BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Ninth inning, bases loaded, no outs.
The Michigan baseball team faced a similar situation in its regular-season finale last Saturday against Michigan State. With the game tied at one in the bottom of the ninth, redshirt junior right-hander Jackson Lamb recorded three straight outs to escape the jam, and the Wolverines eventually defeated the Spartans, 2-1, in 10 innings.
In its Big Ten Tournament opener against Northwestern Wednesday, Michigan wasn’t as fortunate. Down 4-3, the seventh-seeded Wildcats (24-28 overall, 13-11 Big Ten) plated three runs in the top of the ninth against Lamb and sophomore left-hander William Tribucher to earn a come-from-behind, 6-4 upset win against the second-seeded Wolverines.
The loss was a shocking turn for Michigan (42-14, 16-8), beyond the the unexpected nature of a No. 7 seed defeating a No. 2 seed. Wednesday’s contest marked just the third time this season the Wolverines had lost a game in which they held a ninth-inning lead. Also, the three earned runs Lamb gave up were the first three he had surrendered all season in 28 innings.
“50-some games where we’ve been pretty consistent (in the ninth inning) so I just look at this as a fluke, just a speed bump,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “Our guys have responded every time they’ve been knocked down all season and they’ll respond tomorrow.”
Junior right-hander Ryan Nutof came out firing for the Wolverines, hammering the strike zone with his mid-90s fastball in the first and second inning. At first, Northwestern had no answer — the Wildcats struck out three times in their first five at-bats. But they were soon able to pick up on Nutof’s approach: First baseman Connor Lind sat on a Nutof fastball and homered to right to give Northwestern a 1-0 lead in the second inning.
However, Michigan was unfazed. Two-out rallies have been a staple for the Wolverines this season, and this continued in the second inning. Junior first baseman Jake Bivens drove a double down the left-field line, and sophomore designated hitter Nick Poirier slapped an RBI single into centerfield to tie the game.
After adjusting to Nutof’s velocity, the Wildcats continued to make strong contact — their next four at-bats consisted of a double, a hard line-drive out to end the second, a single and a two-run bomb by second baseman Alex Erro in the third inning. But Nutof responded with his secondary arsenal, recording four strikeouts via off-speed pitch in the third and fourth innings.
“Northwestern’s a good fastball hitting team. They ambush the fastball,” Bakich said. “Nutof has a good fastball, but they were ready for it after the first inning. We had to adjust, start cross-counting, mixing our pitches, pitching backwards a little bit, throwing a lot more breaking balls, using some changeups to the two lefties in the lineup.”
Michigan responded again in the bottom half of the third inning. Senior centerfielder Johnny Slater took the first pitch he saw from left-hander Cooper Wetherbee and parked a shot to deep right field to cut the deficit in half.
The Wolverines took their first, and only, lead in the fifth inning. Sophomore right fielder Jonathan Engelmann ripped a double to the gap in left field to lead off. He later advanced to third on a textbook bunt from senior catcher Harrison Wenson, and sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas knotted the score with a double down the left-field line. A passed ball allowed Thomas to move to third, and he scored when Northwestern catcher Jack Claeys’s throw flew past the base and into the outfield.
With his entire array of pitches established, Nutof was dominant. He hurled a career-best 10 strikeouts, and retired nine straight batters during one span from the fourth to seventh innings before he was relieved by senior right-hander Mac Lozer after a one-out double ended that streak.
“I thought (Nutof) settled in great. The fourth, fifth, sixth inning he was outstanding,” Bakich said. “That’s exactly what we needed – give us time offensively to flip the scoreboard and retake the lead.”
That lead may have been only one run, but it was a lead that Michigan felt fully confident in, especially with two relievers that sported perfect earned-run averages coming into the game. Lozer stranded the runner at second with two strikeouts in the seventh, and left another runner at second to keep the Wildcats off the board.
Lamb then took the mound in the ninth, but from the first batter, it was clear that he wasn’t nearly as sharp as usual — according to Bakich, his shoulder soreness leading up to Wednesday played a role. He surrendered two consecutive singles and a four-pitch walk to load the bases, and also threw a wild pitch. Tribucher attempted to salvage the situation, but to no avail — Northwestern hit two more singles to drive home three runs.
“Jackson’s a stud,” said senior shortstop Michael Brdar. “He’s been great for us all season long and he’ll continue to be great for us. He’s a guy you trust every time he’s on the mound. It’s a hiccup for him and he’ll be right back out there whenever we call on him again.
Added Bakich: “Sometimes, when you’re a closer, that’s what happens. That’s why they have to have amnesia to just be able to forget about it and move on to the next day.”
The Wolverines won’t have much time to move on from their surprising defeat, as they’ll face No. 6-seed Indiana at 10 a.m. Thursday in an elimination game. Michigan has been a “bounce-back team” all season long — the Wolverines have lost consecutive games just once this season — but the confidence that comes with this will be tested once again.
“We’re excited for tomorrow,” Brdar said. “We gotta stick with what we’re doing, stick with our approach — pitching, good defense and timely hitting, and tomorrow should be a different outcome.”