It was closer to a live batting practice session than a scrimmage, let alone a playoff game. Omaha, Neb. was hundreds of miles and many months in the rearview mirror.
But watching junior right-hander Blake Beers and the large portion of the No. 8 Michigan baseball team that participated, it was easy to wonder whether this event had more importance than what met the eye.
Perhaps it did. Former starters Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffman teamed up for 254.2 innings last year. Gone too are heart-of-the-order mainstays Jordan Brewer and Jimmy Kerr and their combined 123 RBI. Junior center fielder Jesse Franklin and his 51 walks will not be available for at least two weeks as he continues recovering from a skiing-related injury. Short-term or long-term, these are roles that need filling, and Sunday’s intrasquad scrimmage gave many Wolverines a chance to make a case for themselves. A few took notable advantage of the opportunity.
Beers, the first pitcher of the afternoon, stared in at each hitter with indiscriminate intensity. He often brushed the rubber off with his foot, although there was no dirt to get rid of on synthetic ramp that served as a mound. The gesture drove home just how seriously he took the experience.
“There’s plenty of stuff there,” Michigan coach Eric Bakich said. “For him, it’s just doing it against another jersey, and he certainly has the look of a much more confident kid and the ability to do that this year.”
On Sunday, Beers did it against batters wearing his own jersey. He occasionally struggled with control — issuing back-to-back walks at one point — but allowed few hard-hit balls over several innings of work.
“He’s certainly a guy we could look at as a potential starter, a potential long reliever, a potential high-leverage reliever, a potential closer,” Bakich said.
Beers’ long, downhill stride and traditional arm slot — along with a relative lack of pinpoint accuracy — do not make him a likely candidate to be a situational, one-out reliever. Without a niche role, Beers will be one of a dozen pitchers looking for innings in Michigan’s deep bullpen. His focus and drive, then, should hardly come as a surprise.
Next up was sophomore left-hander Jack White. His fastballs exploded in the catcher’s mitt, speeding up bats against his secondary pitches.
“(Pitching coach Chris) Fetter’s been working with me a lot on my curveball,” White said. “Just being able to throw that for strikes. He’s been a huge help developing that pitch.”
White also found swing-and-miss success with his offspeed pitches. When junior outfielder Jordan Nwogu drew a walk — one of the few to reach base against White — he promptly stole second and third base. Working out of the stretch, White ended the inning by making senior Dominic Clementi flail at a breaking ball in the dirt. The tennis-match quiet was interrupted; the Wolverines behind the backstop were momentarily beside themselves in disbelief of the filthiness they’d just witnessed.
“What he did today — he’s got a good fastball, we’ve even seen it in the low 90s, with a good breaking ball,” Bakich said. “All the makings are there of a guy that has a chance to get some outs for us in relief.”
At and behind the plate, freshman Jimmy Obertop exhibited a variety of skills with the game-mode deadpan of Beers. His swing keeps the barrel in the strike zone for a long time, in part due to quick hands getting the handle out in front. Offensively, he provides a viable alternative to junior catcher Joe Donovan.
“Jimmy can hit,” Bakich said. “He hits the ball as hard as Nwogu and Franklin. His exit velos and what he’s capable of — he’s a serious power threat.”
In two at-bats, Obertop demonstrated his potential to become a three true outcomes hitter — a batter who ends a significant portion of his plate appearances with either a walk, a strikeout or a homer; the kind of offensive threat that analytics has proven to be very productive.
While he went down on strikes against White, his second trip to the plate saw him line a pitch up the middle, a no-doubt extra base hit if not for the cramped dimensions of the field house. He demonstrated savviness, if not speed, on the basepaths: After staying put during two straight balls in the dirt, he successfully stole a base by running on delivery. By luring the defense into complacency after resisting the temptation of taking a chance on one of two potential passed balls, Obertop maximized his chance of success.
His bat will force him into lineups, but his defensive versatility makes the decision to start him easier.
“Good catcher, can play first base, could play the outfield if we needed him to, or DH,” Bakich said. “I expect he’ll be in there, somewhere.”
That last line is one that Beers, White and Obertop would all like to have applied to their names. Thanks to their scrimmage performances, that dream may have inched a little closer to reality.