The No. 17 Michigan baseball team’s series at Rutgers this weekend had a different feel leading up to it. The Wolverines would be playing their first road series in over a month, and would be doing so without the services of injured sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas.
Despite these differences, the three-game set with the Scarlet Knights began in very similar fashion to Michigan’s previous series against Indiana. While last Friday it was a lethargic offensive performance that doomed the Wolverines, their pitching and defense was the primary culprit in their 12-5 loss.
After a scoreless first frame, Michigan jumped on the board first when sophomore second baseman Jimmy Kerr hit an RBI single to left center. But Rutgers took advantage of uncharacteristic wildness from Oliver Jaskie. The junior left-hander threw two wild pitches, hit a batter and committed a throwing error in the second inning, allowing the Scarlet Knights to take a 3-1 lead despite getting just two hits in the inning.
The Wolverines came right back in the fourth inning. With two outs, Kerr drew a walk and senior catcher Harrison Wenson was hit by a pitch. Junior first baseman Jake Bivens tripled to deep right field, driving in both runners.
However, Jaskie’s day came to an early end after he allowed a leadoff double to Rutgers shortstop Kevin Welsh in the fourth inning. Junior right-hander Jayce Vancena couldn’t stop Welsh from coming home and giving Rutgers the lead.
Michigan posed another two-out rally in the sixth inning when Wenson lined a shot down the left-field line to tie the game at four. But the Scarlet Knights turned a back-and-forth contest into a blowout with six runs in the bottom half of the inning. Second baseman Carmen Sclafani ended Vancena’s outing with a two-run home run to left field, and Michigan freshman left-hander Tommy Henry hit a batter with the bases loaded to force home a run. With two outs, Rutgers designated hitter Chris Folinusz lashed a three-run double into the right field gap for the finishing blow.
Wenson homered in the eighth inning, but this was of little consolation as the Scarlet Knights tacked on two more runs to create the final margin.
Despite coming into a road environment after such a lengthy homestand, Michigan coach Erik Bakich didn’t feel that there were any jitters or nervousness on Friday.
“I thought our guys were very much prepared and ready to go,” Bakich said. “I didn’t see that coming at all – credit to (Rutgers’) hitters, they put some quality at bats together, hit some home runs, got some hits. Oliver Jaskie just didn’t have his best day, and everyone else we brought in couldn’t stop the bleeding.”
Saturday’s contest began inauspiciously for Michigan, when redshirt sophomore left fielder Miles Lewis and senior center fielder Johnny Slater collided as they converged on a fly ball in the first inning. The collision resulted in Lewis and Slater both exiting the game, and they were replaced by freshman Christian Bullock in left and redshirt freshman Joe Pace in center.
“Miles took a knee to the forehead and got nine stitches that day. He was a bloody mess,” Bakich said. “Johnny seemed okay at first, and then after a couple of minutes, he noticed his shoulder was sprained, his AC joint. When you have a sprain of a joint it’s kind of day-to-day, week-to-week. He will be back this season, I just don’t know if it’s going to be this weekend, next weekend or the weekend after that.”
The Wolverines exploited a slew of Scarlet Knight defensive miscues in the second inning. Junior third baseman Drew Lugbauer reached on a Sclafani error and moved to second on a wild pitch. Bullock then singled to right, and a Rutgers throwing error allowed Lugbauer to score. Bullock himself scored on sophomore right fielder Jonathan Engelmann’s single.
The Scarlet Knights, however, made up this deficit their next time at the plate with Welsh’s two-out, two-run triple down the right field line, and would take the lead in the fourth inning on a leadoff home run by third baseman Christian Campbell.
Michigan responded quickly to take the lead in the fifth inning. The Wolverines led off the frame with three consecutive singles to tie the game, and Bullock’s sacrifice fly gave them the lead for good. Two innings later, Kerr singled to right field with two outs to score both Bullock and Lugbauer.
Meanwhile, Michigan’s bullpen stabilized in relief of junior right-hander Alec Rennard, as it allowed just two hits in five innings. The highlight was a career-high three-inning, six strikeout performance from senior right-hander Mac Lozer, who also picked up his first win of the season.
Saturday was notable for the contributions of the Wolverines’ reserves and younger players. Pace went 2-4 with a triple, Bullock drove in two runs and Kerr went 3-4, his two-run single giving Michigan much-needed insurance in the seventh inning. While the trio’s opportunities came due to injuries to regular starters, they proved they can be counted on regardless.
While Saturday’s game was a back-and-forth affair, Michigan’s offense exploded in the early stages on Sunday. Senior shortstop Michael Brdar got the scoring started in the third inning with an RBI single up the middle, and a fielding error by Campbell allowed both Brdar and Lewis to score.
Kerr led off the next inning with a double to right, and after Wenson moved him over with a sacrifice bunt, the Wolverines took control in methodical fashion with five straight singles by Bivens, Lewis, Brdar, Lugbauer and Engelmann, driving home four runs in the process. The resulting 7-0 lead proved to be insurmountable, despite a three-run response from Rutgers in the fourth inning.
It wasn’t all offense from the Wolverines on Sunday. After the fourth inning, the Scarlet Knights wouldn’t get another hit off of Michigan’s pitching staff. Junior left-hander Michael Hendrickson struck out six in six innings of work, while sophomore left-hander William Tribucher was even more commanding as he struck out six in three innings to earn the first save of his career.
Just as has been the case all season, showing toughness and responding to adversity was a major theme of the weekend. Against Indiana, Michigan won the series finale in dominating fashion after two straight losses, and it again rose to the challenge to win the series against Rutgers after a slow start on Friday. The Wolverines have lost consecutive games just once this season.
“Part of the way we define toughness is being able to re-center, get back to the middle,” Bakich said. “Understanding that we’re never out of the fight and something good is always about to happen. Even when we fall down, this team more than any team we’ve had has a remarkable ability of getting back up.
“We’ve had a lot of different types of adversity. You’ve got injuries, you’ve got final exams, just different things you’ve got to be able to work through. But that’s the sign of a good team – to be able to find a way to come out on top, even when everything’s not going your way.”
But with school over and no midweek games for a second straight week, Michigan can now devote all of its time to baseball, and to its next opponent, Ohio State – who swept the Wolverines last season and ended their season in the Big Ten Tournament.
Even without taking into account the rivalry between the two schools, the Wolverines will need no help motivating themselves – Bakich says that this series has been circled on their calendar since the last game of last season.
“It’s one thing to respect the rivalry of the school just because of the two teams going at it,” Bakich said. “It’s another thing when you as a coaching staff and better players personally felt what it was like at the end of last year. This is personal for a lot of people, and we will absolutely be looking forward to this weekend.”