Entering Ray Fisher Stadium on Thursday, both the Michigan baseball team and Rutgers knew the other side was fighting for something.
For the Scarlet Knights, the prize of this weekend’s series is the crown jewel of the conference — a Big Ten championship. For the Wolverines, the prize is simply surviving to see the postseason.
With season-defining stakes on the line, both teams brought their A-games, posting seven combined home runs. Ultimately though, Michigan’s loud bats earned the victory (27-24 overall, 11-11 Big Ten) as they beat Rutgers (40-13, 16-6), 9-6.
“We were fortunate to get five homers,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “We certainly needed every one of them tonight.”
Timeliness mattered against one of the Big Ten’s top teams. The Scarlet Knights got off to a blazing start by recording two hits in the first two at-bats and loading the bases on a hit by pitch. Instead of feeling the pressure, however, sophomore Connor O’Halloran took care of business and struck out two batters to retire the side scoreless.
The stranded runners came back to haunt Rutgers in a hurry, as junior right fielder Clark Elliott and graduate center fielder Joe Stewart blasted back to back home runs to lead off the Wolverines’ half of the inning. The scoring rally would end on a controversial check-swing appeal, which ruled senior shortstop Riley Bertram out with runners on second and third base.
The Scarlet Knights didn’t waste their second chance, though, tying the game right back up in the second inning off a solo homer and an RBI single. After putting runners on second and third the next inning, O’Halloran received a mound visit from Bakich. With multiple pitchers warming in the pen, it looked like the end of the night had come for the left-hander.
Instead of taking the ball, however, the Michigan skipper instead put his trust in O’Halloran. Bakich left him to record the final out of the inning, and that trust was paid in kind. O’Halloran struck out designated hitter Jordan Sweeney and froze the score at 2-2.
That knotted score didn’t last long. In the bottom of the fifth inning, fielding miscues let Michigan get a runner to third. Junior second baseman Ted Burton brought them home on a sacrifice fly, breaking the lead openly once again for the Wolverines.
Two at-bats later, Elliott came up big once again, padding the lead at 4-2 with his second home run of the game. Much like the first lead, however, the second one didn’t hold beyond half an inning, as the Scarlets Knights blasted a three-run homer to take control of the game with a one-run lead.
Instead of nursing its wounds, Michigan went right back on the attack, knotting a pair of two-run homers off the bats of junior catcher Jimmy Obertop and junior left fielder Joey Velasquez. Against one of the conference’s top teams, the Wolverines led 8-5.
After a bases-loaded walk pushed the score to 9-5 one inning later, the Wolverines smelled blood in the water. Instead of calling for one of his usual reliever choices, Bakich instead played it aggressively and sent sophomore right-hander Chase Allen, usually Michigan’s Sunday starter, to the mound to shut down any attempt at a comeback.
Despite giving up a run, Allen was effective on the mound and held the lead to three runs.
To close it out, Bakich continued to throw his best arms at the Scarlet Knights in junior right-hander Cameron Weston, usually Michigan’s Saturday starter. Weston made easy work of the Rutgers lineup and recorded his first save of the season.
“We’ve been saying we’re going to treat every weekend like tournament baseball,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “You worry about tomorrow, the day after that, but really the biggest thing is getting today.”
With postseason hopes on the line, all of Michigan’s high performers showed up. Against one of the Big Ten’s giants, that performance ensured the Wolverines will play another day.