The bottom of the seventh inning got off to a rocky start for Michigan.
With the count at 1-2 and his team trailing, 3-2, UCLA freshman catcher Noah Cardenas smacked a leadoff double into the gap against the Wolverines’ junior left-hander Tommy Henry. The energy in the stadium intensified, while Henry calmed.
Battle tested, Henry has pitched in high pressure environments before, and channeled the resulting experience to his advantage.
The following batter for the Bruins, sophomore outfielder Jack Stronach, sacrifice bunted, establishing a one-out and runner on third situation. With the infield in, Henry then induced a quick groundout to third to secure out number two.
Cardenas remained stranded at third, but with two outs, UCLA’s top hitter, sophomore center fielder Garrett Mitchell slowly made his way into the box. After working himself into an advantageous 3-1 count, Mitchell waved through a slider to bring the count full.
On his 104th pitch of the night, Henry delivered another slider, this time high and tight. Mitchell made contact, softly lining the ball onto the infield grass between the first and second baseman.
Senior first baseman Jimmy Kerr made the read and fielded the ball on the hop. Henry, recognizing the vacated base, hustled over to cover the bag. In his footrace with Mitchell, one of the fastest players in the country, Henry won by an inch –– securing his final out of the night and preserving the Michigan lead.
His final line: a remarkable seven innings pitched, seven hits, two earned runs, six strikeouts, and no walks.
All that while battling the flu.
“Looking at this team, looking at this field, the super regional stage, it’s something that I know all of us have envisioned playing in the backyard growing up, every time you’re swinging a bat,” Henry said. “You know, you envision these moments and you dream about being on this stage. So, I know that the 35 of them would not skip a beat and would never miss this moment, so I wasn’t going to either.”
For Henry, yesterday’s outing came on the heels of an up-and-down season.
On April 10th, the lefty was named to the Golden Spikes Midseason Watchlist, the award given to the best player in college baseball.
However, following an eight-inning performance against Michigan State on March 29th, Henry’s earned-run average gradually rose from 0.76 to 3.69. In his last two regular season outings of the year, he ceded 12 runs across 10 innings of work.
Once the postseason arrived though, Henry returned to form. In the Big Ten Tournament, Henry threw seven innings across one start and one relief appearance. He allowed two runs total while striking out nine hitters and walking only one.
Last weekend, Henry excelled again as he twirled seven and a third innings of three run baseball against Creighton, one of the nation’s most imposing offenses.
But last night was Henry’s biggest test of the year against top-seeded UCLA. It was perhaps his most important outing since he pitched in game one of the Cape Cod League semifinals last summer. In that game, Henry started, but lasted a mere 1.1 innings. Last night, he reflected upon how that game enabled him to grow as a pitcher.
“There were definitely a lot of learning experiences being out at a place like The Cape. You’re facing the best of the best and it really gives you a chance to learn.” Henry said. “And that’s a credit to Coach Bakich for giving us the tools to have an open mind and use those learning experiences to make yourself better. The credit goes to him for working hard on that, drawing us all in together, speaking to us about it and giving us those tools so that when you do face adversity, you can learn from it and improve.”
In the face of more adversity last night and his team’s season on the line, the tools were on full display as Henry locked down a potent Bruin offense. He made continuous adjustments on the mound and as a result did not allow a run in his final four innings of work.
In addition to his impressive seventh inning, the fifth inning provided a major highlight as well. With the count full and runners on second and third, Henry spun in a curveball to ring up UCLA junior second baseman Chase Strumpf. After unleashing a roar, Henry quickly stared down Strumpf as he returned to the dugout.
Now, Henry has the Wolverines staring down their first Omaha trip since 1984.