Jumping straight into the fire.
That’s how coach Erik Bakich described Michigan baseball’s opening weekend trip to the 2022 College Baseball Showdown. And the bullpen got burned.
“(The bullpen) is probably the group that I’m the most excited to see,” Bakich said Wednesday, “(In) the bullpen there’s some guys that either haven’t pitched in a long time or have never pitched for Michigan. … That’ll be probably our biggest question mark to start the year.”
The Wolverine reliever corps runs younger and less experienced relative to the team’s other position groups. This leaves the unit with a lot to prove, and while there were some bright spots, they’ll have to wait a little longer to do it.
In the season opener against No. 14 Texas Tech, the bullpen had a rocky start, unable to hold on under pressure. Entering the bottom of the sixth inning with a three-run lead, sophomore left-hander Logan Wood quickly loaded the bases. A hit batter and a wild pitch from his substitute, senior right-hander Willie Weiss, then allowed two runs to score, shrinking Michigan’s lead to one.
Then in the ninth, following two scoreless innings of work, Weiss allowed a single, a walk and a hit by pitch to load the bases. The Red Raiders then completed their comeback with a walk-off single from right fielder Owen Washburn.
Against Kansas State however, the unit put together a solid performance. Following a quality start from junior left-hander Jacob Denner, and an explosive seventh inning from the offense to give them a large cushion, the bullpen cruised through three innings of work, only giving up one additional run. It concluded with a scoreless ninth inning from sophomore right-hander Ahmad Harajli to win the game 10-2.
The relief unit then finished their weekend with another rough outing against Oklahoma. While playing from behind, the final game slipped out of reach late due to a collection of walks conflated by untimely infield errors that the relievers were unable to work around, putting the team in an even deeper hole.
“You can’t give them extra bases,” Bakich said. “Tonight we had a few errors, those errors with runners on base lead to more extra bases and things just kind of got out of hand.”
The Wolverines did have some positive aspects to the weekend. Willie Weiss got to take a crack at an extended relief appearance in line with his shifting role on the staff.
“We’ve built him up as a starter since the fall,” Bakich said. “That was the perfect opportunity to get a three plus inning save… he’s very capable of doing that, we’re going to do that again.”
The goal of attending this tournament for the team was explicit: get challenges from good teams, especially for units like the bullpen that will need time to solidify and find an identity. They certainly found those challenges in Arlington. Moving forward, Michigan’s relievers need to learn from these early challenges to avoid being similarly burned further down the line like they were in this opening series.
The opponents were good this weekend, the season has barely started and one series is a small sample size to judge a team by, but these are the situations in which great teams must learn to excel.
And the bullpen had difficulty standing strong when the pressure was on.