It’s often said that baseball games can change with one swing of the bat. For the No. 13 Michigan baseball team, that was the case on Sunday against Indiana.
With the score 4-3, senior centerfielder Johnny Slater led off the sixth inning with a deep drive to straightaway center. Laren Eustace sprinted back, but it became progressively clearer that the Hoosier centerfielder didn’t have a chance.
Once the ball disappeared over the fence, the Wolverines still led by just two runs. But the entire complexion of the game had changed. Slater’s shot – his third home run of the season – was just Michigan’s second hit of the game, and its first run since the first inning.
The very next at-bat, senior shortstop Michael Brdar lined a shot through the left side. After he advanced to third on a groundout and a stolen base, redshirt sophomore left fielder Miles Lewis singled to right to drive him home.
Sophomore designated hitter Nick Poirier then was hit by a pitch. Sophomore right fielder Jonathan Engelmann singled to left. Freshman second baseman Joe Pace drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. Senior catcher Harrison Wenson walked. Junior first baseman Jake Bivens singled to left, scoring Engelmann and Poirier. Slater’s blast had triggered an offensive avalanche, against which Indiana was powerless.
Behind the strength of this five-run outburst, Michigan (7-5 Big Ten, 31-9 overall) pulled away from the Hoosiers (8-6-1, 21-16-2), scoring three more runs in the eighth inning to win, 12-5. The win snapped a two-game losing streak for the Wolverines in the last game of their 17-game home stretch.
After struggling with control issues during his last start Tuesday against Michigan State, junior left-hander Michael Hendrickson began by relentlessly attacking the strike zone and challenging hitters. He threw just 13 pitches in the first inning, 11 of which went for strikes – overall, 76 percent of his pitches found the strike zone, and in six innings, he gave up just six hits and struck out five.
“It’s getting back to what you do best,” Hendrickson said. “Anytime you have a bad outing you’re anxious to get back out there. You just have to focus on seeing the big part of the plate, attacking the zone and letting the defense work, which they did today.”
While Hendrickson zeroed in on the plate, Indiana starter Pauly Milto was the polar opposite, as the right-hander walked or hit the first four batters he faced. This, coupled with Michigan’s offensive approach – as Brdar referred to it, “patiently aggressive” – allowed the Wolverines to take a 4-0 lead after one inning despite getting only one hit, a Poirier single to left field which scored two runs.
“We have a bunch of guys that are gonna go up there and refuse to get out,” Brdar said. “We’re not going to go up there and swing at everything – we’re going to get our pitches to hit, and it’s a collective effort from the whole team.”
However, Milto settled down, retiring the next 13 hitters he faced after Poirier’s single. Meanwhile, the Hoosiers climbed back in the third inning, when third baseman Luke Miller ripped a two-RBI double into left field and right fielder Logan Sowers drove Miller home with a single.
The one-run margin would remain until the sixth inning. But then Slater took Milto deep, and the floodgates opened up.
“Sometimes you just need to get one or two times through the order,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “That guy settled in pretty well – he found his rhythm out there. We were able to get to him the third time through the order and then got their relievers pretty good. Stick with it, and adjust to what they’re doing.”
For good measure, the Wolverines tacked on three more runs in the eighth inning on a Wenson double, a Slater sacrifice fly and a Brdar single. Indiana would score in both the eighth and ninth innings, but this was merely cosmetic.
With Sunday’s win, Michigan’s month-long home stretch finally came to a close. While it was overwhelmingly successful – the Wolverines went 14-3 over this time – the fatigue brought on by strong competition, multiple midweek games every week and final exams all took their toll on the Wolverines, and was evident against Indiana.
“These last three weeks have been pretty challenging for our team,” Bakich said. I’ve seen a lot of guys have a lot of late nights writing a lot of papers and preparing for a lot of exams here in crunch-time, the last couple weeks of the semester.”
Added Bivens: “We’re going to get in the weight room and get rest. We have finals this week and all that stuff, and it’ll be a good week for us to get better and then look forward to Rutgers.”