits at an abysmal 6.28, which would be the worst for any Michigan team in over 20 years if the season ended today. Over three quarters of the way through the year, that’s a serious issue.

If you take the three starters (O’Halloran, Weston, and Allen) out of the equation and factor in any Wolverine pitcher who has been in for more than five innings all year, the numbers show how deep the cliff is. They’ve given up a .318 batting average, which would be the fourth-best hitting team in the entire NCAA. In the same stretch, the total ERA for the bullpen is 7.26. It would rank in the bottom 40 of all 293 Division 1 baseball teams.

For context, Michigan State — a team the Wolverines swept — has a bullpen ERA of just 5.01. The best pitching team in the Big Ten, and the best team in the Big Ten — Rutgers — has a bullpen ERA of 3.42. The Scarlet Knight’s total is better than every single Michigan reliever.

The series loss to the Boilermakers was a perfect microcosm of Michigan’s season so far and what it projects to be for the last 12 regular season games. Quality starting pitching and explosive hitting led it to a win, but that’s just not good enough against the best of the best. The Wolverines cannot depend on their starters for eight-inning gems every game.

Adding to those struggles, they end the year against the two toughest teams in the Big Ten in Maryland and Rutgers. If Purdue was able to expose the bullpen like it did, the two highest scoring teams in the conference will probably only rip the wound open farther. 

Unless the depth pitchers make a sudden leap at the end of the season, Michigan has little hope of surviving against the nation’s best.