With a runner on first in the fourth inning, Eastern Michigan designated hitter Brennan Williams lashed a liner into right field. Michigan sophomore right fielder Jonathan Engelmann caught up to the ball at the warning track, and turned around to see Eagle centerfielder Jeremy Stidham barreling around second base, showing no signs of slowing down.
Without hesitation, Engelmann fired the ball to sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas, whose relay throw reached senior catcher Harrison Wenson a split-second before Stidham slid home.
“It needed a good throw from Engelmann and Ako, and it needed a good catch and a hard tag from Wenson,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “We got all of them.”
The successful relay preserved a 1-0 lead for the No. 13 Michigan baseball team (6-3 Big Ten, 26-7 overall), and proved even more crucial after Eastern Michigan (4-2 Mid-American, 12-20) tied the game in the seventh inning. Without a stellar effort on the mound and in the field, the Wolverines wouldn’t have been able to grind out a 13-inning, 2-1 win against the Eagles.
While Michigan’s offense – which has averaged 8.3 runs over its last 11 games – has received most of the attention recently, its defense has been just as spectacular. After Tuesday night’s error-free performance, the Wolverines now rank 10th in the nation with a fielding percentage of .983.
In the outfield, Engelmann, redshirt sophomore left fielder Miles Lewis and senior center fielder Johnny Slater have recorded 171 putouts without an error. Meanwhile, the infield of Thomas, junior first baseman Jake Bivens, junior third baseman Drew Lugbauer and senior shortstop Michael Brdar have combined to commit just nine errors on the year.
Bivens, last season’s third baseman, crossed the diamond to first base this year due to offseason Tommy John surgery which limited his throwing ability, while Lugbauer moved from first to take Bivens’ place. The pair’s versatility – both played shortstop in high school – has given Michigan exceptional athleticism from the corner positions, where this type of athleticism isn’t always prioritized. Against Eastern Michigan, Bivens highlighted his performance by leaping high to snare a high-bouncing grounder in the second inning, while Lugbauer’s arm strength consistently made tough throws seem routine.
“When you think about corner guys, you don’t necessarily think of them as premium athletes,” Bakich said. “But we feel like we’ve got four shortstops on the infield, which gives us a lot of range and athleticism and allows a lot of playmaking abilities.”
Meanwhile, Michigan’s pitching staff has fed right into the defense’s strengths – thriving with an increased emphasis on attacking hitters and pitching to contact. Against Eastern Michigan, Wolverine pitchers walked just two of the 48 batters they faced, and threw 68 percent of their pitches for strikes.
“We just want to let the defense work,” Bakich said. “Something we struggled with last year was nibbling and avoiding contact. If there are a lot of lulls every single inning, you get caught on your heels sometimes and you don’t play as good defense.
“When the pitching staff is relentlessly attacking the strike zone and forcing a lot of contact, and the pitchers are trusting that defenders are going to make those plays, those defenders stay engaged. It’s easier to play behind pitchers that are just attack, attack, attack.”
Tuesday night’s starter, junior right-hander Jayce Vancena, is one of those pitchers. He was ruthlessly efficient against Eastern Michigan, throwing just 62 pitches in five innings, striking out five and allowing three hits. Perhaps most impressively, Vancena did not surrender a walk – in 29 innings this season, he has yet to do so.
“In the infield, we don’t want to be standing out there all day,” Thomas said. “Jayce is known for working quick and getting everybody ground balls.”
Added Bivens: “He’s been attacking the zone all year. He’s a great pitcher – we just love playing behind him. We trust in him and we believe in him.”
When Vancena exited after the fifth inning, the bullpen picked up right where he left off, striking out 10 batters in eight innings and allowing just five hits. While senior right-hander Jackson Lamb highlighted the group by striking out four in a career-high 2.1 innings, it was freshman right-hander Karl Kauffman who picked up the win with two strikeouts in the 13th inning.
“We knew we had some older guys that had some experience,” Bakich said. “We also knew we had some very talented freshmen coming in with (left-hander Tommy) Henry and Kauffman and even (right-hander) Jack Weisenburger in that mix. But we have a lot of depth – that’s an area that’s a huge priority in our program.”
All season – and especially against Eastern Michigan – Michigan has proven it has the talent and mentality on defense to win low-scoring slugfests. Even if its offense can’t push runs across the plate, if Tuesday night’s game is any indication, the Wolverines will be in good shape.