The Michigan baseball team’s season took a turn for the worst after it lost seven of its last eight regular-season games, five of which were against Big Ten foes.
But if the Wolverines (14-10 Big Ten, 35-19 overall) learned anything from last season’s Big Ten Tournament championship run, it was that this tourney will give them the opportunity to start with a clean slate and battle for a spot at an NCAA Regional.
Here’s what to watch for as Michigan prepares for the Big Ten Tournament.
1. Everyone in the lineup except Jake Bivens …
The sophomore third basemen is the only player in the Wolverines’ batting order who hasn’t shifted from his spot in the lineup. In 207 at-bats, the leadoff hitter leads the team with 75 hits and a .362 batting average.
With Michigan hampered by injuries, including a broken arm for left fielder Matt Ramsay and a concussion for utility player Carmen Benedetti, Michigan coach Erik Bakich has been forced to rely on bench players such as Johnny Slater and Jonathan Engelmann to pick up slack in the outfield and at the plate.
The emergence of players like fifth-year senior Dominic Jamett has also resulted in several changes to the lineup amidst the Wolverines’ struggles. The order that Bakich will use against the Buckeyes will likely be the same throughout the Big Ten Tournament.
2. … especially junior catcher Harrison Wenson
Wenson, Michigan’s most prolific power-hitter, has endured an uncharacteristic slump in the Wolverines’ season-ending skid. In the past eight games, he is just 3-for-32 — the only bright spot is two home runs in that span.
His lackluster performance has relegated him to as low as No. 7 in the batting order in some contests as opposed to his typical residency in the cleanup spot.
If Michigan hopes to repeat as the Big Ten Tournament champion, it must be able to get its consistent hitting back from its usual suspects rather than rely on the pitching staff or any outlying play from the bottom of the lineup.
3. Middle-inning relievers
Despite a few hiccups, the Wolverines’ starting pitchers have been getting the job done, boasting a 3.76 earned-run average and striking out nine batters a game, good for 14th in the country.
The same cannot be said about the middle-inning relievers. In almost every one of its last eight games, Michigan’s bullpen has given up at least one run without fail. Against Illinois on May 20, all four Wolverine relievers allowed at least one run, tallying nine total to blow a 7-2 lead.
No part of the Wolverine squad has played without mistakes, but when the starting pitching or the offense gets going, it’s not being backed up in tight contests. Michigan must be able to maintain late leads — something that has been a season-long struggle — if it hopes to advance in the tourney.
4. The rest of the Big Ten
Before the season began, Michigan was widely projected as the frontrunner to win the Big Ten. Though the Wolverines are coming into the tournament with a better record than last season, they finished a disappointing fifth place in the conference standings, a decline from being a No. 3 seed in the 2015 tournament.
Yes, Michigan has improved upon last year’s Big Ten Tournament championship team, but so has the rest of the Big Ten — by a lot. Minnesota’s batting average of .326 ranks fourth in the country, Michigan State’s 2.71 ERA is also good for fourth and Ohio State, which the Wolverines will be facing Wednesday, has the nation’s 11th-best ERA.
Even if the Wolverines can get past the Buckeyes, who they were swept by earlier this season, the tournament won’t get any easier for Michigan. The Wolverines must improve in all facets of the game to repeat what they accomplished in last year’s miraculous run.