At the start of the Big Ten Tournament, the two-headed monster of junior right fielder Clark Elliott and graduate center fielder Joe Stewart wasted no time making its mark.
The Michigan baseball team (29-25 overall, 13-12 Big Ten) beat Illinois (31-21, 17-8), 7-5, after Elliott and Stewart led the game with back-to-back home runs. The Wolverines used their immense power to win it with the long ball despite giving up multiple two-out rallies.
Eerily similar to the Michigan’s first win against Rutgers, the Elliott-Stewart duo smashed two homers in the first two at bats of the night. In the 39 previous Big Ten tournaments, no team had ever started off a game with two straight blasts.
After the Illini fought back in the second inning with some singles, they cut down the lead to just one run. Then Stewart and graduate third baseman Matt Frey immediately added to it with a single and a double to start the third inning. All three hitters at the top of Michigan’s order already had an RBI in just the first third of the game.
The Wolverines’ offense wasn’t picture perfect. Stewart walked to get on base for the third straight plate appearance in the top of the fifth inning, but he was caught stealing on an unlucky double play ball. Senior catcher Jimmy Obertop followed up that botched steal with a two-out long ball of his own for the third solo home run of the game.
“I don’t know if we can be frustrated hitting home runs but I wish I hadn’t given Stewart the steal there because that would have been a two-run homer,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich told Big Ten Network during a mid-game interview. “But no, I think our guys did a good job early of being ready to hit the fastball and then of course they adjusted a lot more change ups.”
Even with that padding, sophomore left-hander Connor O’Halloran found himself in a tough pickle in the fifth inning. After allowing two men on with one out, the Wolverine’s slim lead was in jeopardy.
O’Halloran dueled for eight pitches in the next at bat and won it with a groundout that advanced both runners to scoring position. Despite the pressure, he froze the next batter with a looking strikeout and shut down the Illini offense to maintain the lead.
When sophomore left-hander Chase Allen was subbed in to start the sixth inning and immediately forced two straight groundouts, it looked like a clinical 1-2-3 was on the horizon. However, Illinois again rallied with two outs. Unlike Michigan, the Illini offense used incremental chops via a single, walk and single to tie it up yet again at four runs each.
The Wolverines swung the momentum back in their favor in the top of the eighth inning. A two-run, two-out rally capped off by an RBI single from Elliott took the lead back. Junior pinch runner Jordon Rogers barely got to the plate before a tag at third base for the crucial second run. A single by Obertop in the ninth inning brought Stewart in for his third run of the game and padded the Wolverines’ lead.
In the latest game in conference tournament history, Michigan clobbered its way to a crucial first-round upset.