In the Michigan baseball team’s game against Rutgers Saturday, what should have been a harmless first inning fly-out was anything but.
Left fielder Miles Lewis sprinted into the gap in left-center field in pursuit of a high fly ball off the bat of Scarlet Knight designated hitter Mike Carter. Meanwhile, senior center fielder Johnny Slater ran just as hard towards the ball — and Lewis.
As the two outfielders converged at full speed, Lewis slid to catch the ball. Slater dove over him, and his knee collided with Lewis’s forehead, knocking the redshirt sophomore to the turf. After nearly 10 seconds, Lewis rose from the ground a “bloody mess”, according to Michigan coach Erik Bakich.
Bakich has previously described Lewis – a former high school football player – as “absolutely shredded, ripped, very strong” and “someone who could play tailback for Coach Harbaugh”. So even though Lewis required nine stitches in his forehead, that wasn’t the immediate concern.
“It was a clean cut, it was across his eyebrows and up,” Bakich said. “I was worried that he might have some dizziness or symptoms of a concussion, but he described it as a football hit. I didn’t think he’d return that quickly.”
Yet there was Lewis – concussion-free – back in the lineup and batting second Sunday. And as if the previous day’s incident had never happened, he laced two hits in his first three at-bats and scored two runs.
Slater, though, wasn’t as lucky. The senior center-fielder appeared fine immediately after he exited the game along with Lewis after the collision. But a short time later, Slater and the coaching staff discovered that the AC joint in his shoulder was sprained.
“When you have a sprain of a joint it’s kind of day-to-day, week-to-week,” Bakich said. “He will be back this season, I just don’t know if it’s going to be this weekend, next weekend or the weekend after that.”
It seems strange to say that such a gruesome accident could have a silver lining. But coming off a 12-5 blowout loss in the series opener against Rutgers, Bakich pointed to the collision as a turning point in the weekend — and possibly the season.
“It was definitely something that we talked about immediately,” Bakich said. “Gathering the team together and saying, we’re going to have to fight our asses off without these guys and we’re going to have to do it for them.
“That was a defining moment in the weekend where that weekend could have gone one of two ways. It would have been easy to point to a losing weekend and the reasoning and the excuse that we had a couple big injuries. But our guys did a great job of not letting that be a reason.”
In fact, perhaps the most important contributions to Michigan’s series-clinching wins on Saturday and Sunday came from the players who were directly called upon to replace Michigan’s injured starters.
Saturday, freshman Christian Bullock replaced Lewis in left, while redshirt freshman Joe Pace took Slater’s spot in center. Despite having combined for just 14 at-bats up to that point, the pair made an immediate impact. Pace went 2-4 with a double, while Bullock was 1-2 with two RBIs and a stolen base.
Meanwhile, sophomore Jimmy Kerr started all three games at second base due to sophomore Ako Thomas’s broken hand suffered last week against Indiana. In the five games Thomas has missed, Kerr hasn’t just held down the fort: he’s hit .571, including seven hits in 10 at-bats and three RBIs against Rutgers — a performance that earned him Big Ten Player of the Week honors.
Much of the Wolverines’ success this season has stemmed from their consistency. Since Slater was moved to the second spot in the lineup for the first time against Maryland, Michigan’s batting order has remained for the most part unchanged, and with great success — until Thomas’s injury against Indiana, the Wolverines had been on a 14-1 streak.
However, lineup consistency, while overwhelmingly beneficial, comes with a catch — it is heavily contingent on health.
For most of the season, Michigan has enjoyed nearly perfect health. Against Indiana and Rutgers, for the first time, this was not the case. The Wolverines knew they needed to adapt.
“We had to make the adjustment to our offense, in terms of, we might have to do some things we haven’t done as much of in the past,” Bakich said. “Bunting, some gadget plays, and running different types of defenses. But that’s what we train for as well.”
Obviously, Michigan would rather not wait for Thomas and Slater to return to the lineup. But once they do, the Wolverines will be a different team than before. Their ability to adjust and react immediately to injuries or other unforeseen changes was unknown until just recently.
Saturday and Sunday, this ability was tested, and Michigan passed the test.