Entering the Big Ten Tournament, the Michigan baseball team knew it needed to make a statement.
After a largely underwhelming regular season, the Wolverines won their way to Omaha off a stunning series upset of Rutgers. To make the NCAA Tournament, they’ll have to punch above their weight class once again — this time on a much bigger stage.
Michigan made a strong start of doing just that on Thursday night, defeating Illinoisto set up a showdown with Maryland in the second round of the winners’ bracket.
Here’s a rundown of the predominant storylines that came out of the overnight matchup.
Elliott and Stewart continue to be a dynamic duo
Entering the season, the pecking order in Michigan’s lineup looked to be virtually set.
While both junior right fielder Clark Elliott and junior second baseman Ted Burton received attention as top Big Ten prospects, graduate center fielder Joe Stewart was an unknown, being slotted between the 6th and 8th spots in the lineup.
But as Burton has fallen short of his lofty expectations, Stewart has emerged as one of the Wolverines’ most consistent hitters — quickly getting promoted to the No. 2 spot where Burton once hit.
The lineup might look different for the Wolverines, but the results are a welcome surprise. As a one-two combination, Elliott and Stewart have provided an overwhelming majority of Michigan’s home runs and RBIs.
Thursday’s game proved no different, as the duo crushed back-to-back homers to lead off the game— the first time that has happened to start a Big Ten Tournament game.
Altogether, Elliott and Stewart combined for five of Michigan’s 14 hits, with the latter scoring three of its seven runs.
O’Halloran holds steady after turbulent end of regular season
For a moment early Friday morning, things looked dicey for junior left-hander Connor O’Halloran.
After giving up a double and hitting an Illini batter, O’Halloran found himself facing two baserunners with only one out in the fifth inning. Illinois had already piled on once, scoring two runs just an inning before to pull within one run.
Things looked close to spiraling out of control for the Mississauga native, an all-too-familiar refrain entering the tournament.
After starting the season as one of the Wolverines’ best pitchers — at one point leading the team in ERA — O’Halloran suddenly went cold. In just five appearances, he gave up a staggering 27 of his 44 total runs allowed this season.
Despite the recent history, however, Michigan coach Erik Bakich chose to trust his starter.
“They’re starting to hit him a little bit,” Bakich told the Big Ten Network during a mid-game interview. “But he’s doing a good job, especially when he’s down in the zone.”
Despite both base runners advancing on a groundout, O’Halloran made the most of his skipper’s trust and slammed the door on the Illini, tying the game with a five-pitch strikeout of catcher Jacob Campbell.
Should it be O’Halloran’s final appearance this season, it was a positive end to a turbulent final few weeks — and a reminder of what happened before the lefty’s cold streak.
As the Wolverines prepare for a second-round matchup against Maryland, both of these developments could prove crucial if Michigan hopes to keep its postseason alive.