BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It appeared the No. 2-seed Michigan baseball team would squeak out a win against No. 7-seed Northwestern in its opening game of the Big Ten Tournament. The Wolverines led, 4-3, heading into the ninth inning, and go-to closer Jackson Lamb was on the bump.
Coming into the contest, the redshirt junior right-hander had a 0.00 earned-run average and had allowed just 18 hits through 28 innings pitched. Michigan expected the same Lamb that had gone a perfect 12-for-12 in save attempts to that point in the season.
But the Lamb that showed up Wednesday was much different.
Wildcat first baseman Jack Claeys walked up to the plate in the lead-off slot and knocked the 3-2 pitch through the gap on the right. With the tying run on first base, Northwestern opted to replace Claeys with a pinch runner. Lamb had been in tough situations before, but with the steady stream of rain and a man on first, he threw just his second wild pitch of the season and the Wildcats put the tying run in scoring position.
The next at-bat, third baseman Connor Lind crushed a line drive over a leaping sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas. Michigan managed to hold both runners on the corners, but if Lamb wasn’t shaky before, his confidence had to have been dwindling.
It was clear Lamb wasn’t himself when he walked the next batter with four straight pitches.
“(Lamb’s) shoulder was a little sore leading up to today, we’ve ridden him a lot,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “He’ll be fine, he’ll be right back in there. … He didn’t look as sharp as he normally is and sometimes when you’re a closer that’s what happens. If you’re a closer, somedays you’re going to have that happen, you’re going to have that hiccup. That’s why (closers) have to have amnesia and just be able to forget about it and move on to the next day.
“He’s had a whole lot of good days. Fifty-five straight games of good days, leading up to this one. He’ll have plenty of good outings left in him.”
The walk forced Bakich to bring in sophomore right-hander William Tribucher to try and clean up Lamb’s mess — a tall task. The bases were loaded with no outs.
Right-fielder Ben Dickey hadn’t managed a hit all day, but picked up his first in the ninth inning when he singled between third base and shortstop. It wasn’t necessarily a hard hit, but it was perfectly placed and just out of reach for senior shortstop Michael Brdar. The hit was enough to score one run and tie the game, 4-4.
The first out of the inning came at the hands of Brdar after he slightly bobbled a ground ball, but managed to flick the ball with the tip of his glove to junior third baseman Drew Lugbauer. While the go-ahead run crossed the plate, it was an impressive move from Brdar that minimized the potential damage.
However, with one away and men on first and second, the inning was far from over, and Northwestern had the momentum in their favor. Second baseman Alex Erro laced a single up the middle past a diving Thomas to score another run.
Fortunately for Michigan, Tribucher caught shortstop Jack Dunn looking for the crucial second out. An easy groundout ended the frame, but instead of celebrating, the Wolverines had some work to do.
Junior first baseman Jake Bivens stepped into the batter’s box to open the bottom half of the frame. He was hit by the second pitch he saw, which brought the tying run to the plate. Already having picked up an RBI in the second inning, designated hitter Nick Poirier smacked a line drive to second base. It was a similar hit to the one Michigan had allowed in the top of the inning, except Erro leapt to catch it.
With one out, sophomore right-fielder Jonathan Engelmann skied the 1-2 pitch to short center, and after Wildcat shortstop Jack Dunn backed up to the grass, he easily made the catch for the second out.
The final out came at the hands of senior catcher Harrison Wenson. Currently batting .191 — the lowest of the starters — he wasn’t the ideal choice to be in this position. But with nine home runs on the season, he is one of the few Wolverine players who has the ability to consistently hit the long ball, something Michigan desperately needed.
But it wasn’t in the cards for the Wolverines, as Wenson struck out swinging in three pitches.
It was a rare — and crucial — mishap from Michigan’s bullpen. Now, the Wolverines will need to win five straight games to capture the Big Ten Tournament title.
“50-some games where we’ve been pretty consistent (in the ninth inning) so I just look at this as a fluke, just a speed bump,” Bakich said. “Our guys have responded every time they’ve been knocked down all season and they’ll respond tomorrow.”