Earlier in the season, it seemed as though the Michigan baseball team (11-0 Big Ten, 24-11 overall) had mastered the art of losing.
It had lost a number of one-run games, including a walkoff loss to then-No. 8 Stanford, being shut out by the Cardinal in the previous game, and being blown out by Cal Poly and run off their own field by Lawrence Tech — a DII program in the NAIA.
No one aspect of the team was responsible for these struggles. Instead, each unit was undergoing momentary lapses. The Wolverines’ usually sturdy defense struggled with errors. The starting pitching gave up too many runs. The Michigan bats fell silent on one too many occasions. The dugout did not contain the reqiured amount of enthusiasm, and the highly-touted freshman class struggled to adjust. To put it simply, the 11 losses of the first 15 games of the season fell on everyone’s shoulders.
Fast forward a month and a half and Michigan is in the midst of a 20 game win streak after sweeping Big Ten opponent Penn State over the weekend. Now everything seems to be working and the inconsistencies have turned into strengths. The Wolverines now are winning in a variety of ways instead of losing.
Friday’s 19-5 victory was due to a clinical offensive outburst up and down the lineup and another strong pitching performance from sophomore left-hander Tommy Henry.
The Wolverines put up five runs in both the first and second innings and never looked back. Although everyone seemed to be on their A-game at the plate, Blake Nelson was the star of the show, going 4-for-5 with three doubles and six runs batted in. Henry did his part on the mound, allowing no earned runs to improve to 7-0 on the season.
If Friday’s game was comfortable, Saturday’s was anything but. Michigan trailed for a majority of the game but were able to pull it off in their first extra-inning game of the season as freshman shortstop Jack Blomgren laid down a suicide squeeze to score sophomore Dominic Clementi. Timely hitting and clutch pitching performances from the bullpen were enough to overcome a tough outing for freshman left-hander Ben Dragani.
“Sometimes you need to learn lessons,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “You don’t want to learn lessons in a loss, but you can learn lessons in a win… This was a real scare. It’s been since Western Michigan that we were staring at a potential loss. Sometimes you need that to get your focus back.”
The Wolverines seemed well-equipped to deal with the Nittany Lions Sunday afternoon and finished the sweep. Unlike Saturday’s nailbiter, Michigan scored a decisive 14-2 victory. It jumped out to an early lead once again and rode sophomore starter Karl Kauffman into the eighth inning. Kauffman was dominant, allowing only three hits and striking out a career-high 11.
The Wolverines are one of the hottest teams in the country right now, and this series exemplified just why that is the case. Michigan outscored Penn State 41-14. Defensive errors which plagued it early in the season were at a minimum over the weekend, recording just three over the course of the series. And the pitching performances were solid as well.
According to Bakich, though, it isn’t the play on the field that is responsible for the remarkable turnaround, rather a shift in mentality.
“They got the right mindset and that’s all we ever talk about,” Bakich said. “We don’t talk about the scoreboard. We don’t talk about the results. We don’t talk about the outcome. We just talk about the right mindset: playing for Michigan. Representing the block-M in the best way we can. That’s all it is and I think that’s a big part of the positive things that are happening in our program right now.”