The No. 18 Michigan baseball team’s scheduled game against Bowling Green was cancelled Wednesday after just half an inning due to rain. That has been just about the only thing capable of putting out the Wolverines’ fire the last two weeks.
Michigan’s bats took off against Toledo, Central Michigan and Penn State last week as its offense drove in 64 runs, while the pitching staff was as dominant, allowing just 13. And after five straight routs, the Wolverines showed they still have what it takes to win close battles, rallying from a three-run deficit to defeat Notre Dame on Tuesday.
Michigan (4-2 Big Ten, 23-6 overall) will look to extend its seven-game winning streak at home against Illinois (0-3, 10-16) this weekend. While the Fighting Illini are experiencing somewhat of a down year, they have historically been one of the Big Ten’s stronger teams. During coach Dan Hartleb’s 11-year tenure, Illinois has won two conference titles, in 2011 and 2015, and has finished lower than sixth just twice.
Illinois’ season so far has been heavily influenced by the long ball. Despite ranking in the middle of the Big Ten in most offensive statistics, the Fighting Illini lead the conference with 30 home runs. But Illinois ranks last in terms of giving up homers, having surrendered 40 this season.
With Michigan’s offense the most productive as it’s been this season, it has a perfect opportunity to keep its momentum going against the Fighting Illini. The Wolverines rank third or higher in the Big Ten in every offensive category aside from home runs, and lead in on-base percentage (.396) and stolen bases (67).
Junior third baseman Drew Lugbauer, who bats .286 with eight home runs and 34 runs batted in, is Michigan’s main power threat. But the entire lineup has been impactful as of late. Sophomore right fielder Jonathan Engelmann has hit .700 over his last six games to vault from ninth to first on the team in batting average, while sophomore designated hitter Nick Poirier – who normally bats one spot ahead of Engelmann – has put up a .556 clip of his own.
Two Wolverines possess impressive streaks they will look to continue against Illinois. Senior shortstop Michael Brdar is riding a 15-game hitting streak into the weekend, while sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas has reached base in every game this season.
The Fighting Illini possess a young lineup, with only one upperclassman among their top seven hitters. That one upperclassmen, however, is senior first baseman Pat McInerney – the Big Ten leader in slugging percentage (.727) and home runs (11).
But McInerney doesn’t do it alone. Outfielder Jack Yalowitz has boosted his batting average from .227 his freshman year to .355 this season and forms a formidable middle-of-the-order duo with McInerney. Casey Dodge and Michael Massey also contribute with solid batting averages of .299 and .291, respectively.
Illinois’ pitching staff is equally youthful and has shown its inexperience this season – its team earned-run-average of 6.20 is ahead of only Rutgers in the Big Ten. However, freshman Ty Weber gives the Fighting Illini hope. In seven starts this season, he has compiled a 3.80 ERA and has held opponents to a .210 batting average.
While McInerney and Yalowitz are two of the Big Ten’s best hitters, they’ll have their work cut out for them against Michigan’s pitching staff.
Junior left-hander Oliver Jaskie (4-1) is coming off a career-high 12 strikeouts against Penn State and leads the conference in that category, while juniors Ryan Nutof and Michael Hendrickson round out the starting rotation, coming off quality outings of their own last week. And when it comes time to shut the door, the Wolverines know they can turn to senior closer Jackson Lamb, who has saved seven games and has yet to allow an earned run this season.
Illinois does boast its fair share of talent, but with the way Michigan has been playing lately, and barring more inclement weather, the Wolverines appear to be in a good position to extend their winning streak this weekend.