With Big Ten looming, baseball narrows gap

Paul Sherman/Daily
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By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 16, 2014

In its final weekend before Big Ten play, the Michigan baseball team improved in both play and results, drawing closer to where it wants to be this season.

The Wolverines went 2-2 in four one-run games and improved in many areas at the College of Charleston Classic last weekend.

Though Michigan took steps toward where it wants to be as a team, offense remains a concern. The Wolverines hit just .204 in the four-game trip and struggled with runners on base.

“We pitched and played defense well all weekend, and that’s what kept us together when the hits weren’t there,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “There were plenty of opportunities this weekend — we just couldn’t get the big hit when we needed it.”

The overall progress showed Friday in Michigan’s 4-3 win over Appalachian State. After losing to the Mountaineers 13 days earlier, the Wolverines (8-12-1) relied on good timing to steal the victory despite mustering just five hits.

Whether it was junior left-hander Trent Szkutnik pitching out of a bases loaded jam in the third, or scoring two runs on a sacrifice-bunt-turned-error in the seventh, or junior outfielder Jackson Glines seemingly breaking the law of physics and gunning down a runner who was bearing down at the plate to end the eighth, everything went the Wolverines’ way.

“We were where we wanted to be as far as quality at-bats were concerned,” Bakich said. “We were able to manufacture runs even though the hits weren’t falling. Throughout the entire weekend, for the most part we did a nice job of making contact and putting our guys in scoring position. The hits will come, and then we’ll be in pretty good shape.”

Saturday, improved pitching and defense only got Michigan so far as it dropped a pair of seven-inning games to the College of Charleston. After falling 3-2 in the opener, the Wolverines were unable to make contact when it counted, striking out 11 times and stranding eight baserunners en route to a 4-3 loss to the Cougars (15-4).

“With just seven innings and 11 strikeouts, we clearly weren’t putting enough pressure on the pitchers,” Bakich said. “It was a bit of a breakdown, and we needed guys to just make contact, and they didn’t do that.”

With a chance to salvage or spoil the weekend Sunday against Kent State, Michigan chose the former. In another close game, the Wolverines scored two runs on sacrifice flies in a come-from-behind 3-2 win.

Mustering just six hits in the winning effort, the team’s offensive struggles continued. But amid the difficulties, infielder Travis Maezes stood as an exception. The sophomore went 7-for-14 with a double, triple and two home runs in the four games, good for his best weekend of the season.

“I’ve been hitting the ball hard all year,” Maezes said. “I tried to keep to the same plan all year and stick to process and make the pitchers work, and the results finally came this weekend.”

In addition to Maezes’ hot bat, Michigan’s pitching looked much improved. With a series against reigning Big Ten champion Indiana just days away, the Wolverines saw perhaps their most consistent performance on the mound all season, putting a spring of struggles in the past.

“We’re much more confident about the roles of our pitchers,” Bakich said. “We know who our starters are and have a good feel for who our relievers are and who can pitch in the tight spots toward the end of the game.

“There was a learning curve on us to see who should pitch where. But we’re in a much better place knowing what will help us be successful.”

Winning just eight of 21 games to start the season wasn’t quite what Bakich and Michigan expected. But a team that consistently preaches adhering to the process saw just that in Charleston, leaving the team confident for what is to come.