Two weeks ago, the Michigan baseball team was in Port St. Lucie, Fla., excited to kick off its season against Seton Hall. But the Wolverines left Florida with a sour taste in their mouths, blowing a three-run lead in the ninth inning of the final game to split the four-game series with the Pirates.
The Wolverines now appear to have washed that taste away. So far on its eight-game, nine-day California trip, Michigan is 5-0, with the exclamation point being a dominating 14-2 victory over Loyola Marymount on Wednesday.
Their recent run of play has given the Wolverines (7-2) momentum as they prepare to finish their spring break trip with three games in three days in Los Angeles, facing UCLA, the University of Southern California and the University of San Diego.
While Michigan and UCLA haven’t met recently – they last played in 2014 — the Wolverines and Bruins do have a common opponent this season. The Bruins opened their season with two wins over San Jose State, while the Wolverines defeated the Spartans 6-2 on Monday.
UCLA enters the matchup with a 4-3 record, mostly thanks to the prowess of its pitching staff, which ranks 11th in the nation with a 2.11 earned run average. Ace right-hander Griffin Canning has struck out 20 batters in 13 innings, and has yet to allow a run this season.
By contrast, USC – a team against which Michigan has never won — has recorded a 6.50 ERA, but it brings a potent offense to the table. The Trojans (6-2) have a .293 team batting average and have driven in 59 runs, while two Trojans – Lars Nootbaar and Corey Dempster — bat above .450.
Michigan’s final game of the weekend comes against San Diego, and while the Toreros possess a solid 4-2 record, the contest may be most noteworthy for its venue — Dodger Stadium, home of the MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Whether you’re a player or a coach, anytime you’re playing in a big league stadium is exciting,” Bakich said.
During Michigan’s opening series against Seton Hall, starting pitching was a major point of concern. In 16 innings, the Wolverines’ starters — juniors Oliver Jaskie, Alec Rennard, Ryan Nutof and Michael Hendrickson – combined to allow 18 runs. Last weekend, the rotation got back on track, led by strong outings from Jaskie and Nutof, who both delivered six strong innings, allowing only one run each.
“We knew that our starting pitching was a fluke or just an off weekend our first weekend, but those guys all responded well,” Bakich said.
While Michigan’s bullpen has had its share of standout performers so far, most notably senior Jackson Lamb — who has yet to give up an earned run — and freshman Tommy Henry — who has a 1.42 ERA with nine strikeouts, its inconsistency has already been exposed on multiple occasions, most recently in losing a five-run, seventh-inning lead against Creighton last Saturday.
“It’s baseball, it happens,” Bakich said. “Other teams are trying to score too. We blew a lead (against Creighton), which has happened a few too many times now early in the season, so that’s an area we’re going to have to be better at.”
The Wolverines are currently hitting .282 as a team, led by senior catcher Harrison Wenson’s .371 average, three home runs and 12 RBI. Also currently topping the .300 plateau are senior infielder Michael Brdar, sophomore infielders Ako Thomas and Jimmy Kerr and sophomore outfielder Miles Lewis. Perhaps most promisingly, Michigan has excelled on offense so far without receiving a major impact from junior infielders Drew Lugbauer and Jake Bivens, both of whom were named as Big Ten Players to Watch before the season.
But where Michigan really has made its mark offensively is on the basepaths. The Wolverines currently rank second nationally in stolen bases, having swiped 26 while being thrown out only once.
“We like to run, and we’ve been stealing a bunch of bags,” Bakich said. “Guys have been taking a bunch of extra bases, not even the stolen bases, but going first to third, putting pressure on the other team and making them play fast.”
And in the field, Thomas at second base and senior Johnny Slater in center field have earned recognition for highlight-reel defensive plays.
“Our defense has admittedly been better than I thought it was going to be, just finally seeing our collective unit out on the field,” Bakich said.
After a middling start to the season, Michigan has begun to tap into its preseason promise — backing up the prediction that it would finish second in the Big Ten — and will look to continue its recent hot streak in Los Angeles.