Eyeing Big Ten Tournament, Michigan hosts Jayhawks in season finale

By Brad Whipple, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 16, 2014

Momentum is more important for the Michigan baseball team now than it has been all season.

After clinching a spot in the Big Ten Tournament with a series win over Ohio State followed by a midweek win at home, the Wolverines are trending upward and will need to continue that progress heading into the conference tournament.

Luckily for Michigan, it’s hosting a two-game series against Kansas this weekend, giving the Wolverines another opportunity to compete at a high level and maintain their focus.

“Right now, it’s more about how we’re playing than anything else because we want to be playing our best to make as long of a run (in the tournament) as we can possibly make,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “All the games are extremely important, but this one is important because we want to be playing our best when it means the most.”

Bakich said Kansas has an “at-large resume” for the NCAA Tournament, and rightfully so. The Jayhawks (15-9 Big 12, 33-21 overall) finished the Big 12 season with their highest conference record in program history under 12th-year coach Ritch Price. After sweeping its last three Big 12 opponents for the first time ever, Kansas has also claimed its first top-25 rank since 2009 in Baseball America’s poll.

Guaranteed a third-place finish in the conference, the Jayhawks are led offensively by left fielder Michael Suiter, who has played all but one inning the entire season while batting .341. On the mound, right-handers Jordan Piche and Robert Kahana will start Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

But it could be right-hander Stephen Villines who stops Michigan with his signature sidearm pitch. Boasting a team-best 1.59 ERA in his rookie year, Villines closed out the Jayhawks’ last three games against West Virginia and earned himself Big 12 Newcomer of the Week.

And the Wolverines (13-11 Big Ten, 27-26-1) are capable of handling the challenge — in their last four games, the starting pitchers have put up a sterling 0.29 combined ERA. But with the conference tournament next week, Michigan has to avoid tiring its go-to pitchers, and Bakich will limit the pitch counts.

Junior left-hander Trent Szkutnik will start Saturday after a near-complete game last Friday against Ohio State. He giving up the game’s sole-run in the final inning, the only thing standing between Michigan and a series sweep. Instead of earning another Sunday start after last weekend’s shutout, freshman left-hander Brett Adcock will relieve Szkutnik to save his arm for the Big Ten Tournament.

Meanwhile, senior left-hander Logan McAnallen will start Sunday in recognition of Senior Day. McAnallen hasn’t had a Sunday start since being pulled after 0.1 innings against Northwestern on May 4. His next start against Oakland fell apart early as well when gave up three earned runs in one inning.

Aside from the recent slump, Bakich hopes the seniors’ experience can help lead an otherwise youthful Michigan team to a conference tournament title, an “exclamation mark” to their years of hard work.

“They’ve all made positive contributions to Michigan baseball, there’s no question to that,” Bakich said. “They all accepted the new coaching staff in the best way we could’ve asked for and they’ve done a really good job helping lead this team.”

As for the kinks that the Wolverines may still have, Bakich said those don’t matter anymore. Fifty-five games into the season, the team will have to work with what it has and keep the plan as simple as possible.

Simplicity has been working for Michigan in its last few weeks as the Wolverines have won eight of their last 10 games, with aggressive mentality and heightened awareness playing big roles in the success.

If the focus can remain consistent, Michigan could return from Omaha with a berth in the Round of 64.