The No. 2-seeded and No. 16 Michigan baseball team heads to Bloomington, In. for the Big Ten Tournament, where the Wolverines will face the No. 7 seed Northwestern on Wednesday afternoon.
Wednesday’s matchup will be the first meeting for the two teams this season and while they have many common opponents, the tournament does not always reflect what happened in the regular season. Both teams may feel as if they have something to prove. Last year, the Wolverines were knocked out of the tournament earlier than they hoped, which ultimately ruined their chances of an NCAA Tournament berth. Meanwhile, the last time the Wildcats qualified for the Big Ten Tournament was 2010.
While Michigan is the probable favorite to win the contest, Northwestern can’t be counted out entirely, especially as it currently rides a five-game winning streak into Bloomington.
After recently picking up All-Big Ten First Team honors, Joe Hoscheit will be the man the Wildcats will turn to if they want to make a run. He had a record breaking season, batting .468 in conference play — the highest of the league — and .356 overall with 63 hits on the season. Hoscheit is one of just two players batting over .300, and he will need help from his team if Northwestern wants to compete with the Wolverines.
Michigan hasn’t announced who will be on the bump for Wednesday’s game, but Michigan coach Erik Bakich said that it will be a right-hander. Junior Jayce Vancena has been the go-to for midweek games and didn’t appear over the weekend series, so signs point to him starting for the Wolverines. He has a 3.00 earned-run average on the season, but allowed four hits in just two innings pitched in his last outing against Eastern Michigan. After having a dominant start to the season, he has lost some command over the strike zone in recent games — after not walking a batter until May 10, he walked four through 6.2 innings. Other candidates to start include junior Alec Rennard (6-2, 4.40 ERA) or junior Ryan Nutof (6-2, 4.27 ERA), both of whom have started weekend and midweek games this season.
Overall, Michigan’s pitching may be the deciding factor in the contest. The Wolverines lead the Big Ten with a 3.22 ERA, compared to Northwestern’s 4.86. In the tournament style of play where teams could be playing for five days straight, it is crucial to have a dominant bullpen — something Northwestern lacks. Meanwhile, Michigan possesses right-handers Mac Lozer and Jackson Lamb, who have not allowed an earned run in a combined 51.1 innings this season. With the Wildcats facing off against a team known for last minute heroics, their bullpen may not be able to withstand the offense of Michigan’s big hitters.
Senior shortstop Michael Brdar has been a threat on all sides of the ball all season, but in the Wolverines’ most recent series against the Spartans, Brdar batted .571 with eight hits. Brdar is just one of many veterans on this Michigan squad, and with 2017 being the fifth-straight Big Ten Tournament appearance for the Wolverines, the team comes with plenty of experience.
While the matchup most likely won’t come down to experience entirely, Michigan just has too many offensive weapons, such as junior Drew Lugbauer and senior Johnny Slater, batting .290 and .309, respectively. The Wolverines’ lineup is deep, and this far into the season that will likely pay dividends. If the Wolverines’ offense is hot, it seems difficult to imagine Northwestern walking away with a win.