Michigan's inability to finish innings on defense could cause problems for the team as the season continues. Luke Hales/Daily. Buy this photo.

Against Michigan State last Sunday, Michigan sophomore left-hander Jacob Denner started the fifth inning by inducing two groundouts to his teammate, fifth-year transfer shortstop Benjamin Sems. With two outs and the bases empty, Denner faced a pitcher’s dream scenario: He needed only one more out to finish the inning, and the Spartans faced a razor-thin margin of error. 

Denner worked a 1-2 count to the next hitter, outfielder Joe Stewart. Now he only needed one more strike to finish the inning unscathed.

Then Stewart grounded a single up the middle that even Sems, the stellar defender that he is, couldn’t corral. Two more hits and two runs later, the Michigan baseball team was still searching for a third out that had been in its grasp a long time ago. Denner struck out first baseman Brock Vradenburg to end Michigan State’s half of the inning, but plenty of damage had already been done.

Michigan struggled to finish innings throughout the game as the Spartans hit 12-for-21 and scored all seven runs with two outs. They scored five of those runs during rallies that kicked off with two outs and the bases empty.

The Wolverines ended up winning the game thanks to an eight-run comeback in the ninth inning, but the failure to end offensive threats in their home-opening weekend did not go unpunished. Illinois scored four two-out runs during its 7-4 win over Michigan last Friday night and without that two-out success, the Wolverines would have won.

“It’s a combination of us not putting away their hitters and their hitters doing a good job of extending the inning, getting clutch hits,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said Sunday. “Two-out RBI, I’ve said for nine straight years, are worth their weight in gold. You think you have an inning finished, and they get a big two-out hit, and they got a bunch of them today.”

From behind the plate, fifth-year catcher Griffin Mazur had a unique vantage point on Michigan State’s offensive success. He said that Michigan pitchers, aware of the Spartans’ free-swinging nature, tried to pitch too perfectly early in at-bats, nibbling on the corners and falling behind in the count. Michigan State hitters capitalized on the resulting hitter’s counts to do most of their damage. 

Given the high quality of the Wolverines’ defense, there’s no reason for Michigan’s pitchers to be afraid to pitch to contact. In that game alone, Sems and fifth-year center fielder Christian Bullock showed nearly limitless range, range that could have been used to curb the Spartans’ well-timed offense. 

“We certainly need to do a better job of finishing those innings off without any damage,” Bakich said.

Michigan State’s two-out rallies would have doomed the Wolverines if not for their magical comeback, so it’s clear that future two-out rallies could hit Michigan where it really hurts: the loss column.