Connor O'Halloran pitches the ball with his left hand.
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OMAHA, Neb. — Just three hours before Connor O’Halloran toed the rubber against Iowa in round one of the Big Ten Tournament, he earned the highest award for a pitcher in the conference — Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. After a turbulent season of long outings and high pitch counts, the junior left-hander earned the ultimate sign of recognition from his peers throughout the conference. 

Reaching the summit of his position, he also faced the most substantial game of his season against the brilliant Hawkeye offense. 

Boasting three All-Big Ten First Team selections in its offense and a collective team batting average of .300, Iowa is as formidable a foe as a good pitcher like O’Halloran can come up against — he was in for one of his biggest challenges in his career in a momentous game for his program.

His fate was divided into two: he could back up his awards and recognition, or he could falter at the hands of a strong offense and send his team down to the losers’ bracket.

“The context of that young man, we have asked a lot of him,” Michigan coach Tracy Smith said. “He did, to me, a typical Connor performance which gave his team a chance to win. … That kid, I cannot sit here and say enough good things about him.”

When the lights shined the brightest it appeared as though the southpaw was set to back up his accolades, but ultimately the Hawkeyes’ offense overpowered O’Halloran. 

Through the first three innings of play, the Michigan defense appeared to be the biggest threat to surrendering the game to Iowa. Three errors in as many innings, including a costly miss in right field by senior Joey Velazquez, turning a single into a triple, gave the Hawkeyes plenty of chances early to strike.

But O’Halloran held them in check.

Striking out four batters in those first three innings and ultimately allowing just one run to score held the Wolverines tied at one heading into the fourth inning — right where they expected their ace to have them.

“It’s different when you’re pitching ahead or you have to come from behind,” Smith said. “Because the pressure coming into that game is probably more on Iowa.”

The brilliance of O’Halloran was halted, though, at a time when Michigan needed it most. After a tumultuous inning at the plate where the Wolverines floundered a golden opportunity with the bases loaded and no outs, he trotted back out to the mound in an attempt to swing the pendulum of momentum back towards his dugout. 

But, with Iowa’s dugout buzzing with the excitement of escaping the jam, O’Halloran too would fizzle out, beginning the struggles for Michigan. 

“As a whole, we were battling him up and down and he’s a great pitcher, tip your cap to him,” Iowa right fielder Brayden Frazier said. “But I think we just had the upper hand a little bit today.” 

A two-RBI single initiated the damage, but O’Halloran had been there before. While not unusual to see him allow a small blunder — he usually kept it at just that, a small blunder. 

A single, a wild pitch and a hit-by-pitch re-loaded the bases and Smith decided it was time to calm his ace down with a mound visit, ultimately keeping him in the game. After the chat with his coach and with Frazier at the plate, O’Halloran ceded a hope-crushing grand slam. Ending the dream of shifting the momentum back and putting the Wolverines in an inescapable hole. 

Down 7-1 after the bottom of the fifth inning, O’Halloran’s day was done with seven earned runs, seven hits and seven strikeouts. A once promising appearance turned sour in just half an inning of play.

“He’s one of the top pitchers in the country, even though the result was what it was today,” Smith said. “I can’t believe there’d be too many people who wouldn’t want that young man on their staff.”

Michigan’s ace reached the peak, winning the highest award for a pitcher in the conference. But just over three hours later, in possibly his last career appearance as a Wolverine, he lost Michigan’s rubber match with the hot Iowa offense and quickly led the Wolverines into the loser’s bracket, now just one loss away from their season’s conclusion.