With one game standing between the Michigan baseball team and a Big Ten Championship, coach Erik Bakich needed his team to overcome its greatest struggle this season: the bullpen.
After an afternoon elimination game where the Wolverines used their strongest pitchers in the must-win situation — and lost to an ejection and subsequent suspension — the depth of the pen would once again be tested against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
In previous situations, junior left-hander Jacob Denner struggled with the pressure. On Sunday though, When his team needed him most, he proved to be a stable hand.
In 4.1 innings, Denner gave up just three hits and one run to a surging Scarlet Knights offense while striking out seven. It was more than Bakich could’ve asked for from a pitcher who threw39 pitches just one day prior, and it propelled Michigan to a 10-4 victory over Rutgers to win the Big Ten Championship.
“On the pitching side, Jacob really stepped up,” Bakich said. “He settled things down in the middle of the game and put zeros up against a dangerous offense.”
Entering the game in the second inning, Denner inherited a precarious situation.
Despite recording two outs, the Scarlet Knights had clearly rattled senior right-hander Walker Cleveland. After giving up a home run to Josh Kuroda-Grauer, Cleveland allowed back to back walks, putting the go-ahead run on base for Rutgers.
With the Wolverines holding just a one run lead in the second inning, Denner’s first test had the ability to set the tone for the rest of the game. Instead of faltering under the pressure, Denner slammed the door shut on the Scarlet Knights, striking out Ryan Lasko — one of the Scarlet Knights’ most dominant hitters.
In the next inning though, that good feeling faded quickly, as Rutgers put the pressure back on. A double and a triple tied the game and positioned the Scarlet Knights just 90 feet away from taking the lead with one out.
But once again, Denner found a way.
With a full-count strikeout and a flyout, the New Jersey native left the runner stranded on third, preventing a potentially game-defining play.
In the next two innings not only did Michigan bolster its lead with its bats, but s Denner also appeared to have found a groove. And as he did so, Denner faced his final and perhaps biggest test of the game in the bottom of the sixth. After a flyout, a single and two walks loaded the bases, a strikingly similar situation to the one Denner had found himself in to enter the game arose.
With 80 pitches thrown, the left hander looked ready to be relieved. In spite of that, though, his coach left him in the game, giving him the task of finishing what he had started.
Down in a 2-1 count, the outcome was trending poorly. With one last push, Denner found the zone on back to back pitches, catching left fielder Mike Nyisztor looking for an inning ending strikeout.
Instead of walking off the mound, Denner leaped, throwing his fists in the air in celebration — and perhaps in a gasp of relief. After a long and turbulent season, the left-hander, and the Wolverines at large, finally found what they had been looking for.