- Paul Sherman/Daily
By Danny Vargovick, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 20, 2014
What began as a sad story about a player ending his collegiate career watching from the sidelines is now a story about a fifth-year senior making the most of his second chance.
When Michigan baseball right-handed pitcher Ben Ballantine woke up from surgery after he broke his ankle covering first base in a game against Bowling Green early last April, he thought his career was over. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that he even thought about the possibility of a medical redshirt.
“I assumed that my career was over and that I wasn’t going to get another chance to play for Michigan,” Ballantine said.
Coach Erik Bakich also thought that Ballantine would never throw another pitch in a Michigan uniform.
“It’s a senior’s worst nightmare to get injured,” Bakich said. “That’s not how anyone would want Ben Ballantine to finish.”
This past July, the Big Ten officially told him that he would be returning to Ann Arbor.
But before Ballantine stepped back onto the diamond, he had to heal. Ballantine finished his rehabilitation process in September, five long months after the injury.
“Everybody involved in Michigan baseball couldn’t have been more supportive and encouraging,” Ballantine said. “(That) made dealing with rehab a lot easier.”
Now, he’s expected to be an integral part of the 2014 team.
Before his injury, Ballantine was putting together an impressive 2013 campaign. In five starts and two relief appearances, the 6-foot-8, 235-pound righty posted a 2.62 earned-run average and struck out 7.9 batters per nine innings.
Now 100-percent healthy, Ballantine isn’t just looking to duplicate his 2013 numbers over a full season, but improve them. In his Michigan career so far, Ballantine has lowered his ERA by 1.32 each season, and he said that a sub-2.00 ERA is his goal this year.
“My expectation is to have my best year at Michigan,” he said. “I want to make the biggest jump of improvement this season. The way I’m feeling right now and the way the team’s looking right now, I don’t see any reason why that won’t happen.”
His coach agrees.
“If Ben makes quality pitches, executes his plan, works with quick tempo and is able to change speeds and do the things that have made him successful, he’s probably going to see an ERA reflective of that,” Bakich said.
Bakich won’t decide rotation spots until closer to the start of the season, but Ballantine is one of five starting pitchers competing for a weekend starting spot.
“That’s the goal every season,” Ballantine said. “With the talent coach has been bringing into school and with the guys on the roster, nothing is charity. Playing time is definitely earned.”
Above all, Ballantine is just thankful for the opportunity to come back and compete. He’ll get to write a different final chapter to his collegiate baseball career — one that he unsurprisingly likes a lot better.
“To tell you the truth, I actually like this year a little bit more,” Ballantine said. “Last year, it was as if everyone was a freshman having an entire new staff and way of doing things. This year, I feel a lot more comfortable and know how things are done, which allows me to channel a lot more focus into my pitching and development.”
Suddenly, the gruesome ankle injury looks like a blessing in disguise. Ballantine, afforded two extra semesters to complete his degree, is on track to graduate in May. Unable to use his foot, Ballantine got in the best upper-body shape of his life.
In his effort to make the most out of his second chance, Ballantine has been a role model for the younger players. Having seen how quickly the privilege of playing can all be taken away, he’s tried to make every second count.
“I remember when I broke my ankle, being in the emergency room, thinking about my whole career and everything, what I regret and what I’d do differently,” he said. “I decided to approach every single day like it’s my last and not hold anything back.”
Bakich is just happy Ballantine’s last day hasn’t come yet.
“This injury has given him a fresh perspective,” he said. “It’s extremely important to Ben to leave a legacy with this senior class, and with this being his final year before he moves on in his career, to be on a championship team. I think that’s what flashed before his eyes on April 2 last year when he got injured. To know that he has the opportunity to redo his senior year, that’s really inspiring.”