The road has not been kind to the Michigan baseball team this season. The Wolverines have been in constant travel mode — competing in six different states over a 16 game stretch — enduring a six-game losing streak in the process.
But as the calendar shifts from winter to spring, Michigan can put its suitcases back on the shelf, as Friday’s contest against Bradley marks the beginning of an eight-game homestand for the Wolverines.
And with its stalwart ace, junior left-hander Connor O’Halloran, on the mound, Michigan (8-9 overall) captured its first home victory of coach Tracy Smith’s tenure by defeating Bradley (5-8), 8-4. O’Halloran, who boasted an ERA under 2.00 with the most innings pitched in the Big Ten through his first four starts, played a heavy hand in the outcome.
“I watched Michigan a few times on TV last year, and I would see (O’Halloran) pitch, and I was like ‘OK, he’s pretty good … but I don’t get it,’ ” Smith said. “But now that I’ve been around him and understand his mentality … now I get it.”
A pitcher can’t win games alone, though, so the offense needed to give O’Halloran something to work with. Graduate shortstop Cody Jefferis lined right-hander Jac Kisting’s first pitch of the afternoon up the middle for a single, eventually scoring on a single by sophomore designated hitter Joe Longo and giving the Wolverines the initial lead. That leadoff spark foreshadowed what was a fruitful day at the plate for Jefferis, who compiled three hits, two runs and two RBI.
Meanwhile, O’Halloran cruised in the first three innings, striking out five batters and allowing no earned runs during his first trip through the Braves’ order — the sole blemish due to a two-out called third strike throwing error by junior catcher Gabe Sotres that knotted the score 1-1.
The Bradley offense collected that elusive first hit in the top of the fourth, which — coupled with two bases on balls — loaded the bases with no outs for the Braves. But O’Halloran struck out the next three hitters to bring his total to eight and keep the score stagnant.
The stalemate finally broke after Braves starter Kisting exited. Jefferis scored Kim and graduate first-baseman Jack Van Remortel with a two-RBI single off right-hander Noah Edders. Senior second baseman Ted Burton added a two-RBI single of his own to widen the Michigan lead to 5-1.
“The offense is coming around a little bit,” Smith said. “ … But we’ve still got a ton to work on.”
O’Halloran exited after six innings — allowing zero earned runs and racking up 12 strikeouts — plummeting his ERA to 1.67 and expanding on his brilliant start to this campaign. An uncharacteristic four bases on balls, matching his total through his first four starts, contributed to a season-high pitch count of 114.
But with nine more outs to get, the Wolverine’s thin bullpen was a long way from their first home win in 2023.
Bradley immediately took advantage of O’Halloran’s absence, knocking two hits and plating a solitary run in the top of the seventh inning off junior right-hander Noah Rennard — but Sotres launched a two-strike pitch over the left-field wall to gain it back in the bottom of the frame. Longo and Kim both added RBI singles to increase the Michigan lead to 8-2.
The lack of O’Halloran was felt again in the top of the ninth, as the Braves plated two more and flirted with a comeback victory.
“My hope is that some of these young guys on the staff can watch (O’Halloran) … and try to emulate that type of performance,” Smith said.
But unlike the previous two starts from O’Halloran — a no-decision against UAB and a loss to TCU — the Wolverines’ hitters provided enough of a cushion for an O’Halloran victory, his third of the season — and the first home win of Tracy Smith’s tenure.