The end is near, but it is still out of arms’ reach.
The Michigan baseball team has gone on a bumpy ride this season, currently sitting at fifth place in the Big Ten standings with two series left against the top two teams in the conference before the Big Ten Tournament. And as the end draws to a close, the Wolverines’ starting pitchers are facing some turmoil of their own.
While the Michigan bullpen has come under a lot of scrutiny this season, recently, it isn’t the only position group to blame for lost games. If anything, the bullpen has been a pleasant surprise for Michigan coach Erik Bakich and his staff during the recent two series.
The problem also isn’t with the offense. Despite losing two of three to Indiana and Purdue these past two weeks, the offense has shown it could keep itself in games. It scored four or more runs in every game, including a 13-run victory against the Boilermakers and two eight-run showings this past weekend.
The Wolverines didn’t win all three of those games, however.
While it was never a concern for most of the season, the starting pitching for the Wolverines has struggled mightily as of late.
A month ago, sophomore left-hander Connor O’Halloran was coming off a win against Michigan State with an ERA of 3.02. He worked his way into the starting rotation and eventually the Friday night starting gig earlier in the season— effectively the top pitcher in the starting rotation. Despite not having a lot of run support in the games he pitched, O’Halloran rarely looked fazed and was able to toughen out wins while on the mound.
“Connor is (super) electric,” grad transfer Joe Stewart said after O’Halloran’s start against Michigan State. “When he’s pitching (well), it makes it so easy for us. It’s easy to make plays, and we want to make plays for our guys.”
Something changed, though.
Although O’Halloran has a knack for winning, it took a lot more offensive help to get him out of jams. Against Ohio State, O’Halloran gave up five earned runs (six total) in six innings. Against Purdue, he allowed seven runs in 5.1 innings, losing his first game in five starts. Finally, against the Hoosiers, he let up four runs in 5.1 innings, bringing his season ERA to 4.41.
“I thought Connor pitched fine,” Bakich said after O’Halloran’s start against Indiana. “He was down in the zone and the mistakes that he made up in the zone got hit out of the park, which has been a focal point of ours. They just did a good job hitting (his) mistakes.”
It’s not just O’Halloran’s struggles for Michigan.
Both junior right-hander Cameron Weston and sophomore right-hander Chase Allen have had quite the journey this season.
Weston came into the season as the No. 4 overall MLB Draft prospect in the Big Ten Conference according to d1baseball.com. That pressure seemed to get to Weston as he struggled to prevent walks and keep runners from scoring early in games.
This, however, changed against the Spartans, similar to O’Halloran, when Weston gave up only two runs in back-to-back starts, and secured two wins in the process. This looked like the old Weston everyone expected to see at the start of the season.
Against Purdue and Indiana, however, Weston returned to some of his old habits, giving up a lot of hits in each of his starts and losing both games.
Finally, Allen is the only starter in the rotation that originated from the bullpen this year. Allen held a 4.32 ERA before moving to the starting rotation, bumping down junior left-hander Jacob Denner to the bullpen. Allen pitched very well in his first two starts, giving up one and two runs respectively. In his most recent start, however, Allen was finally figured out, giving up six runs and two long balls.
As much as it’s easy to dismiss these bad starts as flukes given they mostly occurred in the same two series, it is a cause for concern. The Hoosiers and the Boilermakers sit in seventh and eighth place in the Big Ten standings. They are both good teams, but the Wolverines have beaten better. More than that, they will be playing better teams over the next two weeks to complete the regular season.
Maryland and Rutgers sit atop the Big Ten standings. The Terrapins are batting .301 as a team this season and have won every series they have played in the last two months. If anyone can top that, the Scarlet Knights can. Rutgers is batting .315 as a team this season.
Against these teams, games can get out of hand early. While Michigan has done a good job of not letting games get too far out of reach throughout the season, the ones that have showed little fight from the Wolverines to get back into the game.
The concern isn’t about making the Big Ten Tournament anymore. If Michigan has any shot of going far in the tournament, even possibly winning the whole thing, it will probably need to defeat both Maryland and Rutgers in Omaha. These two upcoming series are big for the Wolverines because they will show the competition they are up against.
For the starting pitching, it cannot waver now. O’Halloran is a Friday starter for a reason. He has been dominant for most of the season. The same goes with Weston, who almost went to the MLB last season. And Allen has proven he can pitch with the starters as well. They have all struggled recently, but they need to get their acts together because now is the time to peak, not decline.
The belief is there — they just need to perform to the standards that are expected of them.