Two weeks ago, anyone outside of the Michigan baseball team would’ve called you crazy if you said the Wolverines could win the Big Ten Championship.
After getting demolished by Maryland in three straight games — allowing 43 runs in the series sweep — Michigan was in jeopardy of missing the tournament altogether. But after the brutal losses, The Wolverines kept their cool, dominating the Big Ten over the past two weeks en route to a conference championship.
Michigan (32-26 overall, 12-12 Big Ten) beat Rutgers (44-15, 17-7), 10-4 in the championship game. Scrappy RBIs, a clutch performance from junior left-hander Jacob Denner and a crucial dinger off the bat of junior catcher Jimmy Obertop completed the 5-seeded Wolverines’ improbable run to a Big Ten Championship.
Junior right fielder Clark Elliott and graduate center fielder Joe Stewart continued their dominance of the tournament with one run apiece in the top of the first inning. Elliott won the honor of best player in the tournament and five other Michigan players made the first team.
“My teammates here, they’ve been right by me for this whole entire journey, ups and downs this whole entire season,” Elliott said moments after winning the accolade. “So that’s a team award, it’s not an individual award at all. The coaches (and) teammates have had my back since the beginning. So that’s all for us.”
The victory was a team effort from early on.
A two-out home run just over the left field wall cut the deficit in half for the Scarlet Knights to end the second. They soon tied it up at two runs apiece with a triple deep to the right field wall in the third inning. Rutgers was not going home without a fight.
With junior second baseman Ted Burton on third with one out, junior first baseman Jake Marti executed a perfect suicide squeeze to bring him home and retake the lead at 3-2 in the fourth. Stewart gave the Wolverines an insurance run in the following inning off the bat of graduate third baseman Matt Frey, his ninth run of the tournament which ties the all-time record.
“It’s a throwback, guys are just competing and I love watching it,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said in a mid-game interview with the Big Ten network. “I love watching what they’re doing and we’re just finding different ways (to score), squeeze or double a ball-and-dirt read and then score on a hit. I just love the way they’re fighting out there.”
And the fight to score by any means possible continued throughout the game, displaying the will the Wolverines had to put runs on the board.
Marti earned another rare type of RBI in the sixth, the third consecutive inning with a score for Michigan. He swung and missed strike three, but the catcher let the ball go right by. Senior shortstop Riley Bertram scored from third and Marti made it to first, negating the out.
After his ninth consecutive out to start the bottom of the sixth, senior left-hander Jacob Denner found himself in a tough jam. With the bases loaded and two outs, he caught the batter looking for an impressive seventh strikeout of the game. The New Jersey native was dialed in facing his hometown team.
Obertop added to the Wolverines’ lead with a dagger in the top of the eighth with a three-run homer into the left field stands. His third of the tournament leads the Big Ten and put Michigan up, 8-3.
Senior pinch hitter Jack Van Remortel had the second suicide squeeze of the game for the Wolverines in the ninth, this time scoring two men in the chaos. Burton showed hustle racing to the plate all the way from second to widen the lead to 10-4, which held.
“This team has been fighting the whole year,” Obertop said. “It’s been tough, but we’re finally starting to get hot and at the right time. So we’re excited for this.”
And in the Big Ten Tournament, they got hot when they needed it the most, facing the top four seeds in the tournament — the first team ever to do so and beat all four.
Michigan’s had a wild past couple of weeks. The Wolverines are the hottest that they’ve been all season, and it’s at the perfect time. If they can continue their performance through the NCAA tournament, they might just find lightning in a bottle again.