- Paul Sherman/Daily
BY LIZ NAGLE
Daily Sports Writer
Published April 2, 2012
At this time last year, the Michigan baseball team was 6-17 after the first Big Ten series, and its record didn’t improve much from there. Though the Wolverines have snatched up twice as many wins this season, they will have to kick it into full gear during the rest of conference play.
Michigan coach Rich Maloney is not discouraged by the production thus far, but he’s feeling more pressure as the Wolverines get deeper into the season. There are a few areas of uncertainty and Maloney has been toying with different possibilities.
Maloney reiterates that the team must play against itself, and in comparison to last season, Michigan has improved. The Wolverines hover in the middle of the Big Ten pack in almost all statistical rankings; they finished as the numerical bottom feeders in nearly every category last year.
This is the time for Michigan’s position players to step up in Big Ten play and make up for its mediocre nonconference results.
Recruited as a pitcher, sophomore Brett Winger saw a fair amount of action in his freshman year, but not on the mound. With success at the plate, Winger has made the transition into the Wolverine batting order.
While Maloney struggles to find a consistent starting lineup, Winger has rotated through the middle but is favored in the cleanup spot along with senior catcher Coley Crank.
Early this season, Winger posted an eight-game hitting streak and hovered above .300 but has since cooled off.
Maloney had a big void to fill when Anthony Toth graduated after last season, and he has yet to find a permanent replacement. Though there are three candidates that rotate at second base — redshirt sophomore John DiLaura, freshman Eric Jacobson and redshirt junior Kevin Krantz — no one has earned the official roster label.
DiLaura seems to be the top contender, but his declining batting average may get him bumped from the leading role.
DiLaura accumulated a promising .600 batting average and .600 on base percentage in his first handful of at-bats. But in the last 11 games, he’s gone 4-for-29, which may be enough for Maloney to pull the plug.
After spending a summer in the Arizona Collegiate Wood-Bat League, senior co-captain John Lorenz looked refreshed and fit for the season ahead.
He has met fielding expectations and he’s been a semi-dependable hitter — he just hasn’t had many stellar at-bats. Though Lorenz posted five RBIs against West Virginia, he went 11 straight games without batting-in a runner.
Junior Derek Dennis was recruited as the 10th-best shortstop in the country coming out of high school. Though the ranking seemed promising, Dennis was unavailable for three weeks of conference play last year after an ankle injury.
Dennis played in the first six games this season but is not expected to return to his original post until May because of a thumb injury. He’s now making sporadic appearances as a pinch runner, cast and all.
Freshman Dylan Delaney has played in Dennis’ absence and has started consistently, even with a measly .182 batting average.
Sophomore Michael O’Neill had a veteran-like year in his first season with Michigan and continues to set the bar high. His skill level gave the Wolverines an extra edge at the plate, and he has yet to disappoint.
O’Neill leads the team with 37 hits, nine doubles and six home runs. Though he recorded multiple hits in 10 of the first 12 outings this season, his hot hitting has been fading little by little.
The leadoff hitter, junior co-captain Patrick Biondi, has recently excelled at the plate. He’s fulfilled his role getting on base with ease and frequency, and he leads the team with a .466 on-base percentage.
Before the Minnesota series, Biondi boasted an eight-game hitting streak, including five multi-hit games. His batting average has jumped from .214 to .327 in less than a month.
Biondi has an almost-perfect .987 fielding percentage, with only one error this season. He’s started every game between O’Neill and freshman Will Drake in the outfield, except against Chicago State, when he experimented at second base.
Adding to Biondi’s bragging rights are his conference-leading 17 stolen bases, as he climbs Michigan’s career stolen-base list. One more will tie him for second place all-time with Jim Durham (1986-89) at 74.
In his rookie campaign, Will Drake has proven his worth to the team. He holds much promise in Michigan’s rebuilding year with a .333 batting average and .405 on-base percentage.
Drake has been the only Wolverine to start every game this season in the same position. And his consistent spot in the batting order, following Biondi, shows the left-handed hitter’s value.
He is tied for sixth in the nation with four triples this season and added to the one-two punch that Biondi and O’Neill packed last season.
It’s been a split between Coley Crank and sophomore Cole Martin crouching behind home plate.
Crank divides his time between catcher and designated hitter, and even though his batting average has sunk below .200, he produces during crunch time. He’s tallied 20 RBIs and five home runs this season en route to 10th-place on Michigan’s career home runs list with 28.
Martin’s results at bat (.246) haven’t impressed anyone, but him learning under Crank will be a long-term advantage.
Michigan has three potential aces in the running — senior right-hander Brandon Sinnery, junior right-hander Ben Ballantine and redshirt junior left-hander Bobby Brosnahan.
The trio of hurlers has shown major signs of improvement from last season, which could be credited to the new pitching coach, Steve Merriman.
Before the Minnesota series, each had recorded at least 34 innings on the mound. Brosnahan posted a 2.10 ERA, Ballantine had tallied 29 strikeouts and Sinnery had been reliable but lagged behind a bit. Maloney did not see weekend starters as an area of concern.
But in the first bit of conference action, the pitching staff dropped the ball. Against the Golden Gophers, Sinnery gave up six runs and Ballantine and Brosnahan were pulled early after poor performances.
Brosnahan allowed 10 hits and eight earned runs in just 1.1 innings of work. To put that into perspective, he had given up just eight earned runs in his first five starts this season.
Michigan will face have scant pitching options if this becomes a regular occurrence against Big Ten bats.
Maloney has been experimenting all season to find steady relief pitchers. Though he has a few in mind, no one has stepped up to claim a permanent spot.
Young pitchers, freshman right-hander Matt Ogden and left-hander Trent Szkutnik, have the potential to succeed. In Ogden’s last 8.1 innings on the mound, he has allowed only one earned run. And Szkutnik threw 11 scoreless innings and notched eight strikeouts over his last three appearances.
Since the start of the season, Maloney has kept a close eye on the two rookies and waited to reap the benefits. This is the perfect time for Szkutnik and Ogden to pull away from the mediocrity in the bullpen.