With so much of the same personnel returning for the Michigan baseball team, it seems fitting that its 2017 season will begin in the same place the 2016 campaign did.
The Wolverines, who were recently picked to finish second behind Maryland in the Big Ten Preseason Coaches Poll, will take on Seton Hall in a four-game series in Port St. Lucie, Fla. beginning on Friday. The trip marks the ninth time in 10 years that Michigan has played in Port St. Lucie, the spring training home of the New York Mets.
Michigan was ranked 15th in the country at the start of last season, and justified that placement with a season-opening four-game sweep of Canisius in Florida. The Wolverines will begin this season unranked, however, due to the loss of key contributors, such as utility player Carmen Benedetti and left-handed pitcher Brett Adcock, as well as their struggles down the stretch last season. After a 34-12 start, they lost nine of their final 11 games and failed to reach the NCAA Tournament. Still, Michigan coach Erik Bakich’s expectations for his veteran-laden squad remain high.
“(This team has) been training as hard and with as much intent as possible,” Bakich said. “There’s as much anticipation for this particular group as any team I’ve been a part of.”
For the pitching staff, junior left-hander Oliver Jaskie is effectively locked in as the Wolverines’ top starter after compiling a 7-3 record with a 3.19 earned-run average last season. Sophomore right-hander Alec Rennard, a junior college transfer from Santa Rosa Community College, is all but assured of a rotation spot as well. Behind them, a number of veterans will look to assert themselves. Junior right-hander Ryan Nutof and left-hander Michael Hendrickson are currently leading the competiton to fill out the rotation.
Michigan’s strength on offense centers around an experienced and versatile infield that returns four starters, all of whom are capable of filling a number of roles if necessary. Juniors Jake Bivens — a .356 hitter last season — and Drew Lugbauer — second on the team with seven home runs — will man the corner infield spots. Senior shortstop Michael Brdar and sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas, who aren’t as prolific at the plate as Bivens or Lugbauer, will serve as anchors up the middle.
“Brdar and Ako Thomas are really skilled defensively,” Bivens said. “(Senior catcher Harrison Wenson) and Drew and (sophomore infielder Jimmy Kerr) can play any position, so obviously that experience will be important for us.”
Added Bakich: “It’s not very often you get the entire infield back. (Bivens) has played plenty of shortstop in his time here and even Lugbauer got a little time at shortstop last fall. I feel very confident about our infield talent.”
Accentuating this versatility is Wenson, Michigan’s leader in home runs and runs batted in last season with eight and 56, respectively. Not only will he occupy a spot in the middle of the order as the Wolverines‘ primary power source, but he has proven himself to be dependable as a backstop.
“He gives us not only a good presence behind the plate, but allows us to get our best offense on the field,” Bakich said.
Similar to Michigan, Seton Hall missed out on an NCAA Tournament berth last season despite a solid 38-20 record. With a lineup anchored by Mike Alescio, a preseason All-Big East selection at catcher, the Pirates will likely implement a small-ball approach predicated on baserunning and defense. Seton Hall hit just 11 home runs with a .273 average last season, far below the Wolverines’ 28 home runs and team batting average of .299, but the Pirates led the nation in stolen bases at 183.
While Seton Hall may not hold an offensive advantage over the Wolverines, the Pirates do boast an experienced pitching staff which posted a 3.21 ERA last year. Shane McCarthy — a unanimous selection to the All-Big East first feam — and Cullen Dana both recorded sub-3.00 ERAs, while closer Zach Schellenger struck out 70 batters in just 45.2 innings.
Despite the bitter end to last season, excitement and optimism around Michigan baseball remains high, and a quality opponent in Seton Hall will provide an experienced Wolverine squad with their first big test in their quest to return to the postseason.
“We have a great group of guys that know how to handle the pressure,” Bivens said. “It’s been exciting to play with them, and it’s going to be a great time going down South.”