Matthew Schmidt put the sweet spot of the barrel on a middle-in, letter-high offering. Seconds later, the ball was rolling around in the grass behind the left-field wall.
“It was kind of a surreal experience,” Schmidt said. “It was good because it was opening day and (it) got the go-ahead run.”
The redshirt senior first baseman had just hit his first homer for Michigan, giving the eighth-ranked Wolverines a ninth-inning lead they would ride to a 4-3 win over No. 1 Vanderbilt on Friday.
It was also one of just eight extra-base hits tallied by Michigan over the course of a weekend split between the MLB4 Tournament and a true away game at No. 3 Arizona State. But despite the power outage, the Wolverines came away from the weekend with a 3-1 record.
Michigan’s pitchers were as capable as their opponents’. The Wolverines allowed just 10 extra-base hits themselves, four coming during a 7-1 loss to Connecticut on Sunday. They held projected top-15 picks Austin Martin of the Commodores and Spencer Torkelson of the Sun Devils to a combined 0-for-7 with one walk. One secret to this success was giving the ball to the pitcher Michigan coach Erik Bakich felt was appropriate for the moment, rather than sticking to assigned roles.
“Whatever spot I’m pitching in,” junior right-hander Blake Beers, who started against Cal Poly, said. “… whatever spot the rest of my teammates are pitching in doesn’t really matter as long as we’re contributing to our team and contributing to wins. So I’m not really worried about (my role) right now; I don’t think everybody else is worried about that.”
Redshirt sophomore right-hander Isaiah Paige saw a save opportunity and a start, redshirt sophomore left-hander and projected starter Ben Dragani was used as somewhat of a lefty specialist and Beers submitted five and two-third innings of work without an earned run.
“(I) learned a lot about some starting pitching options that we have,” Bakich said. “Some guys that did a nice job out of the bullpen, liked the depth of some of our position players, some of the interchangeable parts.”
Although Michigan’s arms limited big plays, they struck out just 33 hitters over the four games. None were hesitant to pitch to contact.
“It definitely makes it easier to pitch out there when you’ve got such great guys behind you,” Beers said.
Added junior right-hander Jeff Criswell, who started against Vanderbilt: “That’s what we really stress here — defense wins championships. We’ve got the captain of our team, (junior Jack Blomgren), at shortstop. He’s as good as they come — we kind of call him ‘old faithful’ sometimes.”
Mustangs’ starter Andrew Alvarez would probably not share the same high praise with his defense. While Beers retired the first 11 batters he saw thanks to eight infield putouts, the Wolverines batted around in the first inning by abusing Cal Poly’s hapless middle infield, reaching base on weak contact and taking advantage of an inability to turn two or gun down the lead runner. Three runs scored in the top of the first, none earned by Alvarez.
It’s no surprise that it all started with junior outfielder Jordan Nwogu, who lifted the game’s lid with an infield hit.
“I like the tone it sets, having that strapping dude walking up to the plate to lead off the game with a double or a homer,” Bakich said of Nwogu at the team media day. “He’s done well in that role and he poses a totally dynamic speed-power threat, so I like him up there in the top of the order.”
While there were no doubles or homers in the offing for Nwogu last weekend, he reached base 11 times and stole two bases. With the scarcity of game-changing swings like Schmidt’s, getting 90 feet closer to home against elite pitching was crucial to scoring at all.
Never was that more clear than in the final third of a pitcher’s duel against Vanderbilt. Second baseman Riley Bertram reached on an error, was bunted over to second, stole third and scored on a wild pitch to give Michigan the lead. Not knowing if the bats could come alive against the Commodores’ deep bullpen, Bakich decided that working around a leadoff base runner was a safer bet than banking on subsequent hitters’ ability to hit safely.
Accumulating bases at all costs did not go off without a few hitches. In the top of the first against the Commodores, Nwogu tried to advance to third base on a ground ball to the right side. Vanderbilt shortstop Carter Young took an equal risk, throwing out Nwogu despite the necessity of a tag increasing the difficulty of the play’s execution. The remainder of the side was retired unceremoniously. But had Michigan gotten scared of taking an extra base here, Bertram’s trip around the pillows may never have happened.
“We just stayed with the attack mindset,” Blomgren said. “Kept our confidence high. We just went back to business, and kept playing Michigan baseball.”
That brand of Michigan baseball — racking up ground ball outs on defense and vying for positional advantage on the bases — powered the Wolverines to their three victories this weekend.
They have the upcoming season to turn the no-doubt sound of Schmidt’s barrel on the baseball from a solo into a chorus.