Prior to the season, the Big Ten’s coaches picked the Michigan baseball team to finish second in the conference, right behind Maryland. But as the Wolverines prepare to open Big Ten play against the Terrapins, rankings are the last thing on their minds.
“Preseason rankings really are worthless,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “The only rankings that mean anything are the final ones. Even the in-season ones don’t mean jack squat. We’re not going in to prove anything to anyone, we’re just going to play our butts off.”
While the Wolverines (16-4 overall) may not be paying attention to polls, it’s clear that after their hot start, the polls are paying attention to them. After taking three out of four against Northern Illinois last weekend, Michigan moved up three spots in the D1Baseball.com poll, going from 21st to 18th, and currently finds itself in the Top 25 in three other polls as well.
Regardless of the Wolverines’ opinions about rankings, the polls still demonstrate the respect that Michigan has earned from its early triumphs against a challenging non-conference schedule.
“We’ve gone toe-to-toe as a conference with some of the nation’s best and we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of early success,” Bakich said. “We bring a high level of confidence going into conference play. We recognize it is conference play, but we’re not going to change anything, that’s for sure.”
Michigan will look to continue its early-season momentum against Maryland (13-7), where Bakich coached from 2010 to 2012 before taking the Michigan job. While the Terrapins have a slightly worse record than the Wolverines, their statistical profile indicates what should be a well-matched series.
Offensively, Michigan and Maryland have put up almost identical numbers – the Wolverines bat .270 as a team with 18 home runs and a .792 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS), while the Terrapins have a .269 average, 18 home runs and a .797 OPS. Both teams also love to run, and excel at doing so – both rank in the top 10 nationally in steals, with 47 and 44, respectively.
The beginning of the home schedule saw some lineup changes for the Wolverines, most notably the ascension of senior shortstop Michael Brdar. With a .325 average, three home runs and a .907 OPS, he has been Michigan’s hottest hitter recently, earning a move to third in the batting order.
“In baseball, you try to play the hot hands,” Bakich said. “Sometimes you go off hunches, and sometimes you just go off statistics. He’s been hitting in the six-hole most of the year and we just felt like we wanted him up more often. If there’s opportunities to get him more at-bats throughout the game, we want to do that.”
While statistically the Wolverines lack the individual offensive firepower of players such as Maryland’s right fielder Marty Costes, who is hitting .350 with four home runs and a 1.027 OPS, there are very few weak spots top to bottom in their lineup, especially with junior first baseman Jake Bivens and third baseman Drew Lugbauer emerging from their slumps to begin the season.
Bivens recently recorded multiple hits in four straight games – a streak that came to an end during Wednesday’s game against Western Michigan – while Lugbauer batted .333 with three home runs and nine RBIs in the Northern Illinois series last weekend.
While Michigan and Maryland appear to be even on offense, the mound has proven to be a different story. The Terrapins possesses an earned-run average of 4.24, a full run higher than the Wolverines. But this isn’t to say Maryland lacks shut-down potential: Brian Shaffer (2-1) has a 1.65 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 32.2 innings, while Tyler Blohm (4-1) has kept pace with him by putting up a 1.78 ERA.
However, Michigan’s starting rotation this weekend – consisting of junior left-handers Oliver Jaskie and Michael Hendrickson and junior right-hander Ryan Nutof – is well-equipped to keep pace with Maryland’s hurlers. While Jaskie leads the staff with a 3-0 record, 2.60 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 27.2 innings, Hendrickson has come on strong lately as well, having not allowed an earned run in two of his previous three starts.
The optimism around the Michigan program has been palpable all season. And as the Wolverines prepare to take on the Big Ten, there has been no change in their confident attitude.
“We just try to stick with our brand of baseball and the toughness and grit that we bring every day,” said senior catcher Harrison Wenson. “We’re just going to go in there and win some ballgames.”