After five innings, the No. 13 Michigan baseball team was tied 4-4 with Michigan State. But if you looked at everything except the “runs” category of the box score, you wouldn’t know it.
The Wolverines had notched nine hits to the Spartans’ four, including five doubles, and had reached at least third base in all but one frame. Yet they had been unable to land the decisive blow.
That blow finally came in the very next inning.
Pulling away from Michigan State (5-8 Big Ten, 21-17 overall) on the strength of consecutive four-run frames, Michigan (6-3, 30-7) defeated its in-state rival, 12-4, on Tuesday. All but one Wolverine recorded a hit, and, as a team, Michigan racked up 17, including seven doubles – both its highest totals of the season.
The top of the order did the most damage. Sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas extended his streak of reaching base to 37 games, going 4-for-5 with two runs batted-in. Senior center fielder Johnny Slater, hitting right behind Thomas, went 4-for-4 with four doubles and a stolen base, setting a Big Ten season-high for extra-base hits and playing what Michigan coach Erik Bakich called the best game of his career.
“(Slater) invests as much time on his swing and his preparation and his routine in those cages as anyone,” Bakich said. “He’s earned this.”
Tuesday’s game appeared to have shootout potential from the beginning, as both teams surrendered a run before recording an out. The Spartans got to Michigan junior left-hander Michael Hendrickson quickly when Dan Chmielewski hit a liner to center that bounced over a sliding Slater, allowing the Spartan right fielder to turn it into a triple and drive home left fielder Bryce Kelley.
The Wolverines jumped right back in front in the bottom half of the frame against Michigan State right-hander Mike Mokma. Thomas wasted no time keeping his streak alive, lacing a leadoff double down the left-field line. Slater then scored Thomas with a double just past the reach of Michigan State first baseman Zack McGuire. Senior shortstop Michael Brdar would bring Slater across the plate with a sacrifice fly after a passed ball allowed Slater to take third base.
Just when it seemed that both pitchers had settled down after rough starts, Michigan staged a two-out rally in the third inning. Slater doubled to center field, and Brdar hit an RBI single up the middle.
Michigan State would pose its own rally in the fifth inning. Hendrickson, who struggled with control all night – throwing just 25 strikes in 58 pitches – walked the first two batters of the frame before giving way to Karl Kauffman. The freshman right-hander recorded two quick outs, but couldn’t prevent the Spartans from taking the lead on an RBI groundout and a double by second baseman Dan Durkin.
However, the resiliency that has been present for Michigan all season appeared again Tuesday. The Wolverines loaded the bases with two singles and a walk, and Brdar hit his second sacrifice fly of the game to tie the score.
Michigan pulled ahead for good in the sixth inning. Junior first baseman Jake Bivens and sophomore designated hitter Nick Poirier began the frame with two straight singles, and Bivens came home to give the Wolverines the lead on sophomore right fielder Jonathan Engelmann’s groundout.
A walk by senior catcher Harrison Wenson, followed by a balk, set up Thomas with two runners in scoring position. He delivered, as his ground ball bounced just beyond the reach of Bechina and into left field. Slater then struck the biggest blow with his third double of the game, a sharp liner to deep center that scored both Wenson and Thomas.
“It was taking it one at bat at a time,” said redshirt sophomore left fielder Miles Lewis, who went 3-for-4 with two doubles. “Passing the torch off to the next guy and just taking quality at-bats.”
Michigan rode that surge into its next inning. Engelmann hit a two-RBI single between shortstop and second base, and would score himself on Thomas’s fourth hit of the game. Slater capped off the offensive outburst with an RBI double to the opposite field. The Wolverines’ bullpen, meanwhile, did its job, as freshman left-hander Tommy Henry hurled two innings and struck out three to earn his third win.
“It was very frustrating for us at first,” Thomas said. “We came out with a game plan, we wanted to be aggressive and get ahead, but it didn’t work out as planned. I just felt like we came together, put our foot down and said we were going to get some runs.”
While the matchup was a non-conference game, not counting towards the Big Ten standings, the showdown didn’t lose any intensity, especially considering Michigan had dropped four of its last five games to Michigan State.
“They’re a good club,” Lewis said. “It’s nice to see some of their arms and what they’ve got to carry that into the conference games.”
Added Bakich: “It’s a rival feel. They don’t like us and we don’t like them. That’s what a rivalry’s all about – we wanted to come out and play well.”