The Michigan baseball team’s game against Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament was unorthodox, to say the least. The only thing that was familiar was the outcome. Purdue prevailed over Michigan for the fourth time this season in an impeccably close match, winning 5-4.
While there were plenty of reviewable plays, none held more weight than the events in the bottom of the ninth inning.
The inning began like any other as junior left-hander William Tribucher started things off with a strikeout. With a tie ballgame in the bottom of the ninth and one out, the Wolverines were confident in their defense. After all, Michigan’s defenders had just held Iowa to a season low in hits a day earlier.
Then, disaster struck.
Tribucher had dug into a 3-1 count when he pitched the final pitch of a walk. However, the ball would hit the ground and bounce off the glove of redshirt freshman catcher Harrison Salter. Losing the ball in the air, Salter frantically ripped his facemask off and desperately searched for the illusive white sphere.
In a moment of pure frustration, everyone in the dugout and infield was screaming the location of the ball located on Salter’s right-hand side. Eventually finding the ball, Salter then struggled to grasp the seams while trying to pinpoint the location of the baserunner.
Meanwhile, the runner, pinch hitter Milo Beam, had easily taken second base. Then, in a moment of pure embarrassment, the Wolverines realized that no one was covering third. In all the confusion, senior third baseman Brock Keener had wandered deep in the infield to help point out the location of the ball to Salter. This allowed Beam to take third and put the winning run a mere 90 feet from glory.
This was the most crucial play in the game.
What should’ve been a simple walk quickly devolved into disaster for Michigan. It was a combination of an unusual defensive lapse for the Wolverines and an aggressive mindset from the Boilermakers.
“That was a smart decision by them to go on the passed ball,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “Most teams don’t do that. Most teams don’t even attempt to take second base on the walk where the ball kicks away from the catcher, so they got that break there because they made that break. It’s an aggressive team.”
After the play, the Wolverines would intentionally walk the next two batters in order to see the bottom of the order. Then third baseman Evan Warden cranked the walk-off single up the middle.
Another unorthodox play came in the sixth inning, although this one went favorably for Michigan.
With bases loaded and two outs, freshman left fielder Jordan Nwogu stepped up to the plate. After taking a ball and two strikes, things looked dire for the first year. Seeing a favorable ball come over the plate, Nwogu took a big swing and an unfortunate miss. Luckily for Michigan, though, the ball whizzed past catcher Nick Dalesandro.
Nwogu reached first and sophomore designated hitter Dominic Clementi scored.
While the strange nature of select plays from the game will highlight every recap, certain strategic events were just as important.
For instance, in the bottom of the eight with two outs and Keener on first, freshman shortstop Jack Blomgren was at bat. The Wolverines had just evened the game at four and were looking to take the lead from Purdue.
Continuing this momentum, Blomgren slapped a single to left field. While the fielders were distracted by Keener advancing to third, Blomgren tried his luck at taking second base. His aggressive effort would go down in vain as the throw was in time back to second and Blomgren would get called for the third out.
While hindsight is 20/20, it’s difficult to not become frustrated at what could have been. For all intensive purposes, this was an offensive error. Had Blomgren stayed at first, Michigan would have had a runner in scoring position and its best chance to take the lead.
“I always tell our guys, ‘If you’re gonna make a mistake, make an aggressive mistake,’” Bakich said. “If we’re gonna make an error, throw the ball in the parking lot. If we’re gonna make a baserunning mistake, be a baserunning mistake like that. That’s a great learning opportunity for those young guys. I don’t want timid mistakes.”
Bakich’s embrace of these mistakes is comforting now, but if the young Wolverines are to continue their inaugural season, the flukes must be eliminated in favor for consistency.
All in all, the fickle nature of the game is what makes baseball great. If any one tiny thing in any of the aforementioned plays goes differently, then an entirely different result follows. The best Michigan can do now is focus on what it can control and flush the mistakes in hopes of a brighter tomorrow.
“Sucks to lose the way we did on a walk that got away on a vacated base,” Bakich said, “but it is what it is, and the good thing is we still have life and we’re gonna get over this quick and not be too down on ourselves and get back to the middle and be ready to play Ohio State tomorrow.”