Entering the 2023 season, the Michigan baseball team was in a state of uncertainty. After numerous departures via the transfer portal and a complete overhaul of the coaching staff, the Wolverines had one major question heading into the season: who would step up with new opportunities at stake, especially on the mound?
Junior left-hander Connor O’Halloran was the most explosive in the new era of Michigan pitching, but two of its relievers also made more sizable contributions than ever before — senior left-hander Jacob Denner and right-hander Noah Rennard. And in Wednesday’s do-or-die matchup against Illinois, their roles as staples of the Wolverines’ rotation were forefront for why they are still fighting for a Big Ten Championship.
Rennard’s role has been especially important, as he entered the season initially as a reliever, quickly proving to be among Michigan’s best. He often slotted in on Fridays to replace O’Halloran, thus a large part of the Wolverines’ winning formula for series openers. However, with all the question marks on the mound, Michigan coach Tracy Smith eventually moved him to a starting role. And now with junior right-hander Chase Allen done for the rest of the campaign, Rennard is Smith’s clear-cut second in command behind O’Halloran.
In the Wolverines’ season-salvaging win, Rennard once again showed his excellence, even when thrown into uncomfortable situations. Rennard earned the win while allowing just three earned runs, accumulating a season-high six strikeouts in the process. His efficiency establishing an early 5-0 edge, by doing his part on the mound, allowed Michigan to effectively maintain the lead throughout.
“I think you react to the circumstances around you,” Smith said. “We have not had the luxury of having a Friday, Saturday (or) Sunday starter … It’s just the resiliency of whatever we need to do, we’ll find a way to win.”
Luckily for the Wolverines, not only has Rennard established a winning mentality, with Allen’s absence, Denner has also made his presence known in the Michigan bullpen. On Wednesday, the Wolverines truly needed him the longer Rennard’s start lasted. And once again, Denner came through, this time with Michigan’s season on the line.
When Smith pulled Rennard in favor of Denner, Denner was instantly thrown into deep waters. The Fighting Illini had runners on the corners and had already accumulated two runs. And even after a bunt from Illinois infielder Brody Harding made it a 5-3 ballgame, Denner rallied, securing two quick outs to help the Wolverines escape their dangerous predicament. For Denner, this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
“When your name is called, you just try to do anything to help the team,” Denner said. “So whether it’s me or anyone else, I have all the faith that we can get it done.”
That’s exactly what Denner did, pitching a scoreless game the rest of the way for Michigan. And while Denner came into the season as a reliever, Smith called upon him for numerous starts as well. That experience came in handy in his lengthy relief appearance on Wednesday.
“I think I’ve been fortunate to be able to do both (roles),” Denner said. “It’s exposed me to different types of situations. The pressure of a starter was the pressure of a reliever, and really it kind of all goes back to Coach Huntzinger and Gabe (Sotres) calling a great game … letting me compete.”
Even with O’Halloran’s consistent excellence for the Wolverines, it seems as though they have found other arms capable of delivering effective outings, especially when working together in the same game. If Michigan can continue to accumulate wins and support its best pitchers, perhaps its stay in Omaha will be longer than many have imagined.