In Michigan baseball’s Wednesday game against Toledo, fans at Ray Fisher Stadium saw a powerful swing from junior catcher Harrison Wenson launch a ball well over the 30-foot wall in left field. It was Wenson’s fifth homer of the year, and perhaps his most crucial — the solo shot provided the winning margin in the Wolverines’ 2-1 victory.
Aside from Wenson’s display of power, Wednesday’s contest showcased several themes that have characterized the 2016 season for Michigan (6-2 Big Ten, 26-9 overall), which is on track for its best record since 1987.
Benedetti and Lamb have been dominant late in games.
The performances of junior left-hander Carmen Benedetti and junior right-hander Jackson Lamb have earned them the roles of go-to relief pitchers.
Benedetti has been a staple in Michigan’s batting order since his freshman year, but he also has taken on an essential role in the bullpen this season. He did not pitch at all his freshman year, and he pitched just 14.2 innings last season. He has now emerged as a force to be reckoned with.
“Last year we realized he could pitch, and he had a good arm. He was more of a thrower,” said Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich. “Now his natural progression is to evolve from a thrower to a pitcher.”
To end the eighth inning in Wednesday’s matchup, Benedetti went from a 92-mile-per-hour fastball to a 67-mph breaking ball that froze the hitter for his second strikeout. Benedetti kept the game tied at one and, after Wenson’s bomb in the bottom of the frame, picked up the win.
Lamb spent the offseason recovering from an injury that kept him out all of last season. Now he is back and has yet to allow a run in six appearances. Lamb took control in the ninth inning on Wednesday, shutting down the Toledo batters he faced to earn his second save of the year.
“We’re never nervous,” Wenson said. “We knew when (Lamb) was on the mound, he was going to pull it out.”
Michigan’s speed kills at the top and bottom of the lineup.
Freshman second baseman Ako Thomas hit a fly ball that carried over the right fielder’s head. In the blink of an eye, the nine-hole hitter was standing on third base, and the Rockets outfielder had no chance to make a play.
At that point, the speedy Thomas was only standing on third just 90-feet away, and was itching to tie the game at one.
“You’ve got the top of the order up, so I was very confident that he would score,” Bakich said.
And the guys at the top of the lineup aren’t short on speed, either. Sophomore third baseman Jake Bivens and fifth-year senior outfielder Matt Ramsay are a combined 24-for-30 on stolen bases this year, which has put them in a great position to score time and time again — the duo has combined for 66 runs this season.
Michigan’s defense has made errors, but it hasn’t hurt them badly.
Sophomore right-handed pitcher Jayce Vancena threw the ball away on a pickoff attempt, allowing a Toledo baserunner to get into scoring position in a scoreless game. Thomas committed an error in the following inning that put two Rockets on first and second base. Despite the errors, the Wolverines were able to get out of each inning unharmed.
They would not get so lucky in the sixth inning.
A throwing error from junior shortstop Michael Brdar during a potential double play allowed Toledo to score a run. The Wolverines, though, were able to overcome the 1-0 deficit.
Spotty defense has been a theme for Michigan this year, as it has committed two or more errors ten times. Yet the Wolverines have a 5-5 record in such games, proving that they are usually still able to overcome mistakes from their defense.
The No. 8 spot in the lineup is still up for grabs.
Junior right-fielder Johnny Slater has started the most games batting in the No. 8 spot. But Slater has recently been sidelined with an injury, and freshman outfielder Jonathan Engelmann stepped up to fill the hole in the lineup before also getting banged up. Now, Slater and Engelmann’s absences have given freshman infielder Jimmy Kerr and junior infielder Hector Gutierrez a chance to jump into the lineup.
Wednesday, Kerr got the start and struck out twice before being replaced by Gutierrez in the sixth.
But Gutierrez also struck out in his only at-bat of the day.
In addition to Kerr and Gutierrez, fifth-year senior Dominic Jammett has also gotten a chance to hit in the eight-spot as a designated hitter. Jammett had success at the plate last week, recording five RBI in two games.
“That spot, it’s a way to give multiple opportunities to different guys,” Bakich said. “We’ll just keep mixing it up until we find something that sticks.”