During the fifth inning of the Michigan baseball team’s final game against Iowa, the Wolverines were putting together a station-to-station rally when Michigan coach Erik Bakich did something out of character:
He used his bench.
Redshirt junior Danny Zimmerman pinch hit for sophomore Clark Elliott in the designated hitter slot. Making the most of a rare pinch-hitting opportunity, Zimmerman walked and later scored as part of a five-run inning.
This was one of only four times that Bakich decided to call in a pinch hitter during the Wolverines’ opening series, fewer than expected given his preseason emphasis on sharing playing time amongst a large and talented roster.
“Divvying up all this playing time in a shortened season is going to be tough,” Bakich said on Mar. 8. “How we’re going to combat that is having some type of a rotation where there’s a lot of guys getting opportunities.”
Nor did Bakich mix up the starting lineup Michigan’s opening series. Eleven position players got the chance to start, nine of them starting three or more games over the series. Only Zimmerman and senior left fielder Logan Pollack, who started one and two games, respectively, were rotated in. Their starter statuses have already started to calcify.
“I think all the guys who had either a couple of starts or multiple at bats are the guys who we’re going to see for a while,” Bakich said.
Sophomore third baseman Ted Burton will likely be included in that group when he returns from illness.
Despite departing from his announced plans, Bakich’s move is logical. As enjoyable as sharing playing time would be for those who are on the bench or didn’t travel with the team last weekend, a consistent group of starters is a key ingredient to winning, and without non-conference play, there isn’t time to experiment.
“The rhythm of having that consistent lineup is so important when you get into the middle of your season,” Bakich said before the season. “But we’re kind of in the middle of the season next week because it’s Big Ten play and game one counts just as much as game 44. … So that whole figuring out period, you really can’t take too long.”
While the starting lineup held fast, the batting order did change throughout the series. Sophomore outfielder Jake Marti batted eighth in the first game, but after his go-ahead double in the seventh inning, he batted second in the next. One game, one hit and two walks later, he was the leadoff man for the rest of the series.
“I knew when the season started I would have to prove myself,” Marti said. “I felt comfortable at the top of the order, and it’s an honor to get the game going for our team and see some pitches and get everybody else ready and fired up their game.”
Conversely, sophomore catcher Jimmy Obertop began the series hitting second, but after a quiet start — including six strikeouts over the next three games — he fell to sixth by series’ end.
Sophomore outfielder Tito Flores, who Bakich said was one of the most consistent hitters during fall practices, lived in the heart of the order throughout the series.
The updated batting orders may have paid off. The Wolverines scored seven and 11 runs in the third and fourth games, respectively, with Marti and fifth-year third baseman Christian Molfetta setting the table at the top of the order and Flores, fifth-year catcher Griffin Mazur and fifth-year shortstop Benjamin Sems cleaning it a few spots below.
As the shifting batting order and occasional usage of bench pieces from last weekend’s series intimates, a solidifying group of starters shouldn’t make other Wolverines lose hope of ever finding their way onto the field. Bakich’s motto, “We get what we earn,” precludes complacency from starters and replacements and ensures no hard work will go unnoticed or unrewarded.
But because of the 32-man traveling roster limit, 10 players were left at home last weekend and will be left behind when Michigan travels to play a series against Purdue this weekend.
It may be another two weeks before the rest of the roster gets a chance to “earn it” when the Wolverines come back to Ann Arbor for their home opener. But in the meantime, it looks like Bakich is comfortable with his trusted starters.
“Not everybody gets to play,” Bakich said. “It’s a system that’s fair but not equal.”