EAST LANSING — It was an escape act that would have made Houdini jealous.
With the Michigan baseball team tied, 1-1, with Michigan State in the bottom of the ninth, Spartan third baseman Marty Bechina laced a leadoff single to left field. Right fielder Dan Chmielewski placed a bunt, attempting to move Bechina into scoring position. Junior first baseman Jake Bivens, however, saw he had a play at second, and fired the ball to redshirt freshman Joe Pace.
The throw sailed high over Pace’s head into the outfield. Suddenly, Michigan State had the winning run 90 feet from the plate — and for good measure, runners on second and first as well. And there were still no outs.
Almost everything appeared lost for the Wolverines. But one thing wasn’t: They had Jackson Lamb on the mound.
“Toughest guy on the team,” Bivens said. “That was incredible what he did.”
All the redshirt junior right-hander did was induce a forceout at the plate for the first out. Then, a pop-out to shallow right field. And finally, a groundout to short to end the inning and send the game to extras.
“Just an incredible, incredible performance,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
There was still at least another inning — essentially, an eternity — to be played. And in the top of the 10th inning, it would be none other than Bivens sliding across the plate to score the eventual winning run, after his single began a two-out rally.
Bakich described his team’s 2-1 win Saturday as a microcosm of their entire season. Timely hitting? Check. Aggressive, heady baserunning? Check. Clutch pitching and defense with zero margin for error? Check.
Maybe you could make this stuff up — it’s what the 16th-ranked Wolverines (42-13 overall, 16-8 Big Ten) have done all year. And in a 10-inning thriller at the home of their in-state nemesis, it was all on display.
At the start, however, it didn’t seem like Saturday’s contest would turn out to be all that noteworthy. For the first three innings, Michigan State (29-23, 10-14) scratched out just two hits against junior left-hander Michael Hendrickson, while Michigan scattered just three of their own against Spartan right-hander Walter Borkovich.
“(Borkovich) was throwing a type of a cutter or a sinker that had our guys out up front,” Bakich said. “He had his way with us for a long time. He’s been outstanding for them out of the pen all year. He was making a spot start, and he certainly made the most of it.”
Added Bivens: “He was doing a good job of keeping the ball low and hitting his spots. It was important for us to see the ball up, and at the start we weren’t doing that very well.”
Michigan State put a run on the scoreboard in the fourth inning on Royce Ando’s RBI single. But that would prove to be the only blemish on Hendrickson’s outing, as he tossed a career-high seven innings and struck out four.
Despite this sterling performance, it appeared that Hendrickson would simply lose a well-fought pitchers’ duel. Borkovich kept the Wolverine hitters off-balance and out of rhythm through the eighth inning, needing less than 90 pitches to do so. But when it needed to most, Michigan’s offense finally came together.
Junior third baseman Drew Lugbauer singled to lead off the ninth inning as right fielder Brandon Hughes’s sliding catch attempt was unsuccessful. Sophomore Ako Thomas came in to pinch-run, and advanced to third on a bunt and a stolen base. Sophomore designated hitter Nick Poirier then hit a ground ball straight to first, but Zack McGuire couldn’t pick up the ball cleanly. While the Spartan first baseman found the handle in time to retire Poirier, the damage had been done, as Thomas crossed the plate to tie the score.
“You’d like to score nine in the first three every game (in reference to Friday’s 11-6 victory), but that’s not the way it goes sometimes,” Bakich said. “We hit some balls hard early in the game right at people, we had some chances to steal some bases, but it was a different type of game. Very much had the look and feel of a low scoring affair. Credit to our team, they never stopped fighting, they never stopped believing.”
Not when Michigan State loaded the bases with no outs in the ninth. Not when the first two Wolverines grounded out to begin the 10th inning. And not when the Spartans put runners on first and second in the bottom half of the frame with their last gasp against sophomore left-hander William Tribucher.
You probably know what happens next. Tribucher induces a groundout to second base to end the game.
Saturday, the confidence and toughness that has defined Michigan all year long was more evident than ever. And it made for a nearly-perfect ending to the regular season.
It would have totally perfect if it had also resulted in a Big Ten championship. For that to happen, Michigan needed Penn State to knock off Nebraska Saturday — a possibility eliminated by a 21-3 Cornhusker blowout. But that was simply a footnote.
Now, as always, the Wolverines are only looking ahead, as they prepare to face Northwestern, their first opponent in the Big Ten Tournament which begins Wednesday in Bloomington.
After all, the regular season isn’t enough — they’d like a perfect ending to the postseason, too.